The Traits of Successful Writers

by Gwendolyn Hoberg

Last January, I read a New York Times op-ed titled “What Drives Success?” It caught my eye because one of the co-authors was Amy Chua, who has received so much attention—praise from some quarters and intense criticism from others—for her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

In “What Drives Success?” Chua and Jed Rubenfeld argue that three traits are common to “the strikingly successful groups in America” (such as Indian-Americans). “The first is a superiority complex—a deep-seated belief in their exceptionality. The second appears to be the opposite—insecurity, a feeling that you or what you’ve done is not good enough. The third is impulse control.”

The essay explains how these traits work, gives examples, and touches on their drawbacks, or “pathologies.” Rather than get into these details, in this post I want to explore how the three traits might lead to success in writing.

A deep-seated belief in your exceptionality. It may not be something we like to admit here in the modest upper Midwest, but I think many and probably even most writers do have this belief, to some degree. Why write if your experiences, opinions, and ideas are no more word-worthy than anyone else’s? Some writers, it’s true, don’t share their work with others, or view the dissemination of their writing as a necessary evil or an afterthought. But successful writers (which could mean many things, certainly) tend to believe that what they have to say is important, valuable, or special. And that’s okay. It needn’t be a slippery slope to arrogance and delusions of grandeur.

Insecurity, a feeling that you or what you’ve done is not good enough. This we Minnesotans and North Dakotans can handle. “Oh, this poem is nothing special.” “I’ve been working on my memoir for ages but I don’t think it will ever be any good.” Many writers I know (and I’ve felt this way myself) not only say things like this but really mean them—really brood on them and get worked up over them. The key is to let insecurity drive you to work harder and smarter, not allow it to cripple you or deter you. Take Ernest Hemingway’s word for it: “The first draft of anything is shit.” Revise! Strive!

Impulse control. Every writer has her own undesirable impulses. Maybe it’s over-punctuation. Maybe it’s boring digressions. The possibilities are plentiful. So successful writers also put on the editor hat at times and resist their particular temptations. Spontaneity in writing can be fruitful as well as enjoyable, but it usually works out better when balanced somewhere along the way with impulse control.

In your writing experience, have these traits led to success? Do you disagree with what I’ve written, or think other traits are more important? These questions might be a good ones for a writers group or writing class discussion.

Author’s Bio: Gwendolyn Hoberg is the owner of Content & Contour, an editing and writing business based in Moorhead, Minnesota. Gwen writes for the Classical Minnesota Public Radio website and regional publications. She is also the co-author of The Walk Across North Dakota, a travel memoir based on hikes in 2011 and 2013. In addition to her editing and writing, Gwen has played french horn in ensembles throughout Minnesota and North Dakota and currently performs with the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra.

Writing Is Messy

by Ann Schwalboski

Writing isn’t pretty. It’s messy. Writers gush guts and tears. We puke… we dry heave… we ooze… words… and most of the time not in the right order. Yes, writing is messy, but isn’t it also… fun? Who else but writers hears voices yet understands that’s just our characters telling us their story? Who else but writers wakes up in the middle of the night and fumbles for pen, paper to jot down the best idea EVER? Who else but writers enjoys digging and picking through the muck of misplaced words, incoherent phrases, and indecipherable dialogue to find just the right (or write?) word, action, scene, plot, setting?

Yes, writing is messy. Revision is clean. Revision is where we wipe off the muck, pound foreheads against blocks, agonize… until we finally discover, locate just the right—

Why can’t I gush, puke, heave, ooze…

Write more… mess?

Revision… finding the right everything…
That’s work.
I wanna go play!

Writing is messy.
Make a mess!

Author’s Bio: Ann Schwalboski teaches Developmental English and College Composition (Online) for M State–Fergus Falls, Writing for the Workplace and Technical Communication (Online) for MSUM, and Speech for Herzing University Online. She also works as a remote writing consultant for Ashford University. She wishes everyone happiness in messiness!

The Servant Girl & The Mistress

In 1941, divorce lawyers insisted that Henri Matisse put all his art into storage. In photographs of Matisse before 1941 we see him in his studio surrounded by his artwork. Then, rather suddenly the walls were empty. At this same time, Matisse, who was 71 years old, underwent surgery and was then confined to a wheelchair. His painting career came to an end. Imagine him, sitting in a wheelchair surrounded by the white walls of his studio.

Matisse is on my mind because I went to the Minneapolis Institute of Art to see the special exhibit of his work that is on loan from the Baltimore Museum of Art. On display in several rooms are paintings, sculpture, prints, and his book Jazz.

Matisse took up a pair of scissors – or, let us say shears, an old-fashioned word, but closer to what Matisse was doing: as he put it, painting by cutting up paper. Scissors is related to chisel; whereas shear is related to cut, separate. He could sit in his wheelchair and cut shapes out of brightly colored paper. It is probably these paper cutouts that most of us know Matisse by. He’d sit in his chair with pieces of bright paper and cut shapes, letting the paper fall away onto the floor around him, until he was surrounded by mosaic.

Many of the cutouts we know come from Jazz, a book of cutouts that Matisse paired with text in his open, curvaceous, and playful script. He began this project intending to illustrate a series of poems by a French poet on themes of the circus or the theater. How delightful that, while his body was uncooperative, his mind and his hands could imagine acrobats and clowns. He abandoned the poet’s verses and instead wrote his own messages.

On one of the pages he wrote:

If I have confidence in my hand which draws, it is because when I was training it to serve me I resolved never to let it overshadow my feelings. I am very aware if there is any disagreement between the two of us: between my hand and that undefinable part of me that seems subjugated to it.

The hand is but an extension of sensitivity and intelligence. The more it is supple, the more it is obedient. Never should the servant girl become the mistress.

The artist, Henri Matisse, at a ripe age, forced to give up the means of expression he’d depended upon for decades, had a supple hand. He could turn it to his purposes—make it obey—no matter whether it was grasping brush or shears. What does this mean, this business of suppleness, of obedience.

Carry water long enough and you do not splash, your shoulders rise to the labor. Pluck strings and you grow callouses, your fingers know where to land and they do not complain.

The artist, by making every day, by putting the hand to work, builds up a relationship between brain and hand, between imagination and sable dipped in carmine, in which the hand carries out whatever the brain calls upon it to do, without hesitation. And the hand does it without complaint.

This suppleness, this obedience – can the writer claim it too?

Someone who sits down to write a sonnet for the first time does not enjoy the suppleness and obedience that Matisse speaks of. In fact, this writer begins to sweat when she has written a line that’s short one iamb and she can find nothing to complete the line. Or she bleeds because she must rhyme with “oat” and boat/coat/moat take her away from the poem so she bleeds more. She has become the slave herself, slave to the rhythm, slave to the rhyme.

My first book of poems is a collection of fibonaccis – all poems that follow the same form: if you count the syllables of each line you get the fibonacci sequence (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13). I remember writing the first fibs, stopping to count syllables, asking whether the number of syllables met the rule. But after awhile I did not have to count any more; I felt the pattern. My hand had become supple and obedient.

It is perhaps no wonder that so many writers stick with a form over a long period. The beginning sweaty, bleeding time has its excitements—a frisson of danger. But the creative full-body experience only comes later, when the hand has become the servant.

Here are a few books by poets who stayed with a form, kept at it until their shoulders rose to the task, until their fingers knew the patterns:

Dream Songs, John Berryman

Kyrie, Ellen Bryant Voigt

All Night Lingo Tango, Barbara Hamby

American Sonnets, Gerald Stern

Please, add to the list in the comment section below.

Author’s Bio.: Athena Kildegaard writes poetry mostly, but she has also written short stories, scripts for television, columns, and nonfiction. Her books of poetry are Rare Momentum (2006), Bodies of Light (2011), both from Red Dragonfly Press, and Cloves & Honey (2012) from Nodin Press. Her poems appear widely in literary journals and anthologies. She has received grants from the Lake Region Arts Council and the Minnesota State Arts Board and the LRAC/McKnight Fellowship. She is a lecturer at the University of Minnesota, Morris.  Check out her blog/website at

Packing for a Pilgrimage

In the first prompted exercise in a recent writing workshop we were asked to jot down ten things we would take upon a pilgrimage. And then we were instructed to cross out three. Not so simple, as it turned out. The first three I eliminated were the first three I had written, and I reluctantly gave up my comfy down pillow, my sensible shoes, and my collection of New York Times crossword puzzles to keep me occupied during the “down times.”

The next three rejects included (gulp!) my camera, and as I worked through the last of the list I surprised myself by surrendering my notebook and pen for the blessed security of a talisman. Or, more accurately – talis-men.

Let me explain. I once experienced a year that included three car accidents in succession. I hit two deer with one blow as they leapt into my path, ran over a fleeing coyote as he dashed across the road, and sent a pedestrian flying. The last incident was the most traumatic, of course, and while she was also responsible for entering my line of direction, and thankfully and amazingly only suffered cuts and bruises, the whole business of setting out on the paltriest of journeys, never mind searching for The Grail, became daunting after that.

And so, as I made up my pilgrimage packing list for the workshop and momentarily struggled over the last entry, I threw in with a certain sense of silliness, my old remedy and creative technique for calming my driving and journey fears those years ago. And just as the first entry became the first to go, the last was left, necessary and pre-eminent.

At the workshop, after all the unpacking and discarding, the reluctant letting-go of this and that and the panic of leaving my notebook behind, I called upon the ultimate necessity – my Driving Angels. I had named them Zepheriel and Mercuriel and decided they were “Angels in Training,” novices that could be sent to protect a newly Nervous Nelly like me.

I imagined them perched upon the hood of the car, ever excited, letting the sea wind blow through their hair, straining to look around the bend in the road. They would laugh with joy as they hung onto their newly earned halos. The more intense the weather, the better they liked it. The crazier the freeway traffic, the more thrilling the adventure.

And we had many. There was the magic day dolphins arched along the shore, seeming to race the car until they abruptly turned west and vanished from sight. There was a foggy night when a small dog appeared in the headlights, trotting rapidly ahead before dashing into the dark of a turnout, and we pulled over and called and whistled and pleaded until the frightened fellow came running and leapt into the back seat. There was the motorcyclist down by the side of the road, and we raced to the nearest café to call 911.

When I fly, I marvel at how flight supervisors on the landing strip must gape in amazement, can hardly believe their eyes, at the awesome figures, each sitting astride a wing of the plane. And passengers waiting to board, looking through terminal windows, gasp at winged creatures flying a large golden ball, coming in for a landing.

A real, in-the-flesh pilgrimage might be enlightening or scary, and most likely both. By its very nature a journey is meant to challenge and push beyond our comfort zones with a promise of something greater at the end. But I suspect the real enlightenment always occurs in the treading of the path.

I think I better understand the writing exercise now and the importance of recognizing what is most important for a pilgrimage. My angels have served me well over the years, calmed my fears, encouraged me to travel, and most importantly, fueled my imagination.

Credit Note: Inspired by Karen Hering’s writing workshop, May 18, 2014, Underwood Unitarian Church – “Pilgrimage into Creativity: Seeing with Pilgrim Eyes.”

Diane Johnson’s first dream was to grow up and become a writer. After seven decades in coastal California, she has returned to her prairie-Norwegian roots in Minnesota with her husband, allowing time to reflect upon and write about change and transformation, along with her passions – gardening, wildlife and the environment. She belongs to the Fergus Falls Writers Group and writes the blog: She has been published in A & U, America’s AIDS Magazine, Northwoods Woman, and the Fargo Forum.

Writing From Your Roots

Last summer, while participating in a writers’ retreat, I was introduced to the writing of Junot Diaz, a native of the Dominican Republic, who is as well known in today’s American literary circles as another Dominican, Sammy Sousa, is to American League baseball fans. Diaz’s fresh, insightful, often startling, use of the English language has earned him a 2008 Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, and other prestigious awards.

His most recent book, This Is How You Lose Her, introduced me to the ribald street language of his American/Dominican subculture. It is a bastardized English that emerges from the raw human emotions of resisting, as well as adapting to a dominant culture, of trying to figure out what is real with intimacy, sex and love, and of searching for personal balance in a flurry of social change.

With a master fiction writer’s touch he introduced me to his marginalized life, between Santo Domingo and New Jersey, allowing me to experience the stunning brilliance, the raw brutality and the loving tenderness of the characters he creates. His emotional honesty and artful use of idiomatic language are a clinic in creative writing.

Our Upper Midwest Region has many sub-cultures needing “insider” literary voices to bring them to our attention much like Junot Diaz has done with his Dominican heritage. He happens to be an “insider” with considerable literary talent.

We are a region which is becoming increasingly diverse as the changing economics of agriculture and high-tech industries emerge. We need poets and memoir, fiction, and script writers to depict what it is like: to grow old in a small town, to be an immigrant, a prisoner, a returning soldier, a displaced migrant worker, to live on a reservation, to lose the farm, be a long-haul trucker, to be unemployed, an oil field worker. . . the list goes on and on. Most of us are “insiders” of one subculture or another who can chronicle and express the personal, familial, and social changes we experience. This is best done by “insiders” who practice the craft of creative writing.

I have found by participating in writer’s workshops, classes, and reading how-to-books I develop and sharpen my craft as a writer. By studying with accomplished Upper Midwest authors, I have expanded and deepened my understanding of my own roots and in the process have uncovered ways I can contribute as an “insider.” Finally, by reading new, contemporary voices like Junot Diaz I am challenged to experiment, try new ways, and to think and write in a fresh voice.

Lake Region Writers Network’s mission is: “to cultivate and celebrate creative writers by building a supportive community.” We invite you to join us for our Sixth Annual Writers Conference on Saturday, October 4th on the beautiful fall campus of M – State, Fergus Falls. Our theme is: “Writing from Your Roots.”

Noted Minnesota poet and author, Heid Erdrich, will give the keynote and talk about writing from the center of Turtle Island, North America. Sound intriguing? Then join Heid and six accomplished Minnesota writer/teaching artists in workshops where you will explore and experiment with “Writing from Your Roots.”

For more information and to register online, got to this webpage:

A Writer I Am

by Ann Schwalboski
With a wink and a helping hand from Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham

I am Ann

I am Ann
A Writer I am

That Ann-I-am
That Ann-I-am!
I’m a plodder
a puker
a ponderer
on paper

That’s the Writer I am.

Do you like
outlines and plans

I do not like them
I do not like
outlines and plans.

Would you like them
here or there?

I would not like them
here or there.
I would not like them
I do not like
outlines and plans.
I do not like them
That’s not the writer I am.

Would you like some dialogue, setting, and plot?
Yes, I would like some dialogue, setting, plot!
That’s how I like to write

I dream dialogue
Layer in setting
Weave in plot

Would you write inside a box?
Would you write bound by locks?

No, I would not write inside a box
No, I would not write bound by locks
I do not like them
I do not!

Isn’t it perfection you seek?

There is no such thing!
Chasing it creates blocks
That’s not the writer I am.

I am Ann
Yes I am
A Writer I am

And so are you

Do not write inside a box
Do not write bound with locks
Do not create those blocks

Just Write

You are a Writer
A Writer-You-Are!

Author’s Bio.: Ann Schwalboski teaches college composition and children’s literature courses online for M|State —Fergus Falls, as well as speech for Herzing University. She hopes that everyone will remember that the goal of writing is not perfection; it’s the process!

The Pull of a Photo

Need an idea to start writing? Here’s one that works for me when I’m feeling stuck.

It starts with a photo album. Perhaps you’ve experienced the pull of an album of old photos. Opening one can sweep me away like a mountain stream. Whether the photos are of myself or of previous generations of my family, it doesn’t matter. Either way, a photo can draw you deep into your own memories like a sinker to pull your fishing line down to where the fish are.

Give me a photo album and I’m likely to be submerged in my own thoughts for an hour or more. Time dissolves. I think that’s a sign of some important thinking going on. So take advantage of it.

Plunge into one photo, one that attracts your attention, for one reason or another.

First, describe what is in the photo: where you are in it, how old you are in it, what you are doing, what the weather’s like. If there are other people in the photo, describe their gestures, posture, clothing choices, and perhaps you can detect their thoughts or feelings at that moment as well. In addition to your sense of sight, try to describe the sounds, smells, textures, and perhaps tastes that the photo encapsulates. Notice I’m asking you to describe the photo using present-tense verbs, as if the photo is happening right now. This enlivens your writing.

After you’ve described the place and the people, think about what is not visible in the photo. What I mean is, try to answer the following questions:

  • Who is behind the camera?
  • Why is the person behind the camera taking this particular shot?
  • What were you thinking about when it was taken?
  • How did your life, the life of others in the photo, or your relationship to the place change after the photo was taken?

When you explore the answers to these questions, sometimes the photo takes on more importance than you previously realized. Perhaps it becomes a milestone along your life’s trek, or perhaps it symbolizes a “calm before the storm” (or a “storm before the calm”) in our emotional ties to others.

If we stop and consider the number of photos, either in paper or electronic form, that we tend to collect over the years, the amount of writing that is waiting for us is staggering. If each photo has the potential to become a poem, a vignette for a memoir, or the basis for a short story, think about how much writing those photos could generate. Rather than waiting for the lightning of inspiration to strike you, just look into the dynamo of a photo album!

Author’s Bio.: Yahya Frederickson is the author of three chapbooks:  Returning to Water (2006) and Trilogy (1986), both published by Dacotah Territory Press; and Month of Honey, Month of Missilles (2009), published by Tigertail Press. His poems have appeared in numerous national journals. A former Peace Corps Volunteer and Fullbright Visiting Scholar, Yahya is currently a professor of English at Minnesota State University Moorhead.