Showing My Work: Starting Thoughts
How to get from good enough to excellent, at whatever you're trying to do.
It seems like there are three things I want to tell you.
Maybe four things.
The first thing is about money.
No, wait. The first first thing, the pre-emptive piece of information that I want to share with everybody (now that I am sharing these posts on both Nicole Dieker Dot Com and Nicole Dieker Dot Substack Dot Com), is that I'm just going to assume that you're already familiar with what I do and what this iteration of my narration is about.
I've been a freelance writer for a decade; I've been a six-figure freelancer for the past two years and counting. I'm the author of The Biographies of Ordinary People, a Millennial-era Little Women that follows three sisters from childhood to adulthood, and I am currently working on my next major fiction project.
I've been a teacher, in some form or another, for most of my life; both of my parents are teachers and my mom started asking me to help with her youngest piano students when I was in junior high. I've taught, at various points in my life, piano, acting, directing, and Shakespeare. Now I teach writing and the business of freelancing.
Both of my parents are also classically-trained musicians, as am I (my degrees are in music and theater, both of which are more common among professional writers than you'd think). The person we'll call "L," whom I can accurately describe as the great love of my life, is also a classically-trained musician. We spend a lot of our free time practicing the piano and discussing how to get from good enough to excellent.
That's what this weekly newsletter, whether you're reading it in Wordpress or Substack form, will focus on: How to get from good enough to excellent, at whatever you're trying to do.
I mean, at what I'm trying to do.
(I don't know what you're trying to do.)
The excellences I am currently pursuing include:
Strength training (like, with barbells)
Relationships (yes, it is possible to pursue excellence in your interpersonal relationships [and once you know that, it becomes impossible not to])
It's that last one that has thrown everything else just slightly off balance—but that's the second thing I want to write about, and I told you that the first thing I wanted to write about was money.
As soon as I decided to write fiction again, I could feel the immense pressure of the question "is that going to be your primary way of earning money, can it be should it be will it be" settling into my neck and shoulders.
I think that is a ridiculous question, for at least three reasons:
The math doesn't work. I would need to sell 20,000 books per year, at $5 net profit per copy, to pull in six figures as a novelist. I do want to write the kind of book that people will want to read (more on that in a minute), and I might even like to write the kind of book that people will want to pay money for, but to assume that I would surpass my current freelance earnings through some combination of advances and royalties is, at this point, a very foolish assumption.
I am, at this point in my life, excellent at freelancing. It's my best thing. I know how to work with clients, I know how to interview sources, I know how to write to spec and turn in perfect copy by deadline. I have a decade of expertise in my primary beat (personal finance) and have not yet reached the end of my ability to share what I've learned with readers.
Pulling back on the freelancing would also make it harder for me to teach. Right now, I'm developing a course on "personal finance for the freelance writer," which combines three of my favorite things (teaching, the business of freelancing, and personal finance). I would not be able to teach this class if I were no longer actively freelancing; while the core of the business remains fairly constant, there are enough updates to invoicing platforms, industry trends, tax law, etc. etc. etc. that trying to teach something I was not actively practicing would be both foolish and futile.
There's also a fourth reason:
I'm not sure how long it will take to rework my current draft from good enough to excellent. I have the advantage of having the draft already written. I've read much of that original draft to L, and he agrees that this should be my next big creative project. But going through the draft, sentence by sentence, and turning every unspecific choice into a more specific one will take time.
Which brings me to the second thing.
This could be a 2,000-word blog post of its own, but the tl;dw (too long, didn't write) is this: changing any aspect of something, no matter how small, changes the entire thing.
Which means that when I started trying to perfect my physical form in the squat rack (squat below parallel, keep knees in line with toes), it made me want to focus on perfecting my physical form at the piano (wrists below knuckles, keep pinky fingers from curling up).
Both are very achievable, if you are willing to focus on achieving them.
The trouble is, putting all of your focus on one area of something seems to open up a bunch of other problems you might not have completely solved. When you're focusing on wrist position at the piano, for example, the part of the piece that isn't fully memorized starts to fall apart, even if you've been able to play it "from memory" for weeks. When you're focusing on wrist position at the gym, you might not squat or press to your previous depth because you're putting more of your effort towards a different issue—which means that if you're serious about solving the wrist problems while getting your hips below parallel, you probably need to deload.
Or, as I told L earlier this week: "I started writing new fiction words for the first time in, like, two years. And then everything else fell apart, and I'm worried that I'm going to be insufferable until I figure out how to rebalance it all."
By "everything else" I basically mean my ability to manipulate the elements around me instead of being manipulated by them, which would sound like the most pretentious thing I'd ever written if it weren't my daily goal. To act, rather than react. To make the kinds of choices that compound positively, rather than the ones that compound negatively. To avoid the impulsive overcorrections that cancel each other out. To keep the stress of my new project from leading to stress eating, for example—which leads to spoiled dinners (nutritionally and conversationally) and indigestion and poor sleep and uncomfortable bowels and the kind of overall energy deficit that makes it harder to do excellent work the next day.
It used to take me a week or more to get out of this kind of deficit. This time around, I think it's only going to take me two days. Part of that is because I have L on my team; part of it is because I know that being my best self makes both of us better (individually and in relationship).
The other part is that I understand the ways in which being able to manipulate the elements around you leads not only to excellence but to magic.
Which brings me to the third thing.
L and I very much want to become magicians—not in the sleight-of-hand sense (though we keep saying we're going to study sleight-of-hand one of these days), but in the mastery sense.
This means, among other things, avoiding that which is not magic in both the work we choose to produce and the work we choose to consume.
"People who want to become magic," as we often say to each other, "need to surround themselves with the work of other magicians."
In many ways, I've already achieved mastery/magicianry as a freelancer—and I hope to write more about that as I continue this narrative.
But I also want to demonstrate mastery at the piano, and in my current fiction project.
I’m also working to understand the concept of mastery itself—because I suspect that the same form-function-heuristic-building work that I'm doing in the barbell gym and at the piano will also apply to my fiction work and, if I'm lucky, my chess study.
I built my freelance career by setting myself two problems to solve, every week:
How can I increase my gross freelance income this week?
How can I increase my earnings per hour?
I don't think those are the problems I need to solve with piano and fiction writing; with the former, it might be something like "how can I increase measures memorized per hour," and with the latter, it might be "how can I increase word count per hour," though you also want to make sure the words and the measures are as close to excellent as possible, there's no point in getting faster if you just get sloppy.
Maybe the first step in showing my work—and the work I can show you next week—will have to do with identifying these specific (not to mention measurable, achievable, replicable, and time-bound) goals. ❤️
Where I Got Published This Week
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We post submission roundups once a week. Here’s our list of literary magazines and freelance opportunities for July 30, 2021.
We post roundups of writing and literary jobs once a week. Here’s our list for July 30, 2021.