Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Writing is Not Like Losing Weight

From fairy tales to modern media, from the Ugly Duckling to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, from Ratatouille to Star Wars, stories make praises of innate talent over any sort of hard work. There are obvious logistical reasons for this; it is easier to write a story that says success is due to ability rather than one that says "this is how you succeed." A novel’s plot line, in fact, goes, “a character is trying to do something,” and “this is why it is hard,” e.g., in literary terms, is the objective and the conflict. In many circumstances it is something that not everyone could do, and, if the author wanted to indicate success was due to actions, not fate, the character would have take actions things that other characters wouldn’t have thought of and done themselves, and, furthermore, things that the readers haven't tried themselves.

American culture is strange because it is supposed to be “where the streets are made with gold,” and where anyone can build themselves up to a better life. If you ask one of us if we depend on fate, we will say no. If you ask us if practicing is important, we will say yes. And yet if we were to be told that we are terrible at something, we will give up. Teacher will make horrible claims: out of all their years of teaching, I’ve only seen one student who could direct. Stephen King says that a bad writer will never become a mediocre writer, a good writer will never be a great writer, but maybe just maybe a mediocre one can become good. Discouragement, and legitimizing discouragement through "you're not meant to succeed," is too popular for its own good.

The main reason it is so hard to get students to go the extra mile in art is because of this subconscious belief in fate. If we are meant to do something, then we should have been given the talent. The greats, the elites, the Gods who have succeeded, are not the same as us. They make it look easy. “Are you telling me that every actor on Broadway sits down and marks where he wants to speed up and slow down?” a student asked me once.

And there is the problem. We consider bettering ourselves at the arts like losing weight. You eat right, exercise a lot, and, with a great deal of effort, willpower, and care, you manage to get to the place where you want to be. But, then, if you want to stay there, you must keep it up. You start to slip, you go back to your old ways, you go back to your old weight. If you don’t put in the same energy into it, you’ll be back where you started. Once you begin to try, you must keep trying. You will be held back by your own genetics, forced to try just as hard to keep up, let alone surpass, those with higher metabolisms.

This isn’t true with practicing. We practice so we don't have to practice. An author who requires a lot of extraneous, outside work, who needs to sit down and diagram sentences, making luxurious outlines, conscientiously motivate characters, and spend hours making the right word choice, will not have to do that for the rest of his life.

Say, for instance, the writer overuses words too much. He takes the subject of the conversation, in this case, “writer,” and proceeds to repeat it in every sentence. He does not bother to think of synonyms or assume that the reader will know what he is referencing. It sounds like he did not carry the last thought to the next sentence. In reality, it sounds like he is writing rather than speaking. This is a common problem and one readily solved. Usually fixed in the editing process, a writer will begin to watch for it. Then he will begin to hear it without thought. Over the years he will start to do it for himself without even having to pause. Though in the beginning he needed to reread it, circle it, look it up, and change it, towards the end it will be likely that he doesn’t even need to take a moment to consider it.

Of course the problem won’t vanish entirely. Every once in a while he’ll happen across the mistake, or will have to spend a long time thinking of a synonym, but my point is, the effort won’t nearly be the same or as constant.

If someone is a terrible writer, they can get better. Everyone does get better. In fact, everyone starts out terribly. If they didn’t, publishers would just go to kindergarten classes and take samples. Now some people will take longer to get better. Some people will quit before they can. Some people will refuse to try to improve. And some people have further to go than others. But if this is truly a passion, it shouldn’t matter where an author starts out. Talent isn’t a gauge that some people get a head start on. Talent isn’t something that a person can bank on. Art is too subjective to sit there and say, “Well, he’s already ten points on you, so you might as well not bother.” Not everyone works hard, not everyone likes it, not everyone has your point of view. Art is about a variety of styles, subjects, and perspectives, each of which require different abilities, which no one starts out with all that’s required. The problem with fatalism is that it discourages trying for those with talent or not, and sometimes, trying is the only real talent that stands between success and failure.