Transferable skills

I don’t talk a lot about my day job online. It’s a public, conservative environment and we have semi-regular seminars about how saying the wrong thing on social media could get us fired. But I can tell you that the best parts of it, for me, involve a lot of writing. I have two great creative loves: fiction writing and research… which is also writing. I’ve spent 5 years working my way up to a position where I get to spend most of my work day reading, researching and writing interesting (and sometimes not so interesting) things. I love it. I get to spend all day writing research things and then switch modes when I get home to writing fiction. It means there’s always lots and lots of writing and thinking in my life, which makes me happy.

I like to think these things bounce nicely off each other – that they are transferable skills. Sometimes the work cannibalises my mental energy, but mostly they use different energies. Both creative but somewhat different processes. If I’m tired of one I can switch to the other. Most of the time I think this is a good thing, it keeps me sharp and well-rounded and my experiences on both sides of the fence feed into the other side. What I learn in my fiction writing helps my work writing; what I learn in my work writing prompts and polishes my fiction writing.

For example, the other week I had an interaction with a co-worker. He asked me how my writing was going. I told him: “It feels like crap, but that doesn’t mean much. It’ll probably be fine when I read it back over tomorrow.” He was surprised. “That’s very zen of you!”

And I thought, well, no, this is just writing common sense. This is writing advice that flows around on Twitter daily. This is one of the most universal truths about writing for everyone, everywhere: some days it’s good, most days it’s shit, and almost all of the time how you feel about it when you’re writing it has no say in the quality of the work overall.

But I only knew that and could apply it to my research work because so much of my spare time is spent writing and thinking about writing and talking with other people who do the same things. The knowledge bleeds through.

So, I was chewing on a blog post about that phenomenon: my personal writing – my weird little fiction writing obsession – building skills that are applicable outside it. Like getting lots of writing and drafting practice in. Like reading things aloud and knowing how to get thousands of words on a page with a 2-3 day turn-around time without going crazy[1]. I was going to wax long and lyrical about “man, how much better am I as an employee because I write in my free time? Aren’t my bosses lucky to have such a skilled and experienced writer on staff?”

And then my boss called my in because he wanted to talk about the last chapter I’d written. The research content was good, he was impressed with how I’d gotten my head around the material so quickly and the argument structure was strong… but the writing was sloppy. My attention to detail had slipped in places, my sentences were ungodly long, and I’d had too much ‘voice’ in a lot of places.

He suggested a writing course.

I went back to my desk and quietly sulked. I spun into a fairly impressive self-pity cycle.

Maybe I wasn’t cut out for this. Maybe this thing I enjoy doing and have sweated and lost sleep and cried to get wasn’t my “thing”. Maybe I had started down a wrong career path. Maybe I should throw in the towel and pick a job better suited to my skill set. Maybe I was doomed to be average at the thing I love to do.

And then I realised that my private writing practice is useful not just for helping me with writing at work[2].

This feedback experience was also familiar to me from my fiction writing. I expect that sending my fiction work out will generate rejections – it’s part of the game. My whole writing resolution this year is built on the premise that I will try and fail to do the thing I love well at least a hundred times. That’s once every 3-4 days. For a whole year. And I know – deep-seated truth know – that those rejections don’t mean the stories I write aren’t interesting or good, just that they could be better or haven’t found the right audience yet. At no point does any of those rejections mean I should stop doing the thing I enjoy – fiction or research writing. If anything the failures tell me I damn well better keep doing them! Because I like doing these things, and because I like trying to get better at doing these things.

That conversation with my boss doesn’t mean my interests and skills aren’t valid. It doesn’t mean I shouldn’t or can’t keep doing this work that I really enjoy. One failure – one rejection letter – means only one thing: that I’m trying. And that’s fantastic. Even when I invest a lot of my ego and self-worth into the work, even when I work crazy hours to hit a deadline, even when I want to be very good at this: sometimes it won’t happen. And that’s ok. And it means absolutely nothing in terms of whether I should keep going or not. The things are not linked. Do I value the experience I get from doing the thing? Do I find it intellectually and creatively stimulating? Can I say, in a sentence, that I love the work of it without lying? Does that change when one project doesn’t work? Does that change when a project bombs? Of course it doesn’t.

It still hurts, but it means shit all in terms of whether I should keep on going. It still hurt. It’s never great to hear you didn’t knock it out of the park. That in some ways your work was less than stellar. Particularly when it’s something you consider a strength or at least a passion. Something you care about doing and being good at. But even that isn’t enough to stop you from screwing it up sometimes. It’s a matter of whether you like doing the thing and trying to get better at it more than you don’t like failing at it.

It means I still need to learn things, that I tried so hard I hit the very edge of what I was capable of and found that it fell short of what was needed. It means there’s still room there for me to improve and get better. And that’s inspiring. That’s encouraging. That doesn’t mean I’ll never get “there”, it just means I’m not “there” yet.

As in fiction so in research. These things apply across my personal and work writing lives.

But without my fiction writing I wouldn’t have the context to put that rejection in. I wouldn’t know what it means and doesn’t mean. I was able to re-frame the feedback because I had experience and practice at beating up my ego that way. It had some skills at rolling with this sort of a punch.

I had a choice – I could either decide that the experience and joy of creating and writing is more important, or that the pain of the failure is more important. What’s my preferred flavour of shit sandwich? Being told my writing is crap? Sometimes writing something that totally bombs?

No contest.

[1] Fun fact: not possible, but the crazy is at least temporary.

[2] Which, you know, in light of that feedback may or may not actually be helping. Awkward.


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