Writing Lessons From The Masters

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Okay, the headline is sneaky wordplay, as I am not referring to writing experts, but The Masters golf tournament recently concluded. Something shocking happened there and I think we can all learn from it, as writers and as normal folk making our way through a life that tosses out plenty of lemons.

jordan-spieth

Jordan Spieth

There is a young golfer named Jordan Spieth. He is twenty-two years old and a huge talent. He’s already won two majors (the hardest thing to do for a pro golfer), and one of those was last year’s Masters. He’s also a classy, well-spoken gentleman. And boy, do we need more of those these days.

Which is why what happened is so sad.

Jordan Spieth was set to go absolute legend. Only three players have ever won back-to-back Masters. You may have heard of these guys–Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods.

Spieth was playing lights out, leading the tournament all the way into the final round. He was up by five strokes with only seven holes left to play. All he had to do was avoid a major mistake and a second green jacket (the Masters’ cloak of honor) would be his. And then they’d begin measuring the space for Jordan Spieth on golf’s Mount Rushmore.

So as Spieth stepped up to the notorious par-3 12th, he could feel it, the victory. The crowd was with him. As were the millions watching at home.

But then the unthinkable, the shocking, the disastrous happened. Spieth hit two consecutive balls into the water. The first from 150 yards, the second from just 80. These were shots Jordan Spieth can make in his sleep, left handed. Not this time. The infamous Masters pressure caught up with him and … plop, plop.

His next shot went over the green and into a bunker. When it was all over, Jordan Spieth, one of the best players of his generation, carded a quadruple bogey.

And lost the tournament.

That, my friends, will mess with your head. To his credit, Jordan took it like a man, stood up to reporters’ questions, and made his obligatory appearance in Butler Cabin to slip the green jacket on the surprise winner, Danny Willet. Poor Jordan went through the motions, but he was clearly not there. He looked like an actor auditioning for a part in The Walking Dead.

This loss will be with Jordan forever. The only question now is, how will he handle it?

I know for sure he will hurt for a long time. But I suspect Jordan Spieth will muster his competitive spirit and play great golf again. I believe he will add several more majors to his resume before he’s done.

Which leads me to three lessons for writers:

  1. When you get knocked down, let it hurt for an hour. Then write something

Rejection. Rotten reviews. Dismal sales. They hurt. Don’t deny it. You can’t.

But after an hour (set a timer!) get yourself back to your keyboard.

If you’re on a project, write a new scene. If you’re not, write a journal entry.

Or use a writing prompt to get your creative juices flowing. (There’s a wonderful “writer igniter” over at the DIYMFA site. Check it out).

When you write, the pain of the setback begins to fade a little. It will try to reassert itself, but then you write some more. Eventually, the pain ceases to hold any power over you.

  1. Be the kind of writer that readers pull for

People like Jordan Spieth. He’s humble and positive and polite. Golf fans want to see him do well, especially now.

So show in your craft and your social media presence that you are a positive writer, someone who seeks to add value to other people’s lives. Readers who know you that way are much more likely to give you another chance should something you write fail to catch on.

  1. Don’t expect the easy road

Let me engage in a golf analogy for writers who are contemplating self-publishing. Imagine that suddenly anyone could play in The Masters. Just show up and tee off. Would being able to play mean you’d finish in the money? Of course not. The best golfers in the world would still win the prizes, with a few exceptions. Some really good amateurs would get in and maybe a handful of these would play out of their minds and make some tournament dough.

But the vast majority wouldn’t. Why not? Not because there’s a “tsunami of golfers,” but because their game is not good enough yet.

What they would need to do is go practice, get some coaching, and expect that it will take years to develop a great game. Even then, there are going to always be better golfers than you.

But if you grind and drive your beat-up Saturn from tournament to tournament, maybe you can earn enough to make it worth your while. Plus, you are playing a game you love.

Well, publishing is like that now. You don’t have to wait for an invitation from the Forbidden City. You can publish anytime you like.

But please don’t think that “getting to play” is an automatic win. You need to work on your craft, every day, just the way a pro golfer does. Think in terms of many years and many books, not just next month and your one completed novel.

Jordan Spieth will be back. And so will you, writer, because the only way to stop you is if you quit.

And you’re not going to.

So what about you? What major setback did you have to overcome, as a writer or in any other arena of life? How did you handle it?

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26 thoughts on “Writing Lessons From The Masters

  1. Over the years I’ve received enough rejection letters to wallpaper a small room. I took the advice that resonated with me and kept plugging along. But I look at those old letters as a blessing, because the ones that offered a why or helpful feedback made me a better writer. No one likes to get rejected, in writing as well as life, but if we look at it objectively and don’t take it personal, rejection can be a blessing in disguise. That’s my philosophy, anyway. Of course, I’m a die-hard optimist by nature.

    • Sue, I think it was Stephen King who, as an aspiring writer, put a nail in his wall to hold the rejection slips. And when they overtook the nail, he put in a spike.

      And optimism is a great thing to have. But even the pessimist can keep typing.

  2. Great advice, Jim.

    I’ve had lots of failures, in every area of my life. I try to use those experiences to motivate me to work harder, to get up and get going again. So, #1 above: “When you get knocked down, let it hurt for an hour. Then write something.” And let those failures fan the flames of your determination to keep improving and to succeed.

    • And you know, Steve, that if you’re not “failing” enough it means you’re not trying enough, risking enough. At the very least, it builds resilience, as it has in you. Nicely put.

  3. Spieth is a good example of what you have to do at times in any field. I think your counsel to admit that losing hurts and to deal with it is exactly what we have to do.

    After a few years of stumbling around, then finally selling some short stories, I got a book contract, complete with an advance. To paraphrase an old Hee Haw gag: And that was good! No, that was bad!

    I let my minor success get to my head, and wrote another book and several stories that no one liked. I realize now that I had the idea that whatever I did was good, and I failed to do my best during those months.

    When reality finally hit home, I got back to the basics, and since October of last year, have sold five stories. (One acceptance came in this morning!) As you say Jim, one must stagger to one’s feet, dust off, figure out where you went wrong, and get back in the race. Any other option is out of the question.

    • Mike, your experience is not uncommon for the debut author. But instead of being embittered, you sat back and figured out what it meant, and how to move on. Excellent!

  4. Excellent lessons you’ve written here. I hope Spieth keeps his perspective and comes back even stronger for it. He’s in good company when one considers the man who won the most majors in a career (Nicklaus, 20) came in 2nd place 19 times…

    • That’s a terrific point about Nicklaus, John. The same could be said of Phil, who had the unfortunate timing of having his prime play out during Tiger’s.

      Spieth will be back.

  5. The forbidden city . . . I don’t know anyone’s ever put it better.

    Something else to mull. Not giving a damn re winning or so called losing, as long as you ‘get to play’ may be where real joy lives.

    • Morgyn, there’s something to that. Getting too obsessed with numbers and lists and what other people accomplish can indeed wear on you. It’s a good reminder to note that you have your own abilities and if you’re working hard at them, that’s a type of victory.

  6. As an Englishwoman I’m delighted at Danny Willet’s win, but feel every sympathy for Jordan Spieth. Golf is like writing – if things go wrong there’s no one to blame but our own game, ourselves.

    My major setback came 5 years ago. I’d just started on the self-published trail and was eager to write, when at the (relatively) early age of 57, I had a minor stroke. It affected my left side – and I’m left-handed. For a while I could barely hold a pen, let alone write with it. Nor could I type, my fingers juddered and skittered on the keys – they still do, only not so badly, but I’m certainly Queen of the Typos.

    I’ve clawed my back, I’ve published 10 books, and you just have to keep on going. I’ll never be a bestseller, still less a household name, but if my old-fashioned British whodunits engage and amuse my readers, then that’s all I can ask.

  7. One difference (of many) between Spieth’s failure and most of mine is that my failures have been private. The general public hasn’t known about them.

    My rejections in terms of writing have been private, too.

    If the failure or rejection is private, I think it’s easier to bear, easier to pick yourself up and start anew. With a public failure you need more courage.

    My hat’s off to anyone like Spieth who must risk failing again so publicly.

    • So right, Sheryl. Such a public stage for such an uncharacteristic meltdown. It’s somewhat unfair, but it is also reality.

      I’m a USC boy, and always liked Mark Sanchez. Still do. But he’s forever associate with the “butt fumble.” Unfair? Yes. But there you go. Now I hope he goes out and wins for Denver.

  8. Sports metaphors/analogies… the writing teacher’s best friend. Along with cooking, flying an airplane, building a bridge… anything that requires we have our head on straight, understand the underlying physics and engineering principles, an eye for aesthetics, a solid work ethic, a process that makes sense, and a vision for something that “users” will find not only pleasant and pretty, but functional.

    That’s it. That’s all. Easy-peasy, right? Just ask Spieth. Because just when you think you have it, that you’ve won the day, something doesn’t connect. The pro not only shakes it off, they head for the practice range to fix it. The pro knows WHAT to fix, never says “well that’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.”

    Well done today, Jim Bell.

    • Thou speakest truly, Brother Brooks. Before we CAN fix, we must know WHAT and HOW to fix, which is why we do what we do!

      The one who says, “I don’t need no stinkin’ fixes” goes out and just digs more divots.

  9. Twelve queries sent, one immediate request for full, two personalized rejections, crickets or form rejections from the others. Full request became a rejection along with a thoughtful critique.

    With an immediate full request from well known agent I thought my query was sound. Now I’m not so sure. Though subjective, parts of their critique did resonate.

    I can handle rejection, but plotting a course forward is proving difficult. Query no good? Story good, but missing aspects mentioned in agent’s critique holds back from being great? This is a really difficult business. Almost as if you’re blind and feeling your way through an obstacle course. Any thoughts or suggestions appreciated

    • Louis, get more outside feedback. Join a critique group, or pay for some review (e.g., Writer’s Digest 2d Draft service). One agent’s opinion (or several) is not the end of the road, but there may be substance to it. Search for the substance.

      Go to a good writer’s conference, and network, and learn as much as you can. Learn about the business, both trad and self, and all the options you have.

      And know that you’re traveling a well-trod road. We’ve all been on it. Keep moving!

  10. Let me speak from another side.

    Years ago, I, as do many writers, was working another, part-time job to make ends meet. (Alas, there were more ends than meet.)

    One day, while on break, three or four of us were talking about what we did on our off days. Because a couple of us held full-time jobs as well, we didn’t have many complete days off.
    In an off-handed way, I mentioned I was a writer. At the time, my most major credits were confession stories. (Remember them? I miss them.)

    One of the guys’ eyes–remember this word combination–lit up, but he said nothing for the moment.

    Later, the guy came up to me and said he wanted to be a writer. He wrote poetry, and he had a book, he said, nearly finished. He wanted to have it published (In those days, of course, he meant that he wanted to have someone else publish it; self-publishing was a costly, complicated affair that . . . well, you remember.)

    And, of course, he wanted me to take a look at it and give him my opinion. I wanted him to understand–O solo mio, desperately wanted him to understand–that I was not a poet. My knowledge of poetry, being an English major, was an academic understanding, I said. He should, I said, find someone who was a poet, someone who understood the genre, and could help him. Remember “guy’s eyes?” That’s the extent to my poetry writing ability: the stating of accidental, very occasional rhymes or euphonic combinations of words. For me at my poetry-writing ability level, “In days of old when knights were bold . . . ,” or “There was a young girl-fisher from Bass . . . ” are just about my limitations.

    But he insisted. He could have talked Moses out of trying to lead his people across the Red Sea.

    So I took the proffered manuscript he brought to work one evening. Muttering, I took it and walked away. A day or so later, I took his work, sat down with a glass of Pepsi, and began to read. Again, with only an academic understanding of his art and craft.

    Hell’s bells, kitten’s mittens, and gory glory. The guy was awful. Worse that awful. Worse than pathetic. Worse . . . you understand.

    So here’s the problem. How do I tell him? Again, remember the guy’s eyes? They lit up when I had finally accepted his manuscript from him with the promise I’d look at his poems.

    Well, I kept his manuscript for a few more days and then took it back to work, one evening.

    His eyes pleaded for good news. He was like a kitten, unh, holding up his mittens, praying for favorable words that would surely dub him the next Bard of north Phoenix.

    Gulp. We sat down. I gave him back his manuscript, en masse. There was, of course, no reason to go through it page-by-page, no reason to make comments about the adjustments here or there he should make before he submitted it to the publisher or the Pulitzer committee.

    I had to tell him that, frankly, he should take a course in poetry writing at the local community college or something, that he should read a book or two on poetry writing. I gave him an old copy of a writer’s magazine that I thought had a pretty good article on his art. As for his manuscript, I told him it wasn’t yet ready for publication. I did not tell him it never would be if he did not somehow work to improve his craft, his art. That was where I stopped.

    Yes, he sat there, unspeaking, eyes wounded, shoulders hanging. He was truly devastated, ruined for the moment.

    As for me, I didn’t even have the courage to go on–to ask if he’d ever considered taking up softball or something.

    So now, when my own rejections come, when my publisher says he doesn’t think he’d be interested in my idea that will take me to writing greatness, but only wants the next novel in my current series, I remember the guy with those eyes.

    You see, he did take my advice. He enrolled in some courses at a couple of different schools. He learned about his craft. He made friends with faculty members and fellow students. He joined a writers’ group that concentrated on poetry.

    One day, years after that evening, he got a $15 check from some magazine. Three months later, he received a copy of the magazine in which his poem was published. I’ve lost contact with him. I have no idea whether he’s ever had anything else published.

    So that guy with the sad eyes, the kitten’s mittens: he taught me something. Even after the worst judgment of my work–a letter that says, this isn’t right for us, or something similiar–I can, with renewed commitment to my art, doing what I must to improve my writing, stand again, bless the Lord, take new courage, and press on.

    • Well, kudos to that poet! And getting a copy of the mag, well, in poetry terms that’s an “acceptance.” A victory.

      At one time I wanted to be a Beat poet. In fact, I was for about four months. When I saw what it paid, I went in another direction.

  11. In the immortal words of that great western philosopher Chumbawamba…

    I get knocked down
    But I get up again
    You’re never gonna keep me down
    I get knocked down
    But I get up again
    You’re never gonna keep me down.

    On my bad days (Hey, been-there-done-that been dropped by two publishers over my career) I put on the Nikes and earbuds and run to this song:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2H5uWRjFsGc

  12. Sometimes it takes quite some time to discover the problem, at least when you are a newbie. I have had this debut novel idea that I’ve been working on, brainstorming, etc, for over two years. I would plot a bit, try to write scenes, and feel blocked. Then it finally occurred to me that my problem was that I really had two, maybe three, books that I was trying to combine. I wanted a parallel story with the present and the distant past of the mid 1800’s. It wasn’t working. So, I decided to concentrate on the character that was in my mind the most. I was trying to make someone else the protagonist, and she had too many problems to suit the role. So, now I have an entire different time, setting, and protagonist. So, I’m starting over. I think this time it will work. I hope so. If not, I will rethink it, and re-plot it, until it does. This is something I am determined to do, but I want to do it the right way, or at least the best of my ability for now. Thanks for another insightful post. 🙂

    • Rebecca, I think what you hit upon was the right move–the character. Letting the character show you the way. So go for it! And go for it in an expeditious manner. I’d like to see you drive this train in under a year, at the same time you’re getting another couple of trains ready on other tracks. Good luck!

  13. “Plus, you are playing a game you love.” That’s exactly what keeps me going. I love the writing part; the seeking publication part, not so much. I haven’t queried often, but the rejections come with personal notes of encouragement, so I continue. I have nothing to lose. Besides, I love this game. 🙂

    • Carol, when you get a personal note like that, it’s a partial win. And you are so right. If you don’t love writing, it’s ten times more difficult to make any headway. You are on good footing.

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