The Visionary and The Toiler

One of the most challenging aspects of being a writer is holding within yourself the conflicting identities of stubborn visionary and receptive toiler. I’ve become increasingly convinced that true success as a writer–to me, this means creating one’s best work and ensuring that work reaches your audience–rests on a writer’s ability to discern what’s negotiable and what’s not, when it’s time to do your own work and when to incorporate the feedback of others.

The Visionary

Before you can listen to how your writing can be better, you have to write and discover your own voice and vision.  It’s not something that can be done by committee. There is a great deal of work at the beginning of any writing career and any individual writing project that must be done alone.  There are many blind alleys that we must run up, trying to find our destinations.  While we might want the help of others at this point, this is when they can help us the least, except by example.  My first graduate creative writing workshop was taught by a Stubborn Visionary who has since become very well known for his stubborn vision.  After a workshop when I received a ton of conflicting advice about a piece in its embryonic stage, I asked him–voice whiny with desperation–  “Am I supposed to make all the changes they suggested?”

He made a scoffing laugh as if I’d suggested I fly to the moon by beating my arms very rapidly, “Oh, god no,” he said.

“But then what do I do with it?” I asked.  I wanted to add, and what’s all this workshopping for then?

“Put it away. Forget about it.  There will be something that was said that you can’t ignore, that your mind keeps coming back to. That’s the one piece of advice you need to worry about.  Forget about the rest.”

As an inveterate people-pleaser, I wouldn’t have gotten much out of graduate school if it weren’t for that piece of advice and his example of what it means to be a stubborn visionary.  I learned over the next few years to be just stubborn and selfish enough to keep working away on my own vision as a writer.

However, most of us won’t reach much of an audience if being loyal to our own vision is our only skill.  We must also know whom to listen to and when.  I think it’s a good idea to have

The Toiler

one or two early (but not too early) readers that you can trust to give supportive critiques that aren’t too invasive.  Readers who ask questions that take us further into our ideas rather than pull our ideas apart.  These readers, ideally, should love us more than our own mothers and can’t wait to hear more of what we have to say.  If you can find one reader like this, you’re doing well.  I have one and she’s been reading my work since Frankie Went to Hollywood and her rapt attention is what keeps me going in the early days when I’m still foggy about what a project is really about.

But later–once you’ve found the voice of a piece, figured out what it was saying and followed it as far as you could–it’s time for the stubborn visionary to step aside and let humility take over.  Fuzzy general support is of no help now.  Now, you need detailed feedback from a trusted source, feedback that takes you through a piece line-by-line and makes it better.  Listening to the perspective of an able and alert reader is the work of the receptive toiler.  The able and alert reader is the key to taking our work from something we enjoy to something that can be enjoyed by a wider audience.

Come back later in the week: I’m going to write more about the revision process.

About Theo Pauline Nestor

Author of Writing Is My Drink (Simon & Schuster) and How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed. Learn more about my courses, editing, and coaching at
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7 Responses to The Visionary and The Toiler

  1. Star Roberts says:

    “Put it away. Forget about it. There will be something that was said that you can’t ignore, that your mind keeps coming back to. That’s the one piece of advice you need to worry about. Forget about the rest.”

    What a pearl of wisdom. I’m stringing it on my beginning writer’s necklace for safe keeping as I toil over my vision. Thanks Theo.

  2. Sean Skipton says:

    There’s an old saying : writing is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration (quoted by Roland Barthes but I’m not sure of the original source). The inspiration provides the motivation, but you have to be prepared for the long slog. Walking away from it occasionally is good advice; it’s like trying to recall someone’s name and remembering it just when you stop thinking about it. Sleep is a good cure too.

  3. Theo Nestor says:

    Reblogged this on Writing Is My Drink and commented:

    I first posted this a year ago, and it seems like it’s time to run it again.

  4. These are important distinctions, Theo, thanks for posting. It’s not whether or not to ask for feedback, but when.

    I am the first reader for a friend. She just finished the first three chapters of her latest novel and we went over them line by line. This is my third time reading for her and we’ve developed a system; I now make sure to praise what I love and then highlight what I don’t believe or what distracts me. I let her know what “pings” for me, good or bad. I am a big fan and a dear friend, so that helps.

    As a reader, it’s an amazing experience to “talk back to” a novel. As a writer I’m inspired by my friend’s fearlessness, because no matter how wonderful your reader is, anything less than “It’s perfect. I love it. You’re an amazing writer.” feels cruddy.

    • Theo Nestor says:

      There’s so much trust involved when we let people read early versions of our work. In the very beginning, all I want to hear is love,love,love, write more. Later, I can hear more, but I have to first feel like I have enough of a connection with the work myself before I can hear critical input. Thanks for your comment, Alison.

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