Whether you are doing so professionally or for leisure, writing is a path that demands rapid learning. From technique, subject matter to creative flow, there is always something new to learn. When you start to feel you are mastering a particular aspect and are tempted to relax, beware. It is either time to expand your boundaries even further or to prepare yourself for a big lesson barrelling down the karmic path.
My work in non-fiction reminds me of my consulting days a lot. As a business analyst you have only a few days to interview all the experts in the business unit, and just a couple of weeks to translate that knowledge into detailed processes and business models that accurately reflect back what that business unit does. Sometimes in a mere few weeks you understand a business or division better than its own team. This ability to quickly assimilate, categorise and conceptualise information has been invaluable in my work helping authors bring their books to life. The learning curve is hectic. You literally have to step into their world and absorb through osmosis their knowledge and expertise, as well as the way they talk, verbal quirks and their creative process. It really is a fascinating journey of discovery that can step up your knowledge to a whole new level, and quickly.
While this kind of writing definitely pushes your boundaries, the important question to ask is, which boundaries? Choosing which project you take on is critical in being specific on the kinds of experiences you want and the development you need. At the heart of this is being clear on your writing goals. While it may be tempting to do something you know well, this does not push the envelope. That being said, always tackling new subjects without being able to leverage your existing knowledge will most likely result in tons of knowledge and little forward momentum. The best option in my opinion is one where you can add value through your own experience, yet at least somewhere within you feel that mild case of panic and “I am not sure I can do it.” That is the sweet spot.
Ongoing education is also vital as a writer. As Stephen King says in his book On Writing: Memoirs of a Craft, grammar, style and technique are tools in your virtual tool belt. Being a writer requires that you know and use your tools well. I am currently studying with the Writers Bureau, and even though we are on the non-fiction part of the course (and theoretically in my zone), every assignment brings stunning revelations and opportunities to learn just how much there is to learn! In this vain, one of my biggest eurekas has been the realisation of the positive impact fiction writing has had on my non-fiction. Suddenly there is texture, richness and symbolism that was not there before. Without stepping outside my comfort zone to learn new skills this would not have been possible.
And then there are the actual tools you use to write. I am one of those people who cling for dear life onto the known tools that work, reluctant to let go of the tried and tested. I have recently ventured into using Scrivener for writing, taking a very bold step away from my crutch, MS Word. It is just something I know I need to do, and I have a feeling it will be a step well rewarded down the line. My legs feel a bit shaky about venturing outside my comfort zone, but if I don’t push the boundaries, how will I ever know what is possible.