The Frontal Cortex

Getting Good

Before I became a writer, I assumed that some people (Nabakov, Updike, Bellow, etc.) were natural writers. They were born speaking in pithy prose, with taut sentences and interesting verb choice. But then, after reading all the usual Bellow masterpieces, I started reading his early novels. And I realized that even Bellow had to learn how to write. Nabakov juvenalia is similarly flawed. (Early Updike is still pretty fine, so maybe he’s the exception.)

And then, once I started writing, I realized that writing is no different than any other craft or skill. It takes time and effort and the ability to tolerate lots of mistakes. You need to write lots and lots of bad sentences before you can begin to write some good sentences. (And I’m only beginning to write some good sentences.) In fact, I’m pretty convinced that K. Anders Ericcson’s theory of expertise – it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice before you can become an expert – is pretty much a universal rule of human nature. It applies to golfers and poets, violinists and editors. The brain is a slow and methodical learner. As Bob Dylan put it, “there’s no success like failure”. What he meant, I think, is that success depends on the ability to tolerate failure. Lots and lots of failure.

Anyways, that was all an excuse to post this clip of Ira Glass:

Via kottke

Comments

  1. #1 PlausibleAccuracy
    May 30, 2008

    That’s a fantastic clip, thanks for sharing. I’d seen some others from this series, but not this one. It’s definitely good advice, no matter what field you’re in.

  2. #2 jfrancis
    May 30, 2008

    Success if a rowdy crowd,
    failure is eaten away
    one rewrite at a time.

  3. #3 jfrancis
    May 30, 2008

    Success is a rowdy crowd,
    failure is eaten away
    one rewrite at a time.

  4. #4 Brian Balkus
    May 30, 2008

    Don’t most breakthroughs in science, math, and the arts come from those in the beginning of their careers? Perhaps experience makes writers more formally impressive, but they don’t show the same creativity. Do you think there is a trade-off?

  5. #5 McFawn
    May 30, 2008

    Brian’s comment is interesting. I don’t know if “most breakthroughs have come from those in the beginning of their careers”–it could just be that the public becomes desensitized to genius after its first dramatic appearance.

    I personally feel Hawthorne’s breakthrough work was his unfinished Septimus Felton, written at the end of his life (with art-science themes, no less!) but it is not seen that way because the genius of refinement (revising, expanding upon an idea) is not respected as much as the genius of the new (the ideas’ first discovery).

    I think the former is more interesting.

  6. #6 Gray Gaffer
    May 30, 2008

    Really comforting advice. I have a few other snippets:

    from Stanley Jordan, when asked “how do you practice to be so good”:”I don’t make mistakes because I never learned to make mistakes. I never make a sound until I know my fingers are in the right position. Speed comes later – just never let your fingers do the work in the wrong position and they will only learn how to do it right”

    My own observations:
    If you want to get good enough to entertain your friends, practice 2+ hrs a day for 2+ years. Don’t stop then. If you want to be GOOD, practice 8 hrs a day for life. Then, maybe…

    It takes at least 6 months to entrain a new habit.

    Brian: yes, because they have the energy to stay up for 3 days and still be productive. But also they have spent that 8 years – those folks knew what interested them and followed it from maybe 10yrs of age. And, they were lucky enough to get into a field where there was a breakthrough waiting, and were in the right place at the right time. But their long-standing interest and application where what let them be there. It may have not been specifically in the field, but at the least it let them develop necessary skills and understandings that transferred.

  7. #7 HP
    June 1, 2008

    “I knew when I was on to something when I realized I could make mistakes.”

    –avant-garde musician Ornette Coleman

    (Of course, that’s the only quote I’ve ever heard from Ornette that sounds remotely like coherent human speech, but I know a lot of people who decide to throw out history and create from scratch who never get that far. And I love Ornette’s music.)

  8. #8 Jay
    June 1, 2008

    This is advice I’ve needed. Though it’s difficult to take even sage advice from someone who speaks ok, um, like, djunnowhatimean, like, um a “valley girl.”

  9. #9 JB
    July 18, 2008

    Ze Frank’s Brain Crack – similar sentiment, very funny to boot… http://www.zefrank.com/theshow/archives/2006/07/071106.html

  10. #10 penis büyütücü
    February 13, 2009

    from Stanley Jordan, when asked “how do you practice to be so good”:”I don’t make mistakes because I never learned to make mistakes. I never make a sound until I know my fingers are in the right position. Speed comes later – just never let your fingers do the work in the wrong position and they will only learn how to do it right”

  11. #11 kono insurance
    December 9, 2010

    I have to hear what Eddie has to say about this??

    Carlos

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