At Work

At Work
If you wanna be a writer you gotta be a reader.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Writing: Process or Genius?

I've written in other blog entries that writing is a process not a miracle.  That publishing a novel is far more about hard work than genius.  That many (if not most) would-be writers do not work hard enough at the sentence level–then gripe about the publishing industry "putting up walls" against new writers. They (the unpublished writers) start to see the publishing world in conspiratorial terms:  that it's against "any one new", etc.   Whenever I run into this type of person, I know the next question is going to be about self-publishing.

But a recent New York Times column by David Brooks, the agonized conservative, puts a finer point on the discussion of natural talent versus hard work.  Totally without permission, I've lifted the body of his column and pasted below, and have butted in with my comments in brackets:

(NYT May 1, 2009)
. . . . If you wanted to picture how a typical "genius" [my emphasis] might develop, you’d take a girl who possessed a slightly above average verbal ability. It wouldn’t have to be a big talent, just enough so that she might gain some sense of distinction. Then you would want her to meet, say, a novelist, who coincidentally shared some similar biographical traits. Maybe the writer was from the same town, had the same ethnic background, or, shared the same birthday — anything to create a sense of affinity.
This contact would give the girl a vision of her future self. . .  give her a glimpse of an enchanted circle she might someday join. It would also help if one of her parents died when she was 12, infusing her with a profound sense of insecurity and fueling a desperate need for success.

Armed with this ambition, she would read novels and literary biographies without end. This would give her a core knowledge of her field. She’d be able to chunk Victorian novelists into one group, Magical Realists in another group and Renaissance poets into another. This ability to place information into patterns, or chunks, vastly improves memory skills. She’d be able to see new writing in deeper ways and quickly perceive its inner workings.  [As I say up top, if you want to be a writer, you have to be a reader.]

Then she would practice writing. Her practice would be slow, painstaking and error-focused. Ben Franklin would take essays from The Spectator magazine and translate them into verse. Then he’d translate his verse back into prose and examine, sentence by sentence, where his essay was inferior to The Spectator’s original.  The aim is to focus meticulously on technique. . . . [At some point, you must lay a page of your writing alongside that of your favorite writer.  Compare, contrast.  Why is their writing better?]

By practicing in this way, performers delay the "automatizing" [my emphasis] process. The mind wants to turn deliberate, newly learned skills into unconscious, automatically performed skills. But the mind is sloppy and will settle for good enough. ["Since I speak English, I can be a writer"--this is the unsaid assumption by some people who get the sudden desire to write a book; without any "practice", they start writing.]  By practicing slowly, by breaking skills down into tiny parts and repeating, the strenuous student forces the brain to internalize a better pattern of performance.  [This paragraph is about understanding the grammar, style, prose patterns, types of sentences, and above all, the techniques of fiction.]

Then our young writer would find a mentor who would provide a constant stream of feedback, viewing her performance from the outside, correcting the smallest errors, pushing her to take on tougher challenges. [An editor?  A writing workshop?  A circle of writer friends who distribute tough love in their editorial comments?] By now she is redoing problems — how do I get characters into a room — dozens and dozens of times. She is ingraining habits of thought she can call upon in order to understand or solve future problems.

The primary trait she possesses is not some mysterious genius. It’s the ability to develop a deliberate, strenuous and boring practice routine.
[end of David Brooks' essay]

Mr. Brooks' ending is a bit of a downer, and slightly misleading.  If we write something that is "boring" to us, it will also bore the reader.  But to be fair, he's talking about "practice." However, what he might have added at the end is the thrill that comes when you, the writer, break through the membrane of self-consciousness ("I'm writing this!"), and, with all your techniques "automatized",  enter the zone of creativity wherein the story unfolding on your screen is more true and more real than, as we say, life itself.  Now you're ready for publication.

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