All stories, no matter how fanciful, consist of information, and it behooves a serious young writer to simply know a hell of a lot so s/he can draw upon it for fictioning. Also, dig deep until you touch the mystery of things; as Ford Madox Ford (I think it was) said, “Upon close examination, a good literary style will consist of a lot of small surprises.” And where do those surprises come from but an ability to pluck from the riches in a mind’s lexicon?

His advice to would-be scriptwriters is “just write. The big break is easy if you’re good enough. I hear people saying, ‘I’m desperate to write – I’ve written this script.’ And I want to say: ‘Why haven’t you written 50 scripts?’

“The first 50 will be shit and so will the next 50 and probably the 50 after that,” he continues. “You have to write all the time and not worry so much about going to the right parties or the contacts you have in the business – they’re completely irrelevant. And stop badgering people for advice because there almost is none – If you write a truly brilliant script, it will get on the telly.”

If the sad truth be known, writers, being the misfits we are, probably ought not to belong to families in the first place. We simply are too self-interested, though we may excuse the flaw by calling it “focused.” As artists, writers hardly are alone in this failing. In Stephen Sondheim’s masterwork, “Sunday in the Park With George” (at least the first act was a masterwork), we are shown the gloriously self-involved Seurat dotting away at isolated trees and people in his all-consuming pursuit of the famous park painting. Among those consumed by his zeal is his mistress — not technically family, but in the family way. He ignores her, leaves her high and dry. He’s an artiste, after all. If one took a straw vote of the audience a few minutes before the first act ended, they gladly would have stoned the miserable son-of-a-bitch artiste to death. But then, in the very last scene, the separate parts of Seurat’s painting coalesce before our eyes. Everything magically comes together. And the audience gasps, weeps in wonder. So who is the superior character — the man who attends to the feelings of his loved ones, or the artist who affects eternity?

The world of orderly decency, harmless ceremonies and modest expectations, i.e., family life, is not the writer’s. One morning at breakfast, when she was in the first or second grade, E. L. Doctorow’s daughter, Caroline, asked her father to write a note explaining her absence from school, due to a cold, the previous day. Doctorow began, “My daughter, Caroline… . ” He stopped. “Of course she’s my daughter,” he said to himself. “Who else would be writing a note for her?” He began again. “Please excuse Caroline Doctorow… . ” He stopped again. “Why do I have to beg and plead for her?” he said. “She had a virus. She didn’t commit a crime!” On he went, note after failed note, until a pile of crumpled pages lay at his feet. Finally, his wife, Helen, said, “I can’t take this anymore,” penned a perfect note and sent Caroline off to school. Doctorow concluded: “Writing is very difficult, especially in the short form.”

Computer programmer Garry Hamilton articulated the following “Game Rules.” Give examples of how they have worked in your life.

1. If the game is rigged so you can’t win, find another game or invent your own.
2. If you’re not winning because you don’t know the rules, learn the rules.
3. If you know the rules but aren’t willing to follow them, there’s either something wrong with the game or you need to change something in yourself.
4. Don’t play the game in a half-baked way. Either get all the way in or all the way out.
5. It shouldn’t be necessary for others to lose in order for you to win. If others have to lose, re-evaluate the game’s goals.

So my point is that you can learn about yourself by seeing what you focus on day to day. That’s what you’re going to do well in. And the stuff you hate thinking about? That’s the part that will never improve.

I once interviewed Tiziana Casciaro, professor at Harvard Business School. She does research on social skills in the workplace. Midway through the interview, I started to panic and I asked her how I could tell if I have terrible social skills.

She told me that it’s nearly impossible to judge one’s own social skills. But there’s one good way: Measure the amount you care about your social skills. If you care, and think about ways to make them better on a daily basis, you probably have decent social skills.

This is true for most things in life: It doesn’t matter so much exactly what action you choose in working toward improvement, it just matters that you’re trying, with genuine intention. The common problem is not wrong action so much as it is no focus.