In the Zone

We talked a little yesterday about the three common levels of professional development: apprentice, journeyman, and master. The apprentice has skills, but requires supervision; the journeyman has enough breadth of professional experience to operate independently; and the master sets the strategic direction for others.

I feel like that’s been my path as a writer as well. For a long time, I had plenty of skill. In high school and college, and then as a freelance architecture and planning writer for local news magazines, I was given writing tasks, completed them, and turned them in. It’s an outstanding way to learn the trade: tons of work with tons of feedback.

Most writers stay there, because most writers write under the guise of some other job title. As a professional in higher education. I wrote accreditation reports and annual assessment reports, policy proposals and grant proposals. My president or provost would ask for something, and I’d deliver it. And of course, I probably wrote a million words a year just in e-mail. I got my hours in.

My shift to journeyman came in grad school, with the dissertation. “This is what I want to do,” I said, “and this is how I’d like to do it.” And my committee approved, and I went off on my own for two years, and came back with a book. And then I found a publisher and the book entered the world.

I did that twice more. I wrote another book and sold it to the University of Chicago Press. Then my UCP editor, the miraculous Elizabeth Branch Dyson, came to me with what she now calls “a vague hand-wavy idea” that I again went off for two years and made manifest. I have the demonstrated capability of writing book-length nonfiction without oversight.

The first steps toward mastery came when I decided to leave the industry of writing about academia and shift my work toward fiction. That was a strategic decision, not merely a craft decision. I wanted something different: different stories, different voice, different readers. And I made that shift. I already knew how to write a book; I just had to figure out how to write different kinds of books.

That started seven years ago, when I left my job in the summer of 2013. Since then, I’ve written ten books: eight novels, one collection of short stories, and one non-fiction book about fiction. There’s another one on the bench right now. That’s kind of the easy part, the independent making of books. I’ve done that for a long time, that’s now just normal work.

It’s also the safe work.

The less safe work is the next step on the mastery trail: making all of that work public. To go back to the example of a law firm, a principal in the firm has full autonomy to work with clients, manage a case, supervise other lawyers and paralegals. But all of that independent work is facilitated by the protective shell of the law firm: the senior partners who make the deals, set the strategy, grease the gears of commerce.

The University of Chicago Press has been that protective shell for my past two nonfiction books. They have a marketing department. They have a graphic design department. They manage fulfillment of orders, from Amazon to a tiny neighborhood bookshop. They take books to book fairs and conferences and set up tables and talk with passers-by. I have none of those things. But if I want to set my own strategic direction, then those are all tasks that I need to take on.

The graphic up at the top is a visual representation of the work of child psychologist Lev Vygotsky, and what he termed the Zone of Proximal Development. Basically, there are tasks we can take on for which their challenges are equal to our capabilities. If we try to do something that’s miles above us, not only can’t we do it, we freak out while we’re trying. It’s the zone of high anxiety, of frustration, of stress. On the other end, there are tasks that are way below our capabilities, things we can do with almost no effort or attention. That way lies boredom.

The goal, according to Zygotsky, is to give people tasks that are just a little above their current competency, and help people do them. That increases competency in a safe way, cements a new learning and a higher level of capability for future tasks that are even more demanding.

So that’s where I’m at. I have to reach a little above my comfort, into the mysterious lands of marketing and distribution, and try to find help in learning those new skills. The Zone of Proximal Development isn’t a safe place. But it’s a necessary part of the trip.