Panning for gold

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In a recent conference, I listened to a speaker discuss the idea that through small efforts great things can happen. He shared a story I’d like to repeat here:

Oftentimes we are like the young merchant from Boston, who in 1849, as the story goes, was caught up in the fervor of the California gold rush. He sold all of his possessions to seek his fortune in the California rivers, which he was told were filled with gold nuggets so big that one could hardly carry them.

Day after endless day, the young man dipped his pan into the river and came up empty. His only reward was a growing pile of rocks. Discouraged and broke, he was ready to quit until one day an old, experienced prospector said to him, “That’s quite a pile of rocks you are getting there, my boy.”

The young man replied, “There’s no gold here. I’m going back home.”

Walking over to the pile of rocks, the old prospector said, “Oh, there is gold all right. You just have to know where to find it.” He picked two rocks up in his hands and crashed them together. One of the rocks split open, revealing several flecks of gold sparkling in the sunlight.

Noticing a bulging leather pouch fastened to the prospector’s waist, the young man said, “I’m looking for nuggets like the ones in your pouch, not just tiny flecks.”

The old prospector extended his pouch toward the young man, who looked inside, expecting to see several large nuggets. He was stunned to see that the pouch was filled with thousands of flecks of gold.

The old prospector said, “Son, it seems to me you are so busy looking for large nuggets that you’re missing filling your pouch with these precious flecks of gold. The patient accumulation of these little flecks has brought me great wealth.”

I couldn’t help but think of my writing when I heard this story. How so often I look at other, more successful writers and think, “I’m looking for nuggets like the ones in your pouch, not just tiny flecks.” Yet, if I were to look into the pouches of these writers I admire so much, I believe inside their pouches would be a mass accumulation of tiny flecks of gold.

I think of Stephen King who shares that the skill he keeps in the top drawer of his writing tool box is grammar. Yes, grammar. Who would have thought? I think of Blake Snyder (Save the Cat!) who has built his screenwriting on smaller principles learned over time. I think of the several authors and bloggers I follow who have learned through experience (most often very difficult ones) how to be better, more skilled writers.

I keep looking for some ginormous nugget that will lead me to instant success as I prospect this river of writing, but the truth is, true wealth comes from searching for and accepting the tiny flecks of golden wisdom. If we search, if we remain teachable, we will find what we need to add to our pouch of writing wisdom.

By small efforts (writing daily, studying craft, learning via experience) will the great thing of publishing happen in my life.

What tiny flecks of writing wisdom have you found? Any that surprised you?

If you want to read the whole talk, go here.