One of the harder things for writers is how to gauge their own progress. Unlike, say, an engineer or a lawyer, most creative people—artists, writers, musicians—are at least partly, often entirely, self-taught. This makes it hard for them to see how far they’ve come, because unlike someone following a structured, guided learning trajectory with distinct modules, tests, and progress markers leading to a final graduation, many creative people have no such waypoints or benchmarks, only a lifelong continuum of developing craft.
To make things more vexing, most of us find that the more we learn, the more we realize we still don’t know—or, to put it another way, the larger one’s knowledge base, the greater one’s vision of the whole. The result is that we can be quite accomplished, and yet feel very insecure about our skills. To quote Sir Edwin Landseer, the great 19th-century British artist, “If people only knew as much about painting as I do, they would never buy my pictures.” The target is receding all the time.
This issue came home to me several years ago, when I was a full-time decorative (aka ‘faux’) painter and wood finisher. I’d been plying my trade for fifteen years, and had risen to the top of my field, yet I would worry myself sick over every job, still traumatized, no doubt, by a screw-up very early on in my career. Fortunately, two near-simultaneous events ended my chronic insecurity.
The first of these came one day when I was trying to solve a technical problem to do with a specific wood dyeing application. The literature wasn’t helping me, so I started calling various manufacturers’ technical departments, and even got to talk to some chemists. Before long, I realized there was nobody out there with an answer: in my own, self-guided learning and research over the years, I’d become an expert in the field without knowing it.
The second epiphany came over a beer with another decorative painter, someone I’d been semi-mentoring. When I confessed to her that I approached every job with the fear that I’d screw it up, she cracked up laughing. “How long is it since you had a job go wrong?” she said. In truth, it had been at least a decade.
With regard to writing, it’s tempting to say that professional publication is the diploma, the graduation, the marker of attainment. I think that’s largely true, but not entirely. For one thing, you have to actively submit work; yet many people write for years, even becoming quite skilled, without ever submitting a story. It’s also possible—especially in today’s chaotic publishing environment—that the market just isn’t receptive, however solid your craft. In the case of my own nonfiction book, “Aegean Dream,” publishers felt it was way over length and didn’t fit the typical travel/settling memoir formula (find a ruin in Mediterranean country x, fix it up, live happily ever after); instead, I’d written a long (135k words) book which, despite a good deal of humour, had a plot arc more reminiscent of a Greek Tragedy. Happily, readers don’t give a damn: the book has been seeing steadily rising sales for several weeks, and is frequently #1 in both the Greek Nonfiction and Greek Travel categories in Amazon UK’s Kindle section. And not one person has complained about either the length or the lack of happily-ever-after.
It’s important, therefore, to look back at the road traveled and note just how far you’ve come. For writers, a good critique group is invaluable in that regard: you’ll see others progress, and they’ll be able to gauge your own development. As your own skills grow, you’ll likely become pickier in your reading; or you’ll be reading away and, in a burst of admiration, realize how much skill it took the author to achieve to a certain effect or pull off a particular scene (in the words of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,“Mediocrity knows nothing more than itself, but talent always recognizes genius.”) . These are all signs of progress. And although we should never become cocky or overly confident, it’s important to understand that needless self-doubt and timidity can and will hold you back.
It’s also true that learning has a clear and quasi-universal timeline (this is why we have two-year and four-year colleges). As a rule of thumb, I’d say that any reasonably intelligent person, given moderate talent and a willingness to apply themselves, can become competent at something (the ‘journeyman’ level) in three to five years, expert in eight or ten, and attain mastery in fifteen. And the icing on the cake is that people who are self-taught, though they may spin their wheels more than those in a structured learning environment, tend to innovate, often finding unique ways around problems and discovering new techniques on the way.
So yeah, maybe you are there and you just didn’t know it. Only now you can glimpse just how far there is still to go.