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Indie Authors: Jack Of All Trades But Master Of None? By Sue Millard

Indie Authors: Jack of all Trades But Master of None? By Sue Millard

da Vinci

Are indie authors more susceptible than most to the “Da Vinci Dilemma”?

An interesting thread came up recently on the ALLi Member-Only Facebook page. Authors going down the self publishing route have chosen the road of freedom – but by doing so, have we also chosen a road that can break down into so many paths that it doesn’t actually lead anywhere?

Dan Holloway brought up this topic. He says that for as long as he can remember he has done two things – write, and serially almost-achieve. He referred us to an article by Hank Pfeffer on what has been called the Too Many Aptitudes Problem, also known as the Da Vinci Dilemma.

“TMAs seem to function best at frontiers – intellectual, social or physical,” says Pfeffer. “These are the places where learning and doing are the same thing. … TMAs are usually hypercritical, a side effect of high reasoning aptitudes. They notice flaws and loopholes, errors and inconsistencies. They notice that 90% of almost anything is bullshit. They are usually good arguers and can tear just about anything to shreds – including themselves.”

I identified immediately with that.  Even when I was at primary school, a wise head teacher told my mother, “Never let this child get bored. Always challenge her to do more and try something new.” He never explained what he thought I might do if I was bored, but fifty years on I now know: I tune out and do nothing.

Dan says: “If someone has an aptitude for a few things, it is clear what direction they should take in life. If they have aptitudes in many areas, they find themselves constantly faced with choices that can become bewildering, even paralysing. It’s a hard subject to broach and evokes little sympathy because just mentioning it sounds big headed.

“But many of the creative people I know face the same issue – where to turn to fulfil their calling, when their calling is first one thing then another. I am fairly sure that it’s the inability to settle in one area that is responsible for the failure to progress.”

When “What I really want to do” is ever changing, how do we decide which area should receive our serious and concentrated effort?

“TMAs will sometimes set goals,” Hank Pfeffer says, “prove to themselves that these goals are worthless, and then repeat the entire cycle. Each decision can be challenged, each goal can be laughed at – and thus nothing is worth doing. This destroys personal motivation and energy.”

I would rather do nothing creative than do anything repetitive, or from which I learn nothing new. Editing and producing a magazine to a strict deadline, in which many of the pieces I include are new to me and require different treatments, is a challenge I meet happily twice a year, but I would rather give up doing something if I can’t give it 100% — or see that I can improve on my last  attempts.

A writer friend looking at three of my recent books remarked on how very different each one was from the other two – and this is why I am now self publishing rather than seeking a publisher or an agent. The idea of finding a backer for any one of my books and then being compelled by market demands and contract to churn out more of the same just appalls me. So I have great sympathy for Dan’s predicament. The trouble is, I don’t have any solutions to suggest.

Final word to Hank Pfeffer: “Money, power and self-aggrandizement don't really motivate TMAs. Only finding something worth doing – by their own high standards – can motivate TMAs to focus enough for sustained very high achievement. Then and only then can the powerful forces of the diverse aptitudes be channelled.”

What do you think? Is this a syndrome you recognise? Is is more widespread among indie authors than other writers?

SUE MILLARD has lived since 1975 in rural Cumbria, England. She has published short stories, equestrian articles, poetry in respected journals and an award-winning nonfiction book Hoofprints in Eden. She has recently decided that with all those skills it would be a good idea to start her own small press to self-publish the books that are currently cluttering up her head – so as to make room for all the other ideas.


This Post Has 13 Comments
  1. I now so realise why Virginia Woolf was suicidal after completing a book. Don’t you think the tarnish of achievement relates to an element in serial ‘pursuing’ which is not about the past ( the book just written) but the zeal to explore something new. The conflict of being dragged down by the past ( now you have to get this work read, marketed, and become persuasive) is directly in conflict with the growth that has happened in the writing of the work just finished. One is a different person, so flogging that old person, that old vision, is rather like eating dubious fish past its sell-by date.

    Or thats how it seems to me. So the butterfly is not incomplete but just metamorphoses quicker?

  2. I seriously thought I was reading about myself. Very true. I do make little lists of goals but keep the deadline loose. This way I get to work on lots of exhilarating projects and that motivates me to do the less interesting ones that still need to be done. But I don’t add a new project until I close one on the list…

  3. This resonates with me to the extreme. I can – and love to – do so many different things, and well. Also, I think of myself as a closer, rather than a finisher. Too many times to enumerate, I have (seemingly) stumbled – I’d argue pushed by the universe – into situations that required me and my skill sets to close out something someone else started. Being an indie author suits me for its diverse requirements. And I get to close a lot of different things.

  4. I don’t see why ‘master of none’ should be assumed other than it is a convenient cliche – which as writers we surely seek to avoid. However, there are some people who are very successful at a variety of professions. Being very good at something does not require you to do that thing exclusively. The reason to stay on a narrow path is for marketing purposes – yet as soon as that path goes out of fashion another cliche involving eggs and baskets springs to mind. If you are determined to earn a living in the arts then focusing on one narrow path will probably give you the best chance. But it won’t necessarily bring fulfillment or produce your best work.

    1. All I can say is that this came out of a personal question I raised, which seemed to strike a chord with other self-publishers. I certainly consider myself to be a master of none, and can’t ever see myself mastering anything whilst I hop around so wilfully as I do, and I don’t imagine I’m alone – how it specifically relates to indies is in the freedom we have – because we have no pressure to follow one genre but have total freedom to hop from one to another, I was wondering if that can actually have a negative effect, the “too much freedom leading to paralysis” syndrome. I found something similar when I was selling flooring. Whenever we went with a very limited range, people found it incredibly easy to choose what to have. When we gave them an almost infinite choice of almost identical beiges, no shade was ever right. Certainly I personally find the same with what to write next, and even when I don’t end up totally paralysed by the possibilities, I feel very much aware that writing poetry next stops me progressing as a writer of paranormal romance, whilst writing a series of articles on Modern Art and subjectivity hampers my progress at literary fiction and so on.

      In terms of fulfilment, as I said on Facebook, I feel like I’m constantly walking a highwire – on the one hand constantly changing what I do keeps things fresh and gives me teh buzz and fulfilment of learning, on the other I look back and know that I’ve never really done my best because I’ve never really given any one area my full attention, and that’s a cause of regret – it’s keeping that balance of satisfaction with what you do and satisfaction with what you’ve done that’s so hard. It’s hard for me to say which of us is the odd one out – certainly I feel that I can’t do my best at something unless I do it as my primary focus (if not exclusively) whereas you’ve found you can do your best at a number of things. I guess there are points for people who find both to think about

  5. “The thing is, are we “finishers” or eternal pursuers?” that’s a wonderful question, Sue. I don’t know – I remember reading some very interesting pieces after the Olympics about how medal winners cope with the day after that got me thinking about the same thing.
    Harp playing stands out – my wife’s a musician by training (and a chemist, her first degree, music is the second, maths the third and she’s a qualified teacher – we flit together wonderfully through life!), and she always says that’s the very best instrument to take up if you want to get work with orchestras as there are so few they’re always in demand.

  6. Hi Dan – As I said before, I don’t have any “this’ll cure it” answers. Maybe advice from a creative writing professional or even a life coach would help, if only to settle the doubts in your mind. I am happiest when busy, so having physical things to do and plenty of new skills or demands to deal with is a perfect situation for me. I think I’ve always been on the cusp between interests that demand full commitment, the area where Venn diagrams overlap. I started in the arts side with an Eng Lit degree and ended up with a Masters in Computing (also with distinction). Used to sing in amateur operatics, have now taken up the harp; have been interested in carriage driving for 30 years and have now gone into exploring the history; I edit a magazine and web site for a Native Pony society as well as producing my own books. I use every thing I’ve ever worked at, but I don’t really want to settle to only doing one of them. Interesting that you use the “magpie” word twice… my totem bird, though I’ve called my publishing arm “Jackdaw” instead because it links to both the magpie attitude and the name of my house. The thing is, are we “finishers” or eternal pursuers? Having finished something do we have to seek new challenges or die of dissatisfaction? I see we are both ending with questions rather than answers…

  7. Oh how welcome this all was, both Sue Millard’s encapsulation and Dan’s extension of it! I have never read anything that resonated so deeply about the hell of the serial ‘flitter. My recent flitting has been pretty concerted for the last five years, in producing a book that arrived from the printers yesterday, and proves to be too heavy to post! Having turned self publisher (totally. start to finish) I now have to learn how to get it read, and that looks like an extended road trip throughout the Uk! Hawking from street corners?

    A slim page turning novel would have been so much wiser! But then that was not the challenge I sought. If anyone is interested the book ( and excerpts from it) can be found here http://involution-odyssey.com/ and any creative ideas would be eagerly welcomed. I was always prepared to lose the money committed to it ( and I agree that TMA’s are not motivated by money) but one writes to be read and that requires the necessary money just to make the exchange happen. How much self belief ( given the severe self criticism that accompanies) can one muster to manage the proportionality appropriate to …yes, just another book?

    1. Philippa, I first read the Pfeffer article about 10 years ago and I think I almost let out a whoop of joy because so many of the problems I’d had made sense, and not only that, there was a feeling that I wasn’t alone (which can be the worst problem of all when you see most of the people around you just not get it)

  8. Thanks, Sue. I think, as came up in conversation with Orna, one of the problems for indie writers is having no parameters set for them. When you can do anything you find it very hard knowing which road to pursue. my sense is that self-publishing appeals to two different kinds of people (at least). On the one hand there is the person who knows exactly what they want, has an entrepreneurial leaning, and is frustrated that none of the traditional machinery out there can provide it, so sets out and does it for themselves. This sweet spot of single-minded artisticness and entrepreneurialism is where we are likely to find most of self-publishing’s so-called “successes”.

    That means the second kind often gets overlooked, and they are made up, as you describe perfectly, of those who choose self-publishing because the idea of being forced to do “more of the same” is fundamentally toxic to them. With a publishert behind them, they may eventually settle rather disgruntledly into a two-on, one-off kind of arrangment or some such, but without a publisher they move from project to project and in the process break every “rule” going about so-called platform building. As a result, as self-publishing matures and the coverage of it crystallises, we are likely to get just as frustrated at self-pubslihing as we did at the mainstream, because it appears that the promise of a playground for our magpie brains has been pulled from under us by those who are using their skills to colonise it single-mindedly.

    It is easy for us to get sucked into seeing the former model as “the” way to do self-publishing, because that is what the overwhelming mjority of coverage tells us, but it is essential to our mental and creative well-being that we resist that. I’m delighted you read the Pfeffer piece and you’ve picked the perfect quotation from it with which to end. Yes, it’s ture that most writers will say they are not motivated by the money, but the way they then go on to talk marketing and getting into the hands of readers shows that for the TMA flitter it is something altogether different – the real joy is in the process, irrespective of having a single reader. We really need to stand firm and constantly remind the media and anyone talking about self-publishing that our reasons and our creative life within self-publishing is just as valid.

    And a key element of that creative life is the nagging recognition that we should be specialising, and learning ways to specialise. The problem is that “follow your heart” or “ask your readers” and similar suggestions don’t work – our hearts are changeable and our readers will say different things according to which of our works they read. So I wonder, is the case that actually we need to accept that we are life’s flitter’s, its serial almost-achievers as I put it originally? For me this has been not just writing, but something that characterises my whole goal-oriented life – swift progress to a level of “pretty good” achievement followed by boredom and moving on – I have wanted to be a professional bridge player, made it to the GB junior international team, but no further; I wanted to be a academic, got a first and a Masters with distinction but never finished my doctorate; I wanted to coach mind skills, won the world intelligence championship but then drifted off, and so on – and the same with writing in about 10 different areas. Are we magpies destined to be happy only when we flit, and should we therefore give up on making our passions our areas of true achievement, maybe even our careers (unless we happen by chance to stumble into a Jonathan Miller type role)? The problem is that part of the thing with being a magpie is we are just as ambitious as those who have a clear goal in mind. We don’t want to almost-achieve, we want to excel. So the flitting life is happy-but-not-happy is that makes sense. Is there a sweet apot, a way of deciding upon a goal and pursuing it with satisfaction? I am incerasingly coming to believe that success if it is possible will lie in achieving a continual sense of “flow” as it is called, but the thing is, how?

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