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The Success Path for Writers & Artists

For the past few years I have dug deep into researching what it takes to find success with your craft. How writers, artists, and other creative professionals can go from just dabbling with their work, to realizing their full potential, and changing other people’s lives.

Today I want to share what I have been learning. Some of what I found was surprising — it challenged the perception I would like to have about how to succeed.

What I have been piecing together is the success path that is common for many writers and artists. It consists of steps that breaks them free of struggling alone with their craft, and connects their creative work to the world in a meaningful way.

Let’s dig in:

Give Yourself Permission to Create

When I interviewed crafter Elise Blaha Cripe, she said:

“The number one problem that I hear from people who read my blog or listen to the podcast is that they have 100 ideas. They have so many things they want to do. My recommendation is to pick one idea and move forward.”

I have spoken to countless people who felt stuck because they had too many ideas, that they didn’t know which to pursue. They didn’t want to make the wrong choice, so the result was: they made no choice. They ended up half-baking several ideas at once, the entire time hoping that someone else would make the decision for them as to which path they had to choose.

The first step on the success path is to give yourself permission to create. To double down with vigor, on a single idea. And on yourself. As I have been researching legendary creators for my next book, I have been adding photos of them to the wall of my studio:

I tried to choose photos that showed each person in the moment of creation, or before they found great success. When their genius was perhaps less certain. When they were exploring a boundary that brought harsh judgement from others, not kind validation.

Each of these people gave themselves permission to create. With this permission came clarity. As they dedicated themselves to their craft, a path became clear to them.

  • Ray Eames imbued her creative process with play.
  • Bob Ross made painting accessible to millions.
  • Kate Bush blended her sense of performance with otherworldly songs.
  • Richard Feynman realized his gift was teaching.

They turned uncertainty into a roadmap. With it came the clarity to create, to finish, to push boundaries, and to effect the lives of millions for the better.

You Need a Process

Creation doesn’t magically happen. For many, it is a struggle, including for many of the world’s most successful creative professionals.

The second step on the success path is to see your craft is a choice, and to realize it fully requires a process. This process must be intentional, part of a larger system where you can get work done even when uncertain or unmotivated. This process will include habits that help avoid distraction, improve your craft, and push it farther than others would.

It is about creating a system of prioritizing what matters most to you, and engaging with collaborators who act as your support system. What I have found is that the surest way to fail as a writer or artist is this: go it alone. Great writers and artists establish support systems around their work.

If you want to know what this looks like in real-life, listen to some of my podcast interviews. What you will find is a behind-the-scenes peek at what creative work really looks like. The facade of “A writer just writes and the world finds it!’ slips away. What is left? Practical steps that you can take to develop processes and a support system to help ensure your success.

Embrace Your Top 10 Supporters

Stop trying to go viral. Don’t worry about how many people follow you. Instead, reverse that instinct. Consider: how can you invest in the 10 people who support your work the most?

Double down on these people, instead of turning a blind eye to them with the hope of attracting others.

Ask them questions, and really listen to them. Listening is probably the most important tool in your toolbox, if you are hoping to grow and engage an audience for your creative work. What you learn in the process is why someone engages with your work. You learn about them as human beings, not a simple number in your “follower count.” This brings your work into the context of where it matters most: someone’s life.

This can look like many things. Such as how, 5 years after reading your book, someone who needs strength remembers a character you created. Or someone who stares at your painting to find hope when all else seems lost in their life.

When you understand people at this level, you become armed with all that you need to engage with others. Stop obsessing about some social media trend. Start focusing more on human beings.

Conclusion

That’s the success path:

  1. Give yourself permission to create, and create a roadmap for your creative work.
  2. Develop processes and habits to double-down on your craft.
  3. Invest in your top supporters, and really listen to them.

I’m curious, where do you feel you are in this process?

Thanks!
-Dan

  • Hi Dan, great post again today. You made me think of where I am with all my myriad writing projects. So these are my thoughts, and I really believe everyone has to come up with a creative process that works for their own situation:

    I have 4 books that have been published (and 2 I have contributed to), plus I have about 4 more books that are in various stages of development. What happens for me is that I’ll get an inspiration or insight into a particular book, write down my ideas, possibly pick it up to brainstorm more details later, and then start working on it.

    Here’s an example: My husband and I are co-authoring a parenting book. We have a daughter with a rare disease, which doesn’t make us experts, but it helps us see the task of parenting our girls in a different way than most others do. That book is nearly complete. We started it together a year ago, and it just has about 3 more sections before it’s ready to be polished and sent to publishers.

    Another book idea that came to me about 2 months ago was about the difficult emotions related to grief: shame, guilt, loneliness, deep sorrow, anger, anxiety, fear, overwhelm, etc. I wanted to relate each specifically to grief and then offer ways for the reader to discover or rediscover vulnerability, confidence, joy, peace, etc. I have written 4 chapters in this book.

    Then there is a teen devotional I am collaborating with a friend to write, which is still in the brainstorming and outlining phase. And I have just a vague idea for an inspirational quote book that I haven’t even begun.

    The key, for me, is to pick ONE of those to focus on at a time so that I don’t get overwhelmed, lost, or give up altogether. So I’m having my husband finish up the parenting book on his own, and while he does that, I am focusing on finishing the book about emotions related to grief that I began about a month ago. Then I’ll move on to the teen devotional, and so forth.

    So that’s my process. It’s certainly not organized, and my life is very messy and complex with 3 daughters under the age of 7. BUT creativity isn’t linear, is it?! I have to allow it to come to me, go with the inspiration, and then pick it back up during those lulls I have throughout the day. Sorry this is so long. Your post confirmed that I need to do ONE thing at a time!

    • Thank you! Yes, this: “pick ONE.” Thanks for sharing your process and projects. Sounds like a very FULL creative life!

      • I suppose I could’ve just said that, right? 🙂 I do my best thinking and processing in the morning, however…

  • Erin Bartels

    Hi Dan. 🙂
    I gave myself permission almost seven years ago, and in that time I’ve made a LOT of progress in my writing. Now as things start to ramp up to a schedule I will not be able to completely control (publication and promotion) I really need to develop and stick to a maintainable process. I love putting things on calendars and lists, it’s just taking that next step to make myself stick to it!

  • I have walked the path of juggling multiple projects to focusing on just one. Both have reaped rewards as well as conflicts. When one project is going so well, or you’re feeling stuck, or perhaps you can’t focus on it any more that day, having a second project to turn to can be helpful. Obviously, trying to write two novels at once is probably not a good idea. But writing a novel and working on a creative nonfiction piece is certainly possible. The shorter (or back-burner project) can give you a lift or satisfaction that may not be readily available as you plow through your magnum opus.

  • That I have so many story ideas and that a new one invariably arises when I’m already wrapped up in another writing project is one of my biggest obstacles. I
    really don’t suffer from writer’s block; rather, I sometimes get bored with my
    own stuff and will turn to something else. That’s why I often daydreamed while in school and even at work. It’s why I’m reading 5 books practically at the same time. I just go from one to another and back again. I get bored easily anyway, so it takes a lot to maintain my intellectual interest.

    I keep a Word document I simply named “Story Ideas” where the concept of any oddball tale is recorded the moment I think of it. (Actually, I scribble it down on paper and get to the Word file later.) I quickly come up with a title and compose a synopsis. Then, as with the gargantuan gallery of books I’ve amassed over 30+ years, I tell myself I’ll get to that particular one later. If some part of a story should develop unexpectedly, I’ll go with it at that point. I treat the characters in my stories the same way I treat people I first meet. It takes a while to get to know someone, so I don’t get frustrated because my people aren’t fully developed from the start. They reveal whatever they want whenever they want on their own terms. This works with the overall story structure as well. I never do an outline because I feel that’s presumptuous. And I never tell myself I have to get X number of words down per day or I’ll consider myself a failure.

    This is just how I do it. I have a method to my cerebral madness, and it usually makes no sense to anyone else. People just think I’m weird, which I now take as a compliment. We all have our personality quirks! 🙂

    • Glad you found YOUR process!
      Thanks.
      -Dan