Writers: Don’t be a Victim of Beginner’s Luck
By Larry Kahaner
How many times have you read an author’s first book and it was terrific? The second, not so much, and the third, well…
Were they blessed with beginner’s luck, the phenomenon that allows first-time fishers to catch the big one and novice archers to hit the bull’s-eye?
I’ve been thinking about beginner’s luck since re-reading The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho. In this story, the shepherd Santiago enjoys beginner’s luck when he decides to travel to Africa. He sells his sheep quickly and easily (that’s the luck) to finance his trip and is on his way to fulfill his ‘personal legend.’ The rest of the road is rocky and he encounters many situations that test his mettle. He does indeed meet an Alchemist whose last words to Santiago are: “Every search begins with beginners luck and ends with the victor being severely tested.”
Questions come quickly when it comes to writers and beginner’s luck. Is that all they had in them – that one amazing book? Was it a publishing industry fad fluke? Did they take their talent for granted and not try harder? And, the classic, ‘success went to their head and they got lazy.’
I chalk it up to beginner’s luck which is not some magical belief but a real thing that can work to our advantage if we understand how it operates. Here’s how:
- Beginners have nothing to lose. Writers artists and musicians do their most imaginative and inspired work when they don’t have an image to maintain, and when they don’t care about how it’s received by critics. They are free to create a work that is unique, using their own voice, and without preconceived notions holding them back.
- Beginners don’t know the rules. They see the world in their own way and don’t feel the need to conform to standards of creativity pushed by others. I find this aspect common in writers who pen the most avant-garde first novels then are afraid of keeping up the pace and thus revert to less exciting prose because they’re afraid of reaching for new heights again. Failure is easy; success is hard.
- Beginners rarely have expectations beyond finishing the work. This allows them to keep an eye on the final goal and not what others will think of it. This eliminates self-censorship, a serial killer of creative writing. Say, what was that annoying song? Come From the Heart (I had to look it up.):
You got to sing like you don’t need the money
Love like you’ll never get hurt
You got to dance like nobody’s watchin’
It’s gotta come from the heart
If you want it to work
Great lyrics, excellent advice, but it was irritating to hear lousy versions of it played at every wedding and bar mitzvah I have attended for the last twenty years. Here’s a good cover by Guy Clark. His wife Susanna Clark composed the song.
Here’s the takeaway. Allow yourself to write every day with beginner’s luck and know that you can keep receiving its gifts if you pay attention to its pitfalls.
(If you’re curious, you can read more about beginner’s luck on Wikipedia. There’s some science behind it.)
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