mile 13

I’m a super slow learner.

It took me more than 35 years to figure out how to do the best work I could possibly do.

I learned this by writing. I write novels and the occasional short stories and I’ve been doing this for nearly 20 years. But nothing I’ve written has seen publication until now–my debut novel comes out this October.

Why did it take so long?

Because for the first 15 years of writing, I wrote badly. But I thought what I was writing was pretty good.

The way writers learn how to write is through workshops. They submit their stories or excerpts to a group of fellow writers and get feedback on the text. The feedback is supposed to help you develop and improve your craft.

But for years, I had been submitting work that was a first draft. It was rushed, done last minute before a deadline. Rarely revised.

Most of the feedback I’d get were things I knew I should have done. I just didn’t have the time to do it.

The result of getting this kind of feedback was that I thought I was pretty smart, since the things I heard, I already knew.

What I couldn’t figure out was if I was pretty smart and obviously pretty good at writing, why weren’t the things I was doing getting my work published?

With my most recent novel, Half Notes from Berlin (, I took a different path.

Before submitting my drafts to workshops, I did the best work I could possibly do. I edited and revised the submission to the point where I could no longer modify a single word. I’d read what I wrote out loud, revising every single place where I stumbled.

When it came time for the workshop, I waited to see what I’d hear. To my surprise I didn’t hear that my work was perfect. Many commented that it was well edited and concise. But the most interesting feedback came when my fellow writers told me what the draft was missing: techniques I didn’t know, plot gaps in my narrative arc. For the first time, most of what I heard, I didn’t know.

I took all that new knowledge back and rewrote everything, adding in the missing ingredients. Then I polished up the draft and submitted it to another workshop. The same exact thing happened again. I heard things I did not know and had to revise the whole draft.

Three revisions in, I got the book to the point where all the ingredients were there. I could have easily continued to revise it and make it incrementally better. But at this point, I wanted it to see the light of day.

And that’s how I learned how to create my best work:

give it your absolute best effort until you can’t give it any more
ask for feedback
incorporate that feedback into the next round
rinse and repeat

Now, I apply these lessons to everything I do.

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