Tag Archives: creative writing

How are writing skills developed?

“Practice makes perfect” is a formidable cliché because it seems to have empirical validation, or at least praise from Malcolm Gladwell, which is sufficient for professionals in tech, education, and many other industries. Gladwell is the author of folksy, “disruptive” books that are actually white-bread. I can’t improve on Steven Poole’s take on Gladwell:

“Gladwell is a brilliant salesman for a certain kind of cognitive drug. He tells his readers that everything they thought they knew about a subject is wrong, and then delivers what is presented as a counterintuitive discovery but is actually a bromide of familiar clichés.”

It’s fitting that peddler of clichés would create one of his own – the inescapable “10,000 hour rule.” If you’re not familiar with it, it stipulates that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice are needed for anyone to become a master in a specific field, whether classical music performance or chess. Gladwell’s book Outliers is the source of this particular formulation of the theory, although the research was done in the 1990s by Swedish psychologists, demonstrating what Poole was talking about.

The 10,000 hour rule always seemed fragile to me. Cracks in it began to form with questions about high jumpers last year. Then this year there was the study that showed that deliberate practice accounted for but a sliver of the differences in performance in every field from sports (26 percent) to professions (1 percent!).

I was relieved that someone was willing to undermine the 10,000 hour rule’s stranglehold on our imaginations. The argument is romantic – if anyone practices enough, she can get ahead. Everything is in her control, ultimately. If she fails, it’s her fault – she didn’t want it enough, didn’t go out and get it or some such reductivist nonsense. This mentality is used by the elite to justify their position and by politicians to starve the welfare state. David Hambrick summed it up nicely for Slate:

“[The 10,000 hour mindset] perpetuates the myth that is at the root of much inaction in society—the myth that people can help themselves to the same degree if they just try hard enough. You’re not a heart surgeon? That’s your fault for not working hard enough in school! You didn’t make it as a concert pianist? You must not have wanted it that badly. Societal inequality is thus justified on the grounds that anyone who is willing to put in the requisite time and effort can succeed and should be rewarded with a good life, whereas those who struggle to make ends meet are to blame for their situations and should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.”

For writers, the 10,000 hour shores up the foundation of fiercely competitive creative writing programs. They exist to make everyone believe that with the right coaching or group exercises can become a competent novelist or poet. But the 10,000 hour also seems like a particularly poor fit for writing, because…well, what constitutes “practice” for a writer?

Stream-of-consciousness rambling in iA Writer or MS Word? Editing poetry with cute line breaks? Being a grammar hound (eww)? Perhaps. But those techniques, even if done for years, can be hugely counterproductive, producing nothing that anyone could possibly wade through.

What about day job writing? Professional content writers can write millions of words in the course of a few years. These people toil in obscurity, cranking out volume on par with the King James Bible every 12 months. Does it give them the “practice” needed to become experts or to become luminaries? For many of them, no – the deliberate attention to construction, clarity, voice, etc. result in being able to play to someone’s expectations – here’s a keyword, here’s a voice-y section – and little else. Yet, content writing is the most demanding writing “practice” imaginable, at least in the classical conception – i.e., something with the long hours and toil of violin practicing or doing coding exercises.

I think the problem with the 10,000 hour rule as applied to writing is that so much of the actual “practice” of writing isn’t even writing – it’s reading.  Reading doesn’t seem like “practice” to American society, in which it is at best a leisure activity and at worst something that no one has time for because Facebook messages, email, and touching-base are too important. It’s passive, it’s quiet. Plus, it doesn’t further a “brand” or contribute “business value” in any obvious way, so it’s worthless for a wide swath of the population, at least the ones in charge.

What the writer reads is her world, in terms of what tools she has at her disposal, what references and mythic frameworks she can reach for as needed, and what styles she can feel competent channeling. It’s funny, though, to think of other artistic endeavors if they worked like writing – a musician would become proficient mostly through listening rather than playing, and an artist by viewing rather than painting or drawing.

Writing is labor-intensive and often unpleasant, but – to rely on a cliche, forgive me – it’s the tip of the iceberg. When I began reading R.L. Stine and J.R.R. Tolkien as an 11 year-old, my writing became exponentially better. It also helped that I started young. Had I become a a serious reader at 21 instead, my abilities would probably be much more limited. But what kind of 11 year-old has the will to read voraciously with the goal of becoming a “professional” writer someday? He probably does it because he enjoys it and that’s all. If someone encourages him and supports him, then he’s lucky.

And indeed “luck” is the source of many of our skills, the oft-denigrated word that nevertheless is like a secular term for God and a symbol for all the forces, paths, and pressures that we can’t control. Even practically, writers should embrace this conception of luck, since so much writing seems to come from not exactly knowing where something is going when you sit down. Will this character live? What if I interrupted this scene in the middle to cut to something else that I haven’t even planned out yet? For me, that’s so much of the thrill of writing. It’s having all that mental pollen from reading, waiting for the honeybee of inspiration to light.

Writing a poem in 15 minutes

I came up with the following process while writing an email. Poetry can be daunting to write. Writers may think they need to know meter, need fancy writing software, or deliver profound insights about the universe in order to be good poet. None of that is required! A readable poem can be produced in 15-20 minutes by just being aware of your environment.

For recreational poets, it’s easy to produce a poem a day by following these steps:

1. Download and install TextWrangler (Mac) or Notepad++ (Windows)

These free, barebones text editors are ideal environments for writing poetry. Since they were designed for writing computer code, they also help the writer by numbering each line and eliminating the hassle of wrangling with fonts, colors, and sizes (since they don’t allow you to). Better yet, write it in an email client.

2. Pick up any book, magazine, or go to a website that you read frequently

Writing poetry is easier when you have just read something/are reading something. Anything will do, from a verse from Shakespeare or the Bible to today’s New York Times headline or Reddit front page. Think about the words used and the syntax. For example, a NYT headline – “Fresh from the printer, that new car smell” – is a good jumping off-point. With a little rearranging, you could write “My car’s smell, fresh for the morning ride home…”

3. Write and arrange your line breaks

Once you have material to work with, more ideas will start flowing. Look around you and incorporate details you notice in everyday objects into your adjectives. Colors are always good, evocative descriptors. For the line breaks, don’t feel that you have to end each line with a complete thought – be playful and cut them off to leave them nicely incomplete. So, “going downstairs, to see if I can ever be free” is a little less magical than “Going downstairs/to see if I can ever/be free,” since the latter construction creates a ton of suspense with the powerful line-ending “ever.”

4. Polish it up and publish

I like to save poems as Markdown files in Dropbox for easy Web publication and backup. Another possibility is to screenshot the text and then process the screenshot with a simple photo editor like Pixlr Express. Add some filters and colors to create a visual mood to go with the text. Then post it to Tumblr or your own blog. I do this with my own Tumblr.

Writing creatively in an email client

Have you ever written an epic email? Did it feel effortless? You wouldn’t have written that missive first in Word or Pages, right?

Email can be a liberating medium for the writer. I’ve never figured out why – maybe it’s the notion that, when in an email or webmail client, what I’m writing isn’t really writing. Email isn’t exactly high fiction in its content or poetry in its structure. It’s mostly noise, but sometimes you need that “noise” to trick yourself into thinking that what you’re making has no value and that there’s no pressure. Email excels there – the vast majority of it (spam) isn’t even read, so you’re in good company.

Brent Simmons had analogous thoughts on email’s relationship to blogging a few weeks back:

“[T]o the people who send email, to me or to any blogger: please consider publishing what you write instead of emailing it. Not because email sucks, but because more people than just me should be able to read what you wrote. You have something to add to the discussion.

If it makes it easier to compose in your email app, then that’s fine. That’s a good approach to writing blog posts — imagine you’re writing an email to a friend, but then publish it.”

Email is great for drafting out:

  • Point-by-point rebuttals to articles/posts you disagree with
  • Cover letters (seems like Word et al are just too high-stakes-feeling to make these seem right)
  • Guides (I’m guessing because a significant volume of email is explaining how to use things, e.g., via customer support channels).

I came up with something from scratch in an email client – Apple Mail – today. I’ll post it soon.

The Book of Judges and writing about violence

The Old Testament is at best a questionable guide to morality. In particular, Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy are among the vilest books, at least in their prescriptions, in any religion – which is notable, considering that both Exodus and Deuteronomy contain versions of the Ten Commandments.

But as much as I disagree with the genocide, unusual restrictions (e.g., Leviticus is the source of much of the homophobia in Christianity, as well as less-adhered-to “rules” such as not wearing mixed fabrics), and literal heavy-handedness of the God of Moses, the Old Testament is an endless, endless gold mine for turns of phrase and poetry. God may have been a bastard, but his interpreters/creators were committed writers.

In 2006, I decided I would read the entire King James Bible cover to cover, since it is one of the most influential documents in English, having been the source of every phrase from “the sun also rises” to “stranger in a strange land.” I didn’t accomplish my goal; I skipped a few books and only skimmed the New Testament, which I had heard again and again through years of Mass.

The Book of Judges, an Old Testament book between Joshua and Ruth, made one of the deepest impressions on me. It doesn’t have the poetry of Isaiah or the epic mythos of Exodus, but it definitely has crazy, proto-Tarantino violence.

When I was writing a short story recently (“The Lightning, which I mentioned in the last entry; I will publish it to my Tumblr soon), I was looking for how violence was described in older literature. Recent texts and films err on the super-gory side (in writing) or the blurry-who-knows-what’s-going-on side (in film). How did writers from 5,000 approach the fight scene or murder, though?

Judges has some ideas:

“Then Jael Heber’s wife took a nail of the test, and took an hammer in her hand, and went softly unto him, and smote him the nail into his temples, and fastened it into the ground: for he was fast asleep and weary. So he died.” (Judges 4:21).

“They chose new gods; then was war in the gates: was there shield or spear seen among forty thousand in Israel?” (Judges 5:8).

“She put her hand to the nail, and her right hand to the workmen’s hammer; and with the hammer she smote Sisera, she smote off his he’d, when she had pierced and stricken through his temples (Judges 5:26).”

“At her feet he bowed, he fell, he lay down: at her feet he bowed, he fell: where he bowed, there he fell down dead” (Judges 5:27).

The Book of Judges is also the source of the “evil in the sight of the Lord” phrase, which is evocative for its ambiguities. Is it more terrifying that they committed “evil” actions knowing that an omniscient god was watching, or that they acted without knowing that they were being, well, judged?

The passages above are grotesque. Yet, they maintain a “just the facts” nonchalance.

When writing about violence, this approach is useful if the author is trying to set a scene in which cruelty is normal and even banal. Getting hung up on details quickly leads to moralizing or expression of a viewpoint of some sort, which is ok for certain projects. For dystopian and sci-fi novels, though, I think this sort of commoditization of violence – oh, here’s someone getting a nail driving through his head, moving on now, Israel, etc. – is what makes them work.

I recently read H.G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon and, like the other Wells I’ve read, it is visionary, but underrated for its dark side. It isn’t long after the titular duo land on the moon that they’re punching through Selenites – easier than they thought – and bleeding. In the context of the moon’s novel wonders though – mooncalves! a solid atmosphere! aliens! – the violence is passé.

The Book of Judges is similar in that the immense violence is secondary to the active, jealous god who is such a magnet for the readers’ attention (even more so than for the characters transfixed by him) that we often end up hopping around the violent sequences like islands in a relentless literary stream. The nonchalance is fitting – the violence is window-dressing, a bunch of incidental effects in a story about Yahweh. The writers saved the energies they could have spent on description and reflection and moved on to keep developing the central thread. Not a bad creative writing tack/hack, from 4,000 years ago.

The delight of Will Self’s “Umbrella”

Will Self; what a name, I thought, almost like will I be myself. I went into the bookshop – and the only book left on the back shelf was his Umbrella. The shopkeeper sitting there, sipping a latte, I’ma ask ya to put ya da bag down, the words were louder than a speakerphone. Kerchunnng! The cup fell through the air, filled with book dust … shattered in dark fragments.

Imitating Self’s stye isn’t just fun, it’s instructive. I felt slightly winded after writing the above paragraph. Self makes Umbrella seem like it’s several times its own length, yet he doesn’t seem to labor at it – which of course is an illusion (I love the italics for emphasis; there’s a good sentence where, after going through all the permutations of a character’s surname – Death, De’ath, Dearth – the speaker says “or whatever the fuck her name was“). The book has a relentlessness all its own – like the best novels, going through its pages is a self-contained experience, during which it’s unappetizing to think about anything else and the reader tries to match the author’s ceaseless one-idea-after-another inspiration with similarly flash-bang page-turning. Yes, it’s against all odds a page turner – a chapterless, suspensless, endless page turner.

One of the innovations about Umbrella – probably unintentional, but critics aren’t really in the business of determining intent, are we – is that it can be read right to left. I don’t mean backward, only that I’ve opened the book a few times oh I think I’ll read a few pages while’I’m on da blue line and forgot where I left off, bookmark notwithstanding. Starting on the right page rather than the left, then ADDing my WAY BACK ACROSS the dividing line and seeing oh I didn’t read the left after all because I forgot. Opening up to almost any page of Umbrella yields an italic, ellipsis, or dog-biscuit of thrown-aside poetry (“Emerging blinking and wanton in the daylight”).

It’s a book, running left-to-right or right-to-left or what difference does it make. Like checking my phone or godforbid my watch I can go in even without meaning to and find something to knead the brain’s dough. The best thing about the book, I recalled, is that it made me feel justified, oh yes, confident even in free-flow creativity. The short story I’m working on, The Lightning, draws a lot upon Self, and myself. Once it is finished I will do a postmortem, writing it to pieces in a mirror-reflection review.