Friday, 21 February 2014

A Conversation with Helena Puumala, author of the Kati of Terra Series - What is Success for a Writer?

February 13, 2014 Plato’s Pizza, Edmonton Alberta

Part Thirteen – What is Success for a Writer? (Part 1)
Question:  Ok this is kind of hokey, but here is the setup.  I received this work-spam email from something called the Educational Policy Institute the other day, that included something called Richard St. John’s Eight Secrets of Success.  Though they do have the flavour of standard business school fluff, a certain sincerity did come through.  So, I thought it might be interesting to discuss them, particularly from the point of view of a writer, though it could probably apply to anyone involved in the creative arts, whether that be writing, drama, painting, music, what have you.

Answer: Ok, let’s have a look.  Yeah, it’s a hokey list, but not entirely useless - sometimes this sort of stuff does have a ring of truth.  Still, you can’t take these advice lists too literally.  You have to do your own picking and choosing.

Question:  Right.  So here we go.  The first general category is “Passion”.  The statement is “Do it for love, not money”.

Answer: But of course.   Especially true of any activity in the arts.  You probably won’t be able to tap the true wellsprings of creativity if you are primarily focussed on money.
Question:  And it’s true in other activities, such as data analysis, which is my day job.  That’s really all about telling a story too, the truest story that the numbers lead you towards.  But the reality is that for many people money trumps passion, because they need to eat.  Those of us who have choices in that regard are really lucky people.

Answer: I think society needs to work hard at making that choice a possibility for everyone and I make that clear in my fiction.
Question:  The next statement under the general category of passion is “If you do it for love, the money will follow.”

Answer: It might or might not.  It can take a long time in the arts.  We all hope it’s true, though.
Question:  In my professional career it happened, at least to a limited extent, though I am mindful that I might just be lucky.  The next statement is “Passions are the first things you think of in the morning and the last things you think of at night.”

Answer: Well, that’s silly if taken literally.  That would be called obsession.  I don’t mean to deny or diminish the notion of passion, but life’s a lot more complicated than that.
Question:  Of course, you can’t be too literal with this kind of fluff.  But don’t you find that sometimes your book is the first thing you think of in the morning and the last thing you think of at night?

Answer: I suppose it can and does happen for a while, but you’d be a basket case to live that way.  You have to make room for the rest of life.

Work Hard
Question:  The next general category is “Work Hard”.  The statement is “The harder you work, the more you will achieve”.

Answer: There’s no doubt that achievement requires effort, but effort doesn’t guarantee achievement .  It might better be stated “the harder you work, the greater your possibility of achievement.”
Question:  Yes, effort is (generally) necessary, but not sufficient.  The next statement is “Success rarely comes without hard work; lucky winners are few and far between”.

Answer: And those lucky winners are called lottery winners, whether it’s a formal lottery or not.  There’s also the lottery of genetics or the lottery of birth.  But even with hard work, luck (or the intercession of the fairies) often plays a role.  Things are easier if you catch a few breaks.
Question:  Luck’s usually nice, but it can drag you down too.  A lot of compulsive gamblers started with an early lucky streak that they continued to try to relive, almost always unsuccessfully, for the rest of their lives.  That’s what the research says, and those have been my personal observations.  Some day I will have to blog about my efforts to beat the horses with multivariate statistics.  I saw a lot in that time.

Answer: You should enlighten us about that some day.

Be Good at What you Do
Question:  The next general category is “Be Good at What you Do”.  The statement is “Work long and hard to be good at something”.

Answer:  Well of course.  If the activity in question is truly your passion, that’s precisely what you do.  You almost can’t avoid it.
Question:  I would naturally agree, conditioned once more on the person’s actually opportunities to work long and hard at their passion.  It’s easy to be stuck working long and hard at something you hate.   The next statement is “Practice, practice, practice.”

Answer:  Talent and practice aren’t exclusive.  They go together.  Very few people can ride on talent alone, though to be really good at something it helps to be gifted with a higher than average innate skill at the activity.  In writing, perhaps practice, practice, practice can lead to a certain level of commercial success, when coupled with a decent dollop of luck.  But to go much beyond that, seems to take that indefinable thing we call talent.  It’s hard to describe it, but we feel like we know it when we see it.
Question:  Perhaps you are influenced by the fact that we saw a Shakespeare play earlier this afternoon.  (By the way Love’s Labour Lost is a great Valentine’s Day play).

Answer:  Well, Shakespeare could hit emotional peaks that catch you up and surprise you, transport you.  It seems so effortless when you watch it.  I suppose that’s an example of how talent shows itself above and beyond practice, practice, practice.
Question: The next statement is “When it comes down to it, if you aren’t good at what you do you can’t be a success and sustain it.

Answer: That seems self-evident in most cases, though history seems replete with counter-examples.  Maybe you can succeed in terms of money, but in terms of your inner self, you probably won’t really be satisfied.
Question:  The next general category is “Focus”.  The statement is “Concentrate all your efforts into one or two goals”.

Answer:  Again, this is conditional on the meaning of the words.  Life is so much more complex than just knocking off a couple of goals.
Question:  Yet there is a kernel of truth there.  You do have to concentrate your energies, and by that I mean your energies that are surplus to physical and social survival. 

Answer:  And life is long and it has stages.  So, the things that you concentrate on are an ongoing evolution throughout the life cycle.  Sometimes one thing takes priority, and later other things do.   For example, I am letting my heroine Kati of Terra off the hook for a while from adventuring, so that she can do those family things that are important too.  And as with Kati, so with us all.
Question:  Yes (smiling), Kati can teach us so much.  The next statement is “Without focus your resources will be too thinly stretched to achieve real success.”

Answer:  You compromise and you make choices, that’s the essence of life.  You can talk all you want about focus, but you can’t avoid the fact that life is complex and that there are competing demands.
Question:  Yes, it’s another statement that seems like an obvious truth, until you unpack its full meaning and its consequences.  I mean, if you focus so hard that you sacrifice your family on the alter of success, then what have you really gained?

Anyway, that’s as much as one pizza and bottle of wine will get us through for now.  Luckily, there are four more of Richard St. John’s secrets of success, each with multiple sub-items, that we can discuss later.
Answer: Oh joy.



Richard St. John’s Eight Secrets of Success

  1. Passion
    1. do it for love not for money.
    2. if you do it for love the money will follow.
    3. passions are the first thing you thing of in the morning and the last thing you think of at night.
  2. Work hard
    1. the harder you work the more you will achieve
    2. success rarely comes without hard work; lucky winners are few and far between.
  3. Be good at what you do
    1. work long and hard to be good at something
    2. practice; practice; practice
    3. when it comes down to it if you aren’t good at what you do you can’t be a success and sustain it
  4. Focus
    1. concentrate all your efforts into one or two goals.
    2. without focus your resources will be too thinly stretched to achieve real success.
  5. Push yourself
    1. physically and mentally push yourself to your limits
    2. push through shyness and self-doubt
  6. Serve
    1. make it a privilege to serve people
    2. serve other people something they will find of value
    3. think more about the needs of your stakeholders than of your own needs
  7. Have ideas
    1. you must find the time to think
    2. seek inspiration from whatever and whomsoever you can: books; TED; mentors; gurus
    3. listen; observe; be curious; ask questions; problem solve; make connections.
  8. Persist
    1. persist through failure
    2. persist through CRAP: Criticism; Rejection; Assholes; Pressure


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