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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Don’t Know Your Own Strength?

Remember when Bullwinkle would say, “Hey, Rock, watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat…”?

And then when he pulled a roaring lion out, he’d say, “Don’t know my own strength.”

Do You Know Your Own Strength?

List three things you can’t do as a writer. For example, some of my “can’ts” are:

  • I can’t figure out how to write a query letter that makes the editors at Writer’s Digest say “Yes, we want to publish your article”
  • I can’t understand poetry except on a superficial level
  • I can’t get enough time to write a new piece of fiction.

Once you write them, set your “I can’t” statements aside. These are your stakes in the ground. We’ll come back to them in a few minutes.

Training Elephants

When they train elephants, they put a chain on a baby elephant’s leg and attach that chain to a really big steel stake driven into the ground. The baby elephant tries to get away, trumpets pitifully for her mother, pulls and twists and turns and pulls some more, but the stake is always too strong.

Elephants are highly intelligent and before long, the baby elephant learns that no matter how hard she pulls, she can’t get free of the stake. She learns to wait. For a baby elephant, the stake is an obstacle she can’t get past.

Training elephants doesn’t have anything to do with Rocky and Bullwinkle, but it has everything to do with how you – like Bullwinkle – don’t know your own strength.

When was the last time you checked to see if the “I can’t…” statements (your stakes in the ground) are still strong enough to hold you back?

By the time an elephant is full-grown, she could easily pull a stake from the ground. But elephants never do. They never know that they have outgrown the obstacle.  Do you?

Testing Your Stakes

When was the last time you tested each of your “I can’t” statements? Are there any assumptions there you’ve never tested? Consider how you could test these assumptions  to see if they still hold.

I was surprised to see that the last time I sent a query letter to Writer’s Digest was May 2009. I’ve grown as a writer since then – I’ve done a lot in the past year. I might be able to pull that stake from the ground now.

If the last time you tested the “I can’t” has been more than a few months, it’s time to try again. If you tested the “I can’t” recently and that stake still holds, then it’s time to grow as a writer.

List ways you can develop your skills, hone your technique, improve your writing process or the systems you use so that eventually you will be able to pull that stake from the ground. For my WD query example, I could take a class in writing queries, analyze the magazine again, review my books on query letters, hire a writer friend who has published in WD to critique my query, and so on. 

What’s holding you back? Real obstacles you can outgrow? Or illusionary obstacles you don’t know you’ve already outgrown?

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3 Comments on “Don’t Know Your Own Strength?”

  1. rosannebane April 26, 2010 at 10:10 am #

    Thanks Michael!


  2. Michael Kelberer April 26, 2010 at 7:22 am #

    Great, now I’m not going to be able to get that elephant/stake metaphor out of my mind!
    Oh wait – was that an I can’t statement??
    Seriously, good analogy, and fits into my life more ways than I want to admit at my age…



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