Listening to the most recent episode of Originality, one of my favourite writing podcasts, I was struck by something Aleen and Tempest pointed out that I really hadn’t thought about before: that writing is the only art form where creators are not expected to practice.
More than that, in writing it’s easy for the very idea of practise is seen as a form of failure.
Learning through repetition
Imagine you’re an up-and-coming cartoonist and you’re struggling with the trickier parts of character drawing, like hands. So you spend a few days, maybe even a few weeks, drawing hands. No characters in full, certainly nothing resembling an actual comic strip – just hand after hand after hand, in different positions, from different angles, using real hands and photos of hands for reference, but also looking at hands drawn by cartoonists you admire so that you can figure out just how they do it and learn from that.
No one is going to look at you drawing your hands and say, “Well that’s waste of time.” Because in visual art, it’s recognised that there are two aspects to creation: inspiration and skill.
An artist needs ideas, but they also need the practical skills to turn those ideas into reality. And the best way to develop practical skills is to identify the areas you want to improve and then dedicate time to practising them.
Yet somehow this concept gets lost when it comes to writing.
All or nothing
I’ve heard so many authors interviewed talking with pride of the five terrible novels they have stashed under their bed, never to see the light of day, the writing of which eventually lead them to produce their first decent, publishable work.
That’s fine as far as it goes – I’m certainly not advocating against practising writing by producing entire novels. But there seems to be a prevailing notion among writers (or at least those who issue writing advice) that producing whole works is the only form of practice there is; that if you’re not writing words with the intention of one day seeing them published, then what’s the point of writing those words at all?
That’s certainly how I’ve always looked at writing. If I don’t have a plan, if I don’t have a story in mind, then why write at all?
Which is a lot like saying, What’s the point of drawing if you don’t intend to display every preliminary sketch and every page covered in hands?
Learning to practice, practising to learn
As part of my general commitment this year to writing fast and loose, I’m making a conscious effort to divorce myself from that way of thinking. And it turns out there’s a fascinating novelty to the act of sitting down and writing, not to produce a specific piece of work, but simply to practice the act of writing.
So what is the writing equivalent of drawing endless hands?
I don’t know exactly, but I’m endeavouring to find out. More on that next week.