Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Ana Menendez: The 10,000 Easy Steps Toward Writing Mastery

In the 35th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Ana Menendez, author of Adios, Happy Homeland! (Black Cat), ponders the effort it takes to be a good writer.

Few artists emerge fully formed. Take painter Vincent van Gogh. Before he painted Starry Night, he drew Carpenter. This was at the beginning of his career, in 1880. Any classically trained artist will immediately note the problems: The proportions of the body are off, the head is flattened and the composition is not at all pleasing. It's a bad drawing.

Van Gogh wasn’t born a painter. He willed himself to become one. As a child, he didn't display any startling talent for figurative drawing. He became interested in painting mostly through the encouragement of his brother Theo, who was an art dealer. When Vincent did sit down to draw, he had no illusions about his abilities. In an early letter to his brother, he wrote:
Van Gogh's Carpenter
 . . . at the time when you spoke of my becoming a painter, I thought it very impractical and would not hear of it. What made me stop doubting was reading a clear book on perspective, Cassange's Guide to the ABC of Drawing: and a week later I drew the interior of a kitchen with stove, chair, table and window—in their places and on their legs—whereas before it had seemed to me that getting depth and the right perspective into a drawing was witchcraft or pure chance.
That’s how a lot of people view art: as witchcraft or pure chance. The working artist, though, knows that there is only one magic: work itself. And that’s what van Gogh discovered. After a few more failures, Vincent decided he needed some professional training in art techniques. He enrolled in an academy in Antwerp where he discovered the art of Peter Paul Rubens, as well as that of various Japanese artists. Both of these would influence his style. By early 1886, he had moved to Paris to live with his brother. Here Vincent dropped his somber palette and replaced it with the vibrant colors of his contemporaries. He studied the work of the impressionists and, in a kind of self-directed pedagogy, began to imitate their techniques.

Many people taught van Gogh how to draw. And then he took that knowledge into a wholly innovative direction. His mental decline looms large in the public imagination, but it would be a disservice to van Gogh to attribute his genius to illness. Few people appreciate how hard he worked.


Plutarch believed that three things must meet for the development of both art and morality: Natural ability, theory, and practice. By theory, he meant training. By practice, he meant working at one’s craft.
Now the foundation must be laid in training, and practice gives facility, but perfection is attained only by the junction of all three.... Natural ability without training is blind; and training without natural ability is defective and practice without both natural ability and training is imperfect.
What we call “talent” or “natural ability” is really intelligence. It’s what separates James Joyce from the rest of us. And, unfortunately, there’s nothing democratic about the way intelligence is parceled out. No one argues that intelligence or talent isn’t important. But even Plutarch didn’t believe that lack of natural ability should preclude anyone from pursuing a life in the arts.
But if anyone thinks that those who have not good natural ability cannot to some extent make up for the deficiencies of nature by right training and practice, let such a one know that he is very wide of the mark.... For good natural parts are impaired by sloth; while inferior ability is mended by training.... The wonderful efficacy and power of long and continuous labour you may see indeed every day in the world around you.... Ten thousand things teach the same truth: A soil naturally good becomes by neglect barren … on the other hand a soil exceedingly rough and sterile by being farmed well produces excellent crops.
“Perfection,” he concluded, “is only attained by practice.”

This idea was echoed by Leonardo daVinci who in his notebooks wrote: “Those who are in love with practice without knowledge are like the sailor who gets into a ship without rudder or compass and who never can be certain whether he is going. Practice must always be founded on sound theory.”

Kids playing soccer
Modern research supports the old notion of “practice makes perfect.” Take soccer. All the viewer sees, or thinks he sees, is natural ability. But it’s not so simple. Turns out that elite soccer players are more likely to have been born in the earlier months of the year than in the later months. Anders Ericsson, a psychology professor at Florida State University, who has studied the phenomenon has a theory. What makes a good soccer player seems to rest not on inborn talent but on practice. Those born in January and February are bigger and stronger compared with classmates born later in the same year. Because they’re ahead of the others, they play more. And because they play more, they’re more likely to become even better.

Ericsson has spawned a cottage industry of sorts with several authors, most famously Malcolm Gladwell, arguing that what we regard as genius is actually a more complicated amalgam of natural inclination, work and, in most cases, obsession. “The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimal level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise,” writes Gladwell in Outliers. “In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.... It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery. This is true even of people we think of as prodigies.”

The formulation of the 10,000 hour "rule" seems to come from a study done by Dr. Ericsson and colleagues and published in the Psychological Review in 1993. They looked at three groups of violinists at Berlin's Academy of Music: stars, solid performers, and those who could teach but not make it big. The “stars,” it turns out, had practiced the most: 10,000 hours by the age of 20, as opposed to 4,000 for those who would never make it big.

Yet many of us continue to cling to what Matthew Crawford, the author of Shop Class as Soulcraft calls the “hippie theory of creativity,” the idea that “creativity is what happens when people are liberated from the constraints of conventionality."

“The truth, of course, is that creativity is a by-product of mastery of the sort that is cultivated through long practice,” Crawford writes. “It seems to be built up through submission (think a musician practicing scales, or Einstein learning tensor algebra).”


(L to R, top to bottom) Raymond Queneau 
Many seasoned writers produce excellent work by relying on inspiration, but they often fail to appreciate how much of that inspiration is actually knowledge and technique that has been so thoroughly absorbed as to become invisible, even to themselves. “The poet is never inspired because he is the master of that which appears to others as inspiration,” wrote Raymond Queneau, a founder of the French avant-garde group Oulipo

So how does one become a master of that which appears to others as inspiration? Start by following some rules. The easiest way is to study rules made by others—in other words, read. A lot.

I don’t know any serious writer who wasn’t first a serious reader. Reading grounds you in the history of your art. And different epochs and genres yield different rules. What we call realism—the narrator’s eye panning the scene like a camera—was essentially invented by Flaubert. Study a work like The Iliad and you’ll find very little of what passes in our modern style for scene-setting. The Greeks had different rules. Borges’ rules are different from Hemingway’s. Literary fiction has its own tricks, separate from those of, say, the detective novel. Take note of what you love. And then deconstruct it and study how it was put together.

You can also make up your own rules. That’s what the Oulipo group did: They worked with a series of constraints to stimulate their imaginations. Here again, the theme of submission. Or as Anthony Burgess put it: “You can’t write unless you’re willing to subordinate the creative impulse to the construction of a form.”

The point is to write and write and write. With humility and a spirit of submission. But without excuses. Without waiting for the fickle muse. Write past boredom and obligation. Write for thousands of hours. Hone the ability to do the same thing over and over again. And one day, mastery might appear—as if by magic.