Monday, May 14, 2012

Beyond 10,000 Hours of Writing


Not long ago I espoused the value of writing, writing, writing as a path toward becoming a good writer. Blind practice, however, is not the full story.

Two books that provide insights are Better by Mistake by Alina Tugend and Art & fear : observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking / David Bayles and Ted Orland

Art and Fear was widely quoted a few years ago. Both Bayles and Orland are photographers. Many photographers have embraced digital photography for one big reason—it is now cheaper to make mistakes. Before a photographer would spend thousands of dollars on rolls of film to get one photo that was incredible. Now, a photographer can take even more photos and the incremental cost is close to zero.

Writing has always been one of those arts where the materials cost is low. Time cost is a different matter, but for now I’ll ignore that.

The story quoted in Art and Fear that many find so compelling is the ceramics teacher who divides the class into two. Group A is going to be graded on one submission and its quality. Group B is graded on shear mass. They have to be competed pots, but other than that, the criteria was numbers. In the end the best looking piece was not the single submission, but one from the pile of pots.

The base lesson is obvious, but there are a few other lessons. The quantity group was concentrating, loosely, on one thing: pots.  Not any object. Not random pots, ashtrays, plates, vases, etc. The writer should do the same thing. A fiction writer should put 10,000 hours into fiction. For now, I will avoid a discussion of sub-specializing (e.g. popular fiction, or sub-genres in popular fiction).

From Better by Mistake, we learn to both make mistakes and how to think about them. Tugend, in her original NYT column mentions the famous Edison Quote: famous quote, often inscribed in schools and children’s museums: “I have not failed. I have just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.” Edison’s point is that he was focusing and he was trying to achieve something. It was not blind experimentation. Neither should the writer’s 10,000 hours be blind, or you will not improve. The violinist could practice the same note for 10,000 hours, but that will not make her a great violinist.

When you write and you and your critique group expose the flaws, the opportunity is for practice. A rewrite. Be bold and risk more mistakes on the rewrite. Don’t line edit. Rewrite. This is, in some ways, the difference between two types of editors. One tells you the flaws and suggests ways of practicing. One focuses on minor flaws and makes the bad piece as good as it can be, but still bad.

The goal in rewriting is to make intelligent mistakes, not unintelligent failures. It would be trite to believe that there are no stupid mistakes. As Tugend notes, the mistakes that lead to death, wheelchair, or prison are probably stupid mistakes in life.

Writing pornography and submitting it to a children’s magazine is stupid. Switching from third person past to first person present is potentially a mistake, but it will be a learning one and it may end up being a brilliant solution.

Rewriting should avoid another mistake that Einstein articulated: “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Editing and rewriting has to intentionally shake it up a bit.

Just as the violinist does not play the same piece over and over, the writer does need to move on to a new work sooner or later. And then start practicing that one.

I’ve made enough mistakes for one blog. I’ll wait until the next one to practice blogging.

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