There is no mystery to turning pro. It’s a decision brought about by an act of will. We make up our minds to view ourselves as pros, and we do it, simple as that. ~ Stephen Pressfield
File this column under my annual pep talk. Something you might hear from a hard ass or an NBA coach. If you’re not aware, most of them aren’t mild or retiring types. I’m thinking of one of my favorite all-time coaches, Don Nelson when he was coaching the Milwaukee Bucks. His passion for the game was like fire in his veins. He was a maverick in his coaching style (and yes, I know that term has been overused), so zealous about the game that he once protested a penalty call by tearing off his jacket in frustration, ripping the sleeve from the garment.
When a professional athlete hits the court or playing field he or she is expected to leave everything on the court. No complaints about how the deck is stacked against him; no cursing at the rules of play; no griping at the refs if you’re smart. Pros put on the uniform and play their hearts out. After years learning the fundamentals, years of practice and more practice, of drills and more drills. Listening to their coach when they need to change course. Refining a technique or switching up the defensive or offensive strategy.
In Stephen Pressfield’s marvelous little book on the creative process The War of Art he explains that the way to succeed in any art is by turning pro. He explains: “The professional respects his craft. He does not consider himself superior to it… The professional dedicates himself to mastering technique not because he believes technique is a substitute for inspiration but because he wants to be in possession of the full arsenal of skills when inspiration does come. The professional is sly. He knows that by toiling beside the front door of technique, he leaves room for genius to enter by the back.”
So while learning all they can about craft and the publishing or movie business, writers need to be consummate professionals. When you meet an editor or agent. When you turn in a manuscript (honoring the deadline), and in all your correspondence and public appearances.
Pressfield’s expression turning pro has a specific connotation, and about a third of the book is dedicated to explaining the professional mindset and habits. Turning pro is a state of mind; it’s a mental shift from weekend-warrior amateur to hard-core, self-disciplined professional. If you really want to conquer resistance to doing creative work (or any other major thing that you want to achieve, whether it’s running a marathon or starting a business) get serious about it. Accept that you’ll wage a daily battle against the forces within you that would rather take the easy way out and keep you safely within your comfort zone.
What distinguishes the professional writer? A pro shows up for work every day; a pro is patient; a pro endures adversity. A pro doesn’t take success or failure personally; a pro accepts no excuses; a pro plays hurt. A pro learns to be objective about their own strengths and weaknesses. Here is how you do it:
1. Treat other pros with respect and gratitude. Especially the gatekeepers of the profession—agents, managers, editors, and authors. Say ‘thank you’ a lot. Recognize the busy schedules of these specialists. They don’t owe you their time or respect until you’ve earned it.
2. Dress the part. You’ll be in the presence of anyone who might further your career. Comport yourself with grace, ease, and humility. Notice: desperation wasn’t in that list. Be ready to chat about yourself and your work in an engaging manner, without sounding like you’ve been scripted or like you work in call center in Mumbai. Be yourself, ask questions, tell a story, and smile.
3. Show up with a ‘lunch pail’ attitude toward the work. Day after day, year after year. Punch in and treat the task at hand with commitment and consistency. At the conference, attend every session you can on craft, but also sit in on the panels featuring agents and editors—taking copious notes at all times.
4. Follow up. At the conference, after you’ve networked and gleaned information, follow up on the contacts you’ve made by sending out manuscripts and thank yous. Then comb though your notes for gems and further inspiration. You might want to type up your notes if they’re handwritten, which anchors them in your memory. Don’t forget to touch base with the writers that you met at the conference, either.
5. Keep the fire burning. After hobnobbing and learning, don’t let the creative fire you’ve been exposed to die. Keep your passion for writing alive by reading what inspires you and staying connected to other writers.
6. Stick with it no matter what. The pro lives and works in the no-excuse zone.
Not until your back hurts or your ideas start fizzling. Just write through the pain and through the dead zone of a faltering draft. Then write some more.
6. Pros keep learning over their lifetime, gaining skills and mastering techniques. A writing pro must read work far better than he or she can write the learning process.
7. Pros face rejection like a warrior, not a wimp. Professional athletes lose all the time, often while disappointing their fans and with multi-million dollar stakes and world championships on the line. After the loss, they swallow their frustration and pride, suit up and try harder.
8. Pros endure. They play injured, they play tired or scared. No matter what, no matter how long it takes to finish a draft or revise a draft, or sell a manuscript.
9. Pros are humble. We know we’re lucky to be called to this art, to dictate the voices and ideas that whisper in our heads.
10. Pros are always ready when called off the bench. Your opportunity just might be arriving soon so be ready for it.
11. Pros are authentic. Our stories are fiercely illuminating–true in the sense that they reflect our perceptions, imaginations, and hopes.
So get into the game. Play with stamina and grace. As Steven Pressfield said, “Better to be in the arena getting stomped by the bulls, than to be up in the stands or out in the parking lot.”