I enjoy much of the writing I’ve seen from Ta-Nehisi Coates. It is thoughtful, challenging, and always well-researched. I enjoyed The Case for Reparations in the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic. I enjoyed his 2015 #1 Bestseller Between the World and Me. I even enjoyed his discussion/interview with his friend Neil Drumming on This American Life’s Status Update episode from last November.
Needless to say, I was delighted last weekend when my sister-in-law sent me this video clip of writing advice from Ta-Nehisi Coates.
I’d like to share a couple of points from Coates that gave me pause to think.
“Breakthroughs come from putting an inordinate amount of pressure on yourself.”
Coates expresses that breakthroughs come from periods of deep stress. While he didn’t say it specifically, I believe he’s talking about creative breakthroughs.
This comment recalled for me an interview I once heard with Saturday Night Live’s Lorne Michaels. He was asked why in today’s age of social media and connectivity where it would be so easy for writer’s and actors to keep in touch throughout the week on their sketch ideas, does he still have the same cramming he always has done since the ’70s on Wednesday and Thursday nights. His reply was that he believes that true creative genius happens under times of stress and exhaustion. This is when we let our guard down and tap into our deep creative subconscious.
This is a similar sentiment we hear from Coates in this video. While on unemployment and struggling to make it as a writer, Coates wrote his breakthrough article on reparations, which was a catalyst for him toward more and more writing opportunities and fame.
Napoleon Hill also touts a similar sentiment in his uber-famous Think and Grow Rich. Hill stresses that if you really want to make it in a particular industry or career, then you have burn all other bridges so that there’s no other option other than to make it. I don’t fully subscribe to this mentality, but the value in the advice is clear.
Coates’ point on creative breakthroughs coming from times of great stress is why I always encourage writers to keep on a schedule and don’t stray from it. No matter how tired or bored or uncreative you feel that day, stick to the schedule. It will increase the likelihood that you’ll have a creative breakthrough.
“Or you quit the field and just say, ‘Oh I suck.'”
This is funny because it’s true. It’s exactly the reason that I like Napoleon Hill’s advice to burn all bridges other than the career bridge you want to cross, but I don’t unequivocally adhere to it. You may succeed because you have no other option, or you may end up destitute and alone. As a husband and father of two, I have a hard time rationalizing the act of burning all other bridges.
“Writing is an act of courage.”
Putting your words and your story on paper is incredibly courageous. It requires a deep vulnerability and willingness to expose yourself.
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“If you’re doing it correctly…the ideas in your head will almost always come out really badly on the page.”
Writing is 10% the idea and 90% continuing to revise, revise, revise. Coates expounds on this idea with the idea that when writing you should try to go from really bad, to okay, to acceptable. His point is that writing is a process of failure. The idea in your head is never going to come out perfectly onto the paper.
I think this is important to remember. Many new writers are prone to freezing up and giving up on their passion because they just can’t seem to get their writing to match the idea “see” in their head, but none of us can. That’s the great struggle of the writer. There are countless things I would change in Pieces Like Pottery. At some point, you have to let go of your work and give it over to the readers.
“The best advice I got…if you are a young person, then you should keep going.”
Coates is sharing advice he received when he was young in his career. The point is that having a career in writing is desired by so many people that it’s hard to get an opportunity when you’re young, but the road is incredibly difficult. Eventually, as you grow older, your competition begins to give up and goes to business school leaving you as a writer with an incredible skill set and years of training.
I simultaneously enjoy this sentiment and flinch at it. I think there’s a lot of truth to it. I often tell friends with whom I went to college that they already have a huge leg-up on people simply from the fact that they have been educated in an American university. Now they just need to work harder than their peers and they’ll be just fine.
At the same time, I’m mid-30s and while I have been writing since I was a teenager and honing my skill set, I didn’t take my first leap into the seriousness of the craft until last year. The idea that I’m already screwed and can’t make it as a writer because I’m too old both frightens me and causes me to scoff.
The takeaway for Coates, however, is that writing is about perseverance, which I couldn’t agree with more. The life of a writer is solitary and full of roadblocks. Show me a writer without perseverance and I’ll show you a writer who’s an accountant.
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