Daniel Day-Lewis’ 4 Tips for Writers Who Aspire to Greatness

Daniel Day-Lewis’ 4 Tips for Writers Who Aspire to Greatness

Do you ever wonder how long it will take you to make it as a writer?

If you care about your craft, you probably think about this a lot. Sometimes it may even keep you up at night.

Of course, if you write, you’re already a writer. But I’m talking beyond that. I’m talking about moving people and having an audience that supports your ideas.

Writing is a tough (perhaps the toughest) creative endeavor. It takes many years to hone your skills to move people with words alone. Years of publishing posts you think are good… only to realize that you’re being ignored.

But despite all this, you’re committed. You’ve invested in building a blog and learning the multitude of tools that support and enhance your work. And you’ve accepted that success won’t happen overnight.

While facing this harsh reality, what can you do to nurture the artist within, to prevent yourself from going insane during this long, daunting journey, to remove fear from your writing and think clearly?

The answer: craftsmanship. Treating the pursuit of mastery not as a distant finish line of 10,000 hours, but something you will do until your last breath. Allowing it to transform you on every level.

We are in an amazing moment. Writing has never held more potential. Writing has never had more power. Writing has become the ultimate craft for those willing to plant their butt in the chair and expose their heart and soul.

To share stories, adventures and adversity.

To move people.

What an actor taught me about craftsmanship

I was sitting in an empty movie theater on a Wednesday afternoon, ready to watch Steven Spielberg’s latest movie, “Lincoln.”

I was expecting to be entertained, even educated.

But when the credits rolled, I wasn’t thinking about American history or the war or what it was like to live in those times.

I was thinking about Daniel Day-Lewis’ craftsmanship; his ability to totally inhabit a character and profoundly move an audience. Later, it didn’t surprise me to learn that he has three Oscars, 91 other awards and 33 nominations.

I was inspired to dig deeper. I read interviews on his mindset, his dedication to his craft, his personality on and off stage. I wanted to know why his performances fascinated me.

In the end I came to the conclusion that his attitude toward his craft is what fuels his devotion and brings vivid life to his characters; it’s the inner principle that guides him in every role.

Simply put: he treats his craft with an unmatched, deep reverence. He’s a living and breathing example of a true pro.

As a writer, it is imperative that you love and master your craft because it’s the essential tool you’ll need to survive in one of the largest growing ecosystems: the internet.

Craftsmanship is the key to thriving in that environment and if you’re looking for a role model it would be hard to beat Daniel Day-Lewis. And while he’s an actor not a writer, everyone serious about their writing can learn valuable lessons from the way he approaches his craft.

1. Never break character

In “My Left Foot” (1989), Daniel Day-Lewis plays a profoundly disabled Irish writer and painter, Christy Brown. During filming he transformed himself into this character to the point that the crew had to feed him during lunch breaks and carry him between sets in his wheelchair. His first day on set, he was wheeled in by the director, causing the crew to be in shock. Someone was ready to work…

In “The Last of the Mohicans” (1992), he lived on the Alabama expanse so he could immerse himself in the wilderness and live exactly as his character, Hawkeye, would have, even hunting for himself. Michael Mann, the director, said: “If he didn’t shoot it, he didn’t eat it.”

For “In The Name of the Father” (1993), he stayed up for three straight days and nights just for one scene: an interrogation for a wrongly accused man involved in the IRA bombing. (How crazy would you be if you stayed up for three days?)

In May 2012, Steven Spielberg received a tape recorder in the mail. He turned it on and heard a voice reciting Shakespeare and the Second Inaugural Address. “It was a beautiful voice” he said. “I wanted that voice to read me a book.”

The voice was Abraham Lincoln’s. And it had taken Daniel Day-Lewis a year of research to find it.

“He had Lincoln so embedded in his psyche, in his soul, in his mind, that I would come to work in the morning and Lincoln would sit behind his desk, and we would begin,” Spielberg said.

This isn’t the work of an amateur. This is a work of a professional – more than a quarter of a century of honing an arsenal of skills, learning to transform his voice, mold his physique, and breathe life into history’s characters.

The Analysis: You are a writer from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed. You observe, analyze, connect dots, explore, unravel, and ask questions. Most of all, you have to be interesting.

What Daniel Day-Lewis did to prepare for these roles was unthinkable, but also fascinating. How daunting it must be to confine yourself willingly to a wheelchair or put yourself at the mercy of the Alabama expanse, only eating what you kill? But more important, how interesting it is to do such a thing, and what amazing stories and ideas might be gathered from that experience?

Everywhere you go, every person you meet, every story you hear can become the seed for your next post or project. Real writers – the ones who would be writing even if the world was ending – never take a day off. They write on birthdays, holidays, even sick days.

If you ever find yourself staring off into space, thinking deeply, and someone asks you, “What are you doing?” feel free to tell them you’re working.

Because you are.

2. Embrace the unknown

Just look at the wildly different kinds of characters Daniel Day-Lewis has played:

  • A disabled Irish writer and painter
  • A colonial warrior
  • A man wrongly accused of an IRA bombing
  • A Protestant nativist in lower Manhattan’s Five Points in 1846
  • An American president fighting the injustice of slavery

He plays each character with elegance, fearlessness, and total commitment. At times, it’s hard to believe that it is actually him we’re watching; he plays the character so well that we can’t help but be immersed in the story and the life of the character.

You know an actor is good when you find yourself thinking “What on earth is this guy like in real life?”

This aura of mystery is a force of its own. It’s power. It keeps the audience on their toes.

The Analysis: As writers, we often pursue one niche, one field to talk about. It makes sense because we want to master that domain; we want to be perceived as an authority, the go-to expert. But at times, this can be self-defeating. We can end up getting too comfortable.

Writing is an ancient art that yields us the power to deliver our ideas, to communicate, and to connect.

So instead of limiting yourself to one outfit, try on different ones. Connect seemingly unrelated dots.

Before I started reading up on Daniel Day-Lewis’ interviews and life, I had no idea I could connect his craftsmanship to writing. But the more I delved into his story, the more I saw the similarities.

As a writer, you must immerse yourself in different subjects. Learn the culture and the language. Challenge yourself and see what your mind is capable of creating. Don’t be stiff. Learn to use different fabrics to weave together a story that will have other writers saying, “I wish I’d thought of that.”

3. The stage is sacred

On the set of  “Lincoln,” Sally Field – the actress who plays Lincoln’s wife – described the set as “hushed and reverent.”

Jared Harris – the actor who played Ulysses S. Grant – said of Day-Lewis in a Time interview, “You don’t say to him, ‘Hey, did you see the referees blow that call during the Packers game?'”

Spielberg admits to calling his lead actor “Mr. President” – not Daniel. He even wore a suit to the set every day – something he never does when directing. The entire crew wore clothes to fit the part, to blend in, to assume the position.

Everyone who was a part of this film knew they were involved in creating something bigger than themselves – an opportunity to recreate history and bring to light the trials and tribulations that Abraham Lincoln had to face, and the story of how he helped shape and build America.

The Analysis: Writing wouldn’t be writing without the procrastination and the excuses. It’s the challenge of overcoming our worst selves when sitting down at a blank page that defines who we are.

But it’s this simple: you waste time on Twitter and Facebook because you didn’t cut off the access that allows you to do so. You didn’t respect the stage.

Instead of cranking out a horrifying (but necessary) draft, you label it “writer’s block” and go and do the dishes. You tweet the world that you’re about to start work, when in reality it’s just another form of procrastination.

What you need to do is treat your stage as sacred, just as Daniel Day-Lewis does. A place where hard work, determination, and unrelenting focus sync together to bring ideas from the depths of your mind to the light of day.

4. Craftsmanship is a journey, not a destination

Daniel Day-Lewis didn’t step straight into the acting scene and start making hit after hit after hit.

In an interview he says: “I became conflicted in my late teens. I imagined an alternative life as a furniture maker. For about a year, I just didn’t know what to do. I did laboring jobs, working in the docks, construction sites.”

But this pattern is all too familiar.

Steven Pressfield drove trucks for a living in his 20s and 30s, and at one point lived at a boarding house that served mental patients.

Stephen King taught English, worked in a library and in an industrial laundry – not to mention collecting a huge pile of rejection slips with a spike going through it.

Hunter S. Thompson got his ass kicked by the Hell’s Angels, was fired from Time for insubordination, and traveled all the way to Puerto Rico for a magazine job … only to find out upon his arrival that the place had folded  (he used his failure as the inspiration for “The Rum Diary.)

The Analysis: Everyone wants a big break – a flood of traffic, a book deal, a crowd of adoring fans. Something to ease the pain of loneliness and validate our efforts. But the truth is, writing is a journey. That one post and that one book will soon be forgotten. That New York Times bestseller? Even that is ephemeral, just like every other bestseller.

What we need to learn is to enjoy the art of writing – realizing that the more we write, the better our thinking becomes, and vice versa. Acknowledge the privilege of being able to voice our idea into a noisy universe and actually have people respond to it, care about it, be moved by it, and share it. Why do we keep searching for miracles when we’re living in one?

As writers we must remind ourselves of one thing: I write because it is who I am. This is my way of communicating, of connecting, of expressing. I don’t know any other way.

When you see dancers move gracefully, it’s because they have found joy in movement. When a singer raises goosebumps on our necks, it’s because her passion reverberates throughout her lyrics, her message. We connect with it at a fundamental level.

If you aren’t willing to commit to the long-haul – the journey – then you must question why you even started writing in the first place. It’s not about the praise and Amazon reviews and the number of tweets your post received. It’s not about writing the next “50 Shades of Grey.” It’s far deeper than that. It’s about changing lives, connecting the unconnected, and making a difference. It’s about storytelling, inspiring others to lead greatly, to communicate clearly when no one else will.

It’s about moving people – because that’s what words do.

Writing requires a ton of vulnerability. That’s scary – but at the very same time, if you can harness it – it’s incredibly exhilarating.

Why craftsmanship is your only option

The world is one big town. When you speak to one person, you are actually speaking to hundreds, possibly thousands.

We are more connected than any other time in history. And luckily for us writers, it has never been a better time to write, to share, to tell a story, to move people.

I know how hard writing is. This business ain’t for the weak. I spent three years being ignored. It wasn’t until I focused on my craftsmanship – what I do and how I can do it better – that I started noticing a difference in the way I was telling a story.

Four years ago, I never read books and never aspired to be a writer. But I put my butt in that chair and I wrote – even if no one was listening. I failed forward – meaning that if I wrote something and no one responded, I wrote another post. I committed to the journey, not the destination.

To date, I’ve written two self-published eBooks that have been downloaded thousands of times, I was picked by Seth Godin to attend his July seminar in 2012, and I wrote a neat manifesto. The other day, I hit my first 1,000 subscribers. I’m becoming good at what I do because I love and respect what I do.  You are capable of doing the same.

In fact, you might be doing it already.

But in order to move your readers, you have to ruthlessly love your craft. You have to respect it. It’s about creating momentum.

Committing to the long haul, delaying instant gratification and realizing that the energy we invest in ourselves and our craft determines the impact that we make as writers. Being heard is not the reward of being a writer, as much as we want to believe that. No, our craftsmanship, our evolving ability to move people with words and stories, is the reward.

Commit. Work hard. Put your heart into it. Put your butt in the chair. Stop apologizing.

And always remember that the respect you desire as a writer is determined by the respect you have for your craft, the work that you put in, and your unwavering devotion to remove fear from your writing and to think clearly.

Now go write. You got this.

About the author: Paul Jun is connecting the dots over at his blog, Motivated Mastery. Be sure to check out the manifesto that he created.