Do you know who they are?
Does it matter?
I’ve asked a number of people these questions. I’ve been amazed by how many blank looks I’ve received.
Maybe it’s because my writing heroes are so important to me—and I believe, to my progression as a writer. I have a hard time imagining that someone serious about becoming the best writer they can be wouldn’t have heroes.
Without them, who inspires you? Who makes you dig down to find the courage to keep going when the going gets tough? Who shows you the way when you don’t know what to do next?
I’ll even go so far as to say that if you’re struggling as a writer, the solution may very well be to discover your heroes and actively pursue them. I’m not suggesting you become a stalker, but I would urge you find a way to see them, in person, or at least to hear them speak—on YouTube or wherever. At the very least, you should be reading their work.
Who Inspired You to Write?
Writers may think they don’t need heroes. We work in isolation. We explore the depths of our own imaginations to create. We research to discover what we don’t know.
We are tasked with coming up with something original, so why would we be concerned about what other writers are doing? Couldn’t that even be a little dangerous?
After all, we don’t want our own vision to be muddied or distracted by someone else’s. Isn’t it best to just focus on our own creativity?
To answer that question, I would ask another: Who inspired you to be a writer?
For most of us, the answer to that question is: another writer.
Somewhere along the way, someone else’s prose inspired us. We read something that stayed with us. Maybe we didn’t instantly think, “Man, that was really cool. I want to do that, too.” But we were changed, somehow, and we remembered that change.
I have had many of these experiences in my life. Books expanded my thinking, helped me imagine other places and other experiences, and gave me ideas for other ways I might approach life. I remember at the age of about twelve writing down by hand every word of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” just to feel the poem flowing through my hand and to relive its effect in my inner ear.
I bought Walter Farley’s “Black Stallion” books because I loved horses, but it was his way of taking me into other worlds and other settings that stays with me to this day. (Anyone else still exploring those mysterious caves and caverns from The Island Stallion in their memory?)
Yet I never planned to be a writer. I never even thought about it until well after I’d completed my Bachelor’s degree in music. But I can look back now and know that it was other writers who gradually led me to this mode of expression, even if with invisible hands.
It’s Not Just Kids—Adults Need Heroes, Too
It may be harder to determine who our heroes are as adults, because we’re more likely to see the flaws in people. No longer are our heroes shiny and perfect, and many fall from grace, so to speak, as we learn disappointing things about them.
“As we get older, we realize all people are flawed,” says Scott T. Allison, psychologist and author of Heroes: What They Do and Why We Need Them. “As we get older, we recognize that even Gandhi had flaws and Martin Luther King Jr. had affairs and Mickey Mantle was a drunk and a womanizer.”
But we need heroes even more as adults than we did as youngsters—especially when we’re writers. They show us the way. They serve as real examples of the success we seek. From their stories of struggle we can learn how to overcome our own. It’s their way of writing that can validate our own.
Where else are we going to find this stuff? How else are we to learn how to manage the difficult journey that is writing?
7 Reasons Heroes are Critical to the Writer’s Journey
1. Heroes remind us of where we want to go.
It’s easy to get lost in our own little lives. It’s also easy for a writer to begin to settle for what he or she has achieved (or not). The writing path is a hard one to walk, and we all encounter a number of difficulties along the way. We can get tired, discouraged, and depressed. We can begin to think that we’ll never do any better than we’re doing at this moment.
I had an experience like this recently. In the final stages of publication for my first book, I was facing some disappointments. What was supposed to be the shining moment I’d waited for (having a book published) was losing some of its sparkle. Despite my best efforts, I felt myself sliding into a low place, emotionally, just at the time when I was supposed to be most high.
As luck (or providence) would have it, I happened to be in the right place at the right time to see one of my writing heroes, Andre Dubus III (House of Sand and Fog, among others) speak. I’d heard him twice before, and each time walked away validated and elevated and ready to get back at it. I made the appropriate arrangements, and attended the event.
I won’t go into details here (that would take another post), but suffice to say that the event jolted me out of my doldrums and set me back on the path where I need to be—while reminding me of the star I’m chasing, and that the chase is worth it, no matter what.
Writing heroes remind us of what’s possible. When we see them speak, or hear them talk about their own journeys, we’re reminded that the way is difficult for everyone, even those who make success look easy. We realize that the journey is supposed to be a struggle, and we’re inspired to get back at it again.
2. Heroes help us overcome difficulty.
When you’re facing a difficulty in your writing, how do you get around it?
You can turn to writing mentors, or books, for help. But in my experience, the real breakthroughs come when you get to talk, face-to-face, with your heroes.
That happened to me once with Daniel Woodrell (Winter’s Bone, among others). I attended a workshop in which my writing was basically torn to pieces. Since I had just started receiving requests for partial manuscripts prior to the workshop, I came away more confused then ever. Daniel happened to be one of the other writers speaking during the week of the workshop, and I was lucky enough to find him alone on the sidewalk one evening. I usually hate bothering these people, but I was desperate, so I asked him how he would manage a problem like mine.
The advice he gave me was good, but what was even better was the way he gave it. He spoke to me like a fellow writer, one worthy of a thoughtful answer. In five minutes time he lifted me up from the ground where I’d fallen, thinking I’d deluded myself all that time believing I could write, and placed me back on my feet where I could felt I could tackle the problem. I returned and a few weeks later received a request for a full manuscript (which was later turned into a publishing contract).
I’ve had other experiences like this—too many to relay here. There’s just nothing like getting the information from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. It’s worth every effort to see your heroes in person, to talk to them, to hear what they have to say, to be in their presence.
3. Heroes give us clues as to who we should become.
This can be invaluable to a writer—especially as you’re discovering what kind of writer you’re meant to be.
There’s a thing I do before attending a conference or workshop. It was actually my mom’s idea. She loves to travel, and so has attended many of these events with me. Since most offer readings that are free to the public, she suggested that we scour the names of all the presenters, get hold of their books, and read as many as we could before going, so we would be more knowledgeable about who we were listening to.
What a great idea! I can’t recommend it enough. We’ve done it several times, now, and not only have I been introduced to a number of amazing writers this way, I’ve found more heroes who have been incredibly helpful in my career.
But the other really cool thing about this little project is that you discover more about the writer you want to be. Typically, as I’m reading in preparation for the event, one of the writers will stand out to me over the others. More often than not, that writer, when he or she talks about the writing process, will say things that feel like they came out of my own head and heart.
“That which you admire in others,” writes life coach Christy Whitman, “you recognize as existing within yourself. When you notice wonderful qualities in another person, it is because you too have those qualities.”
Writer and mentor Steven Palmer suggests this exercise:
- Write down the top six people you admire most, three of them living and three from history.
- Next to each name, state what you admire about him/her, and what qualities he or she has that you lack.
- Identify the common threads running through each of these six lives.
“There’s a reason why you chose these six,” Palmer writes. “There’s something about them that resonates with you. In other words, you resonate with these six individuals because there’s something inside you that is like them.”
If you’ve ever heard one of your writing heroes describe his writing process and you felt like he was describing yours, you know the feeling. When this happens, it’s magical. Not only do you feel validated—your process is similar to that of this successful writer, so it can’t be all crazy—but you may also feel a sense of peace, a reconnection with yourself.
Yes, you are on the right path. You’re going the right direction. Just keep going.
Your heroes can give this to you—if you make the effort to see them and/or meet them.
4. Heroes help calm our self-doubt.
Writers struggle severely from self-doubt.
All you have to do is peruse the author interviews on this site and you’ll see the issue come up again and again.
Sometimes, seeing our heroes can magnify our self-doubt. Most successful writers are brilliant—really. You hear them speak and it’s common to be blown away by how smart, charismatic, deep, thoughtful, and generally amazing they are.
I could never be that, you’re likely to say.
I have felt that feeling sometimes in the presence of these masters, but that feeling always vanishes once I start talking to them.
On the whole, successful writers are helpful and encouraging people. They know what it’s like to struggle. They’ve all done it—and most are continuing to do it, if you listen closely. They know they don’t have all the answers, but they’re willing to help however they can.
I’ve been constantly amazed by how much writing masters want to help the up-and-comers. I just had the distinct pleasure of meeting Hannah Tinti (Animal Crackers and other award-winning books). I asked her about book marketing, and the struggle to balance the new demands placed on authors, and she spent a good 10 minutes encouraging me and giving me some great advice (more on that to come in future posts). She didn’t have to. I’m sure she was tired after a long day of teaching and speaking. But I was extremely grateful she did.
Your writing heroes will encourage you—most of them. (Those that don’t, don’t deserve to be your heroes.) If you get a chance to talk to them, you’ll see. And there’s nothing like encouragement from someone you really admire. It will last you for months (or more).
5. Heroes teach us how to respond in all sorts of situations.
Writers are expected to wear a lot of hats these days. In addition to being writers and storytellers, we are now required to be speakers, marketers, business owners, and more.
Our heroes can show us how to tackle these various activities. I’ve watched Andre Dubus III do book signings now several times, and when compared to other writers, he’s a master. Instead of focusing on himself and his work, he turns the focus entirely on the person for whom he’s signing the book. He seems genuinely interested in who they are, where they’re from, what they do for a living, who their families are, and more. He gets up on his feet (instead of staying glued to his chair as so many writers do), shakes hands, and makes the other person feel welcome and at ease. By the time he’s finished signing their book, they feel as if they’ve made a new friend.
Is there any better way to secure a fan for life?
I don’t think so, and I hope to emulate this style when I sign my books one day.
Other writing heroes can guide us in how to market, how to present ourselves on panels, how to come across well as public speakers, and how to earn a living, even. Watching them do their thing in person, we gain more than we ever will by reading books on these topics. There’s just something about a face-to-face encounter that can help us grow so much faster than any other method.
6. Heroes elevate us from our small little lives.
When we encounter our writing heroes, they can leave us feeling a little higher than before. They elevate us.
Research has born this out. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who has studied the way acts of compassion can inspire feelings of elevation in humans, writes: “Powerful moments of elevation, whether experienced ﬁrst or second hand, sometimes seem to push a mental ‘reset’ button, wiping out feelings of cynicism and replacing them with feelings of hope, love, optimism, and a sense of moral inspiration.”
At writing conferences and events, we witness acts of compassion nearly every minute. We see successful writers helping those who are just starting out, or who are still at it after a number of years, with all the fervor and attention they give to their own careers. I’m constantly amazed at how giving writers can be, in wanting to share their knowledge and help others to succeed.
Interesting note: Haidt was said to have borrowed the term “elevation” in this instance from Thomas Jefferson, who used the phrase moral elevation “to describe the euphoric feeling one gets when reading great literature,” according to Scott Allison.
“We need to remember that though we are only human,” says writer Taylor Lindstrom, “the poet Robert Browning said that a man’s reach should exceed his grasp. Heroes are what we reach for.”
7. Heroes show us how to be heroes ourselves.
If you admire a certain writer, and you understand that that admiration means that there is something inside you that is like him or her, then you owe it to yourself and the world to learn more about that person. That will naturally get you closer to fulfilling your own purpose—and to becoming the hero of your own life.
After spending some time around my heroes in the writing world, I feel a deeper sense of purpose. My writing becomes more than just penning the stories that are in my head. I remember that I’m giving back as best I can to the world.
It’s not that I think one little story is going to make any big difference in world events. Being around my heroes, though, does make me think that what I’m doing is worthwhile, and worthy of every effort I can pour into it.
That’s a good thing, because the writing journey is long and difficult and we can get easily discouraged and begin to think that it’s all silly and self-indulgent and whatever other thoughts we may come up with. But if we’re truly called to do it, and we can’t give up, we owe it to ourselves to actively seek out our heroes and let them inspire us to follow in their footsteps.
“Heroes…encourage us to transform ourselves for the better; and they call us to become heroes and help others,” Allison says. “Heroes show us the secrets to unlocking our fullest potential as human beings. They do so by role-modeling virtue, by clarifying complex and paradoxical life truths, by equipping us with emotional intelligence, and by revealing how their journey can be our journey, too.”
Who Are Your Heroes?
Who are your writing heroes? I encourage you to write down your top five, and then make a point to see them, any way you can. If you don’t know who your heroes are, it’s time to do some more reading, and find who you admire, and who you resonate with.
We all need stars by which to navigate if we are to become who we want to become. We can’t afford to sit back and settle for who we are. We’re compelled to grow and to give back. It’s our heroes who can show us how to do that, until one day we may become masters ourselves.
Then we can turn around and start the cycle all over again—by reaching a heroic hand out to someone else.
A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.
Who are your writing heroes? Do you regularly seek them out for help and inspiration? Please share your thoughts.