Meditative Monday: The Hamster Wheel Of Improvement For Writing (And Other Arts/Skills)

Hey, everybody! It’s time for another round of Meditative Monday.

Today’s Meditative Monday is inspired by a video. I’m gonna leave it here in case anyone is curious, but you don’t really need to watch it. It is rather longish and I understand everybody ain’t got time for that. It is also talking more about drawing, but I find that some of the stuff in it is relevant to writing and I’m going to try to fill that gap of what they talk about to this article.

So again, if you don’t feel like watching this video, feel free to skip ahead to the meat of everything.

The Myth Of Improving At Writing (And Drawing And Possibly Other Art Forms/ Skills)

If I’ve never mentioned this before, I’ll get it out of the way now. I’m a writer (well, now author), musician, and artist. I’ve dipped my fingers in quite a few things to get a feel for the skills itself.

Even though each art is obviously extremely different from the others, when it comes to the nuts and bolts of digging in and pulling your skill level up, they actually behave the same.

To me at least.

Feel free to take that or leave it as you will.

What’s more important is that I want to help writers out there get a more realistic view of what will happen as they go along on their writing journey to prevent the cycle of beating oneself up when they aren’t seeing ‘God mode results’ like their favorite writers. In my experience, more writing books are geared towards selling you on a certain way of doing something, not so much how to learn and grow on your own.

But most of all…

I’ve blundered through this guys, I really don’t want another person blundering through it too. It took two years of ‘determined blundering’ to get out of it. If you are not determined (working on it daily for hours), focused (as opposed to aimlessly doing whatever strikes your fancy), hardcore blundering (blundering meaning practicing your craft and experimenting with new things) it may very well take you more time.

So here’s the myth:

  1. If I study a ton of writing books, I’ll become some kind of enlightened writing Jesus and I’ll probably never have to go back to my fundamentals never again. And I’ll feel super good about myself! 😀
  2. If I just read my writing books on a topic, I don’t have to practice it any. I’ll just “know” it.

Let’s take them one by one shall we?

“If I study a ton of writing books, I’ll become some kind of enlightened writing Jesus and I’ll probably never have to go back to my fundamentals never again. And I’ll feel super good about myself! :D”

No.

This does not happen.

This is where I kind of have to kick the happy sun out of the sky.

The last bit can happen. After all, I’m “comfortable” with my writing. Not to the extent that I’m blind to any and all criticism. Criticism that is fair always gets acted upon. Criticism based upon someone’s biased preferences or insecurities is always ignored. Freakouts still happen. Rare, but they do happen.

The most accurate thing to say is that I have a healthy view of my writing. Meaning I know what I’m capable of. I know what I’m not capable of.

But what I’m not capable of at the moment is not intimidating or fear-inducing because I know that I can learn and practice to overcome anything I don’t know in order to fill in that gap.

Now here’s the ball buster in case you already don’t know…

Writing improvement is not a mountain or a marathon. 

I know I’ve said that writing itself is a marathon. Don’t worry. It is. But improvement?

Nope.

In fact, it’s a loop. An endless sometimes irritating loop.

Mountains have a peak and then you fall. Marathons have a clear start line and end line.

Loops just say “screw all that, I’m a loop!” And since I’m a loop you gotta do this over and over again.

Yes, you can read a book on characters and learn a great deal about that. Then move on to setting and description. Then move on to plot. And so on and so forth until you cover all the basics.

But guess what happens when you get to the end?

You read a new novel that moves your soul. And you realize all of the shortcomings and mistakes in your writing that you had no previous experience to see and hence start again.

And again.

And again.

You never actually get “done” with your fundamentals. It’s more like… an EXP bar in an RPG game. You grind in Characters a little bit and level up. Then you move to Setting and so on and level up. But you don’t cap at max. It would actually be very sad if people did because we’d never get better even if we don’t like our ‘cap’ point.

For this reason, I hate being told or seeing advertisements that say “Here’s the secret to instant (insert whatever you like). I hate “snake oil” (one cure all) attitudes for this reason too. And I hate the idea of anything I know or say as being a “secret”. I don’t like putting a wool over people’s eyes and then slapping a price tag on it.

Improvement is basic. It’s just focused mileage in whatever area of writing you like. Doesn’t matter if you practice on your manuscript, on a freewriting document, or on your neighbor’s used snot rag.

But let’s be real. Ew. 

Not just to the snot rag.

Improvement gets slightly complicated if you want to be efficient. But this is only because it requires these things we like in theory, but don’t like in practice such as hard work, perseverance, and repetition.

Which fits us quite snugly into the next part.

If I just read my writing books on a topic, I don’t have to practice it any. I’ll just “know” it.

No.

It did not work in math class. It will not work here. Because unless you are a camera, your mind will not photograph everything you learned as this article will explain. But our memories drop on a curve. As the article puts it, “Quickly at first, then slowing down”.

Now imagine all the writing books you opened, but maybe didn’t do any practice with. You might only remember a few key points out of the tons of pages. Hell, even when you leave this article, you won’t recall everything that I say.

That’s why I now take passive learning (watching, reading, sitting in a classroom) with a grain of salt. I love reading things, but reading on its own doesn’t always lead to fully understanding. It’s very easy to think that because we “get” something when we read it, that we’ll “get” it when we’re sitting down to write.

It’s a principle I wish I respected a lot more in school.

The difference between the master and the student isn’t that the master could read and the student couldn’t (these days anyway).

The only difference is that the master did it already. He/ she/ they put in the time to work out the mistakes. And now they can make beautiful work without even thinking about it.

If you want to get that point of confidence in your writing (whatever that looks like for you), you can. It’s not impossible, or due to ‘any favorite excuse of choice’.

I can happily say from the other side that it’s worth all the effort. It’s just a lot of effort. A lot of goal-oriented effort.

Aimless Wandering vs. Focused Practice

One more thing and I promise I’ll leave you all alone.

Now I’ll explain this from a drawing perspective because that happens to be how I bashed my head into this wall multiple times. This may or may not be 100 percent true for you, but hey, if it will cause someone else out there some pain, I’m all for it.

Before I settled down into drawing again, my issue was that I would always start sketching and quickly get overwhelmed by everything I needed to know and then stop because it felt like I would never know enough and that I would never catch up in drawing. I would just burnout and quit after a few weak doodles.

This is the danger of not having a focus when you practice.

Saying you’ll practice anything or everything, is like saying you’ll travel all over the whole world.

That’s great, but where are you going first? How are you even going to get there?

Vague ideas on how to improve will get you back vague improvement. Back in the days of my writing classes, I experienced a lot of ‘vague improvement’. I could definitely see I was improving at writing, but it was sporadic and I didn’t understand why.

And not understanding why things are happening is like walking in a maze with blinders on. Because if something isn’t working and you don’t know why it’s not working. Guess what?

You’re probably going to repeat that mistake. Over and over. Until someone points it out.

But also if something is working and you don’t know why its working, then you’re more likely going to end up bashing your head against the wall trying to replicate the same thing and getting frustrating when you don’t see the same result.

This is why I isolate my practice writing from my manuscript as much as possible. Because when a manuscript is in front of you, context gets in the way a lot. 

This means that you might have a paragraph you like a lot, but that same paragraph will sound awful when you put it somewhere else in the manuscript where the context doesn’t support it.

But also if you only practice fundamentals instead of experimenting for yourself, you do run the risk of burying yourself in a lot of other people’s dogma.

One thing from my creative writing classes that was an eye-opener for me was learning that the people with work that really impressed me and got huge reactions out of the class were mostly not people that were getting the A’s in the class.

This is not to say that the A people couldn’t write. Some clearly could. But in some works, even though they had all the elements a good story should have, it felt almost like they didn’t have a soul. Almost like it came off a conveyor belt.

But the same thing goes for drawing too.

Mindlessly drumming through the fundamentals with no purpose can make your art look lifeless. And if fundamentals are all you know, you’re going to have a really bad time working from imagination.

And in the end, the greatest writers we know are usually really good at only a few things and sort of meh at the rest.

For Anthony Doerr, it’s his description skills. For Octavia Butler, it’s laying out the human condition out raw. For Rick Riordan, it’s making you burst out laughing.

And for me, one day I’m hoping that it’ll be my description and character skills.

But that will take practice, won’t it? 🙂

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