The Struggle

Antique pen and inkwellWriting is a struggle. It is a struggle of fighting and letting go, of allowing yourself to fail and not failing. It is a struggle of faith, that what was lost may be found, and that what is known may be forgotten. It is the struggle of man against time, for things cannot be written forever, and yet the worlds we make are as eternal as the one we inhabit. It is a struggle of your soul, and another soul.

And when you find that you know your creations more intimately than your lover, your imaginings more completely then your child, and when you realize you don’t know the damndest thing about who you are, you will know you have made something worthwhile.

And all that you wrote without those struggles was nothing to write at all. Its purpose was only warmth, as the flame takes it from you.

The View From Halfway

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven (Photo credit: robert.molinarius)

Every skill, every art form, every task has one similarity. I’m pretty sure you know what it is.

I’m a writer, but I’m also a musician. Not a very good one, but I do play several instruments, and I find a thousand analogies between the two activities. Many writers think that they should be able to sit down at a keyboard, without learning about the craft of writing, the history of literature, the evolution of the story, the classics, modern prose, and award winning books, and turn out the next masterpiece. That’s like asking someone who’s never played the piano to sit down at one and play Beethoven’s Hammerklavier. It’s really an absurd thought.

The first time I picked up a trumpet, I simply couldn’t play it. After a month, I wasn’t much better. I was 9 years old. By the time I was 16 years old, I wasn’t bad. Not great, but not bad. That’s a seven year difference. When I first learned the guitar, I was terrible. I know I was, because I still have recordings of myself. After over two decades of playing, I’m okay. I have the ability to be great, I think, but I won’t invest the time it would take to play at that level. I know it would take about 3-5 hours of practice a day, probably for a few years. That’s a lot of time.

Writing also takes practice, just like any other skill. Musicians practice every day for years, sometimes since they were children, and most will never become household names. You probably spend eight hours a day at your job, and after a year or two, you got to be pretty good at it. But many writers don’t have that level of commitment. I struggle to write for 2-3 hours a day. I’m sure it’s not enough.

If you want to know exactly how much practice it takes to be good at something, read Kristina Blackwell’s blog post about 10,000 Hours. For me, it was a wake-up call. I rediscovered what I’d always known. I’ve chosen a very hard thing to do. It’s not easy, nor should it be. No one ever said that writing a novel would easy. You are making art, after all.

“But what about all of those books I’ve read that weren’t any good, and yet sold hundreds of thousands of copies?” Well, if they were so bad, why did you buy them? There must have been something that someone wanted – a certain story, a feeling, an idea. Prose will only get you so far (and not very far) and then you have to have a story to tell. Some people have beautiful words, and no story. But even if your words are lacking, if you have a great story, you are going to get much farther.

Every writer has to decide what kind of artist they want to be, and what kind of audience they want to cater to. You can’t please everyone, and shouldn’t try to. I can read a book, and honestly say’ “Not my thing, but I can see there is something in there of value.” I’m not a Justin Bieber fan. I even admit to making a few Justin Bieber jokes. His music is not my thing. But when I watch him perform, I can see he is the best dancer on the stage. His voice has that “boy-band” inflection down perfectly, even if the lyrics are lacking in emotional depth. He is a master at what he does. And what he does is different then what I do, or what you do, most likely. But the rule doesn’t change with the activity. There is still only one rule for success: you have to be a master.

Until you master something, you won’t be a good teacher, you won’t be a good mayor, you won’t be a good bureaucrat, and you won’t be a good musician. You still might be all of those things without mastering them, but your work will never be commended, you’ll never be noticed, and most likely, your efforts will be unremembered (or worse, be remembered in a negative way). So why do so many people think a writer doesn’t have to work much to become good?

I haven’t reached 10,000 hours yet. I’ve still got a ways to go. But I’ve been writing novels for over 10 years. Hopefully, that is putting me on course to be within range in my lifetime. One way or another, someday, I will master it. I’ve dedicated myself. But the bottom line is – anyone can be successful. Anyone can master this. Anyone – you or I – can do this. We just have to try and try and try some more, until we have it mastered. For all of us, the only way to get closer is to read more, and write more. Your audience will let you know when you are there.

Why?

I recently ran across a post by a fellow blogger (you can read it here)where he asked the question, “Why do you write?”

Audience?

Audience? (Photo credit: orkomedix)

People always say that if you are in it for the money and fame, you should probably find another thing to occupy your time. I didn’t think I was, but honestly, I’d never really thought about it much. I just write, that’s all. Why do I need a reason?

But there is always a reason, isn’t there?

After thinking about it for all of ten seconds, the answer came to me. I wrote this:

“I write because I’ve always felt that no one listened to me, so I thought maybe they would read what I had to say instead.”

For you writers out there, why do you write? Do you know?

Saying “Yes” Part II

Ballet Dancer - Edgar Degas

Ballet Dancer – Edgar Degas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve had some people ask me after reading my last post on ‘Saying “yes”‘, “Doesn’t saying “yes” all the time just get you in over your head? You have to say “no” sometimes, otherwise people might take advantage of you.”

Good point, but that’s not what I meant. I didn’t mean to say that we should always say “yes” to everything everyone asks us to do. That would be impossible, and take us so far away from the place I was hinting at, that it would be a disaster. But, as you and I know, that is a disaster that many (most) of us are living in right now.

I also didn’t mean to say that we should say “yes” to our every inclination. If you feel inclined to say “yes” to leaving your family and your children, might I suggest you say “no.” You could also throw in paying your bills, finishing you education, doing your dishes… you get my point.

The “yes” I was alluding to is something much deeper. It’s not even something I’ve been able to define for myself so that I can describe it for you. But I know it has to do with your soul, and what you were put on this earth to do.

Think of three little girls in a ballet class. One is very good, but her parents don’t think ballet is a proper occupation for a grown woman. They splurge when the girl is young, sending her to classes, buying her slippers and putting her hair up tight behind her head. When she really starts to blossom into a dancer, they tell her that she needs to focus on other things, other classes that will assure her a spot in the best business school. She obeys their choice for her, and years later is moderately successful. But whenever she goes to see the ballet, she cries in the dark, not for the beauty of the dance, but because she is the missing one on that stage.

The second girl isn’t naturally gifted. But her parents urge her to keep trying, to not give up. She tries and tries, and years go by, but she doesn’t improve. Her mother, who always dreamed of her little girl on the stage, keeps insisting that she try harder, and that quitting is for losers. The girl is good in school and begins to develop a love for biology, and zoology, and wants to become a marine biologist. But that isn’t what a girl should be doing, her parents say. She stays in dance class until she fractures her ankle, and she is relieved that she doesn’t have to dance for someone else anymore.

The third girl is a good dancer, and she loves to dance. Her parents encourage her. She has good grades, and her parents tell her that she doesn’t have to keep dancing if she’d rather do something else. But she really wants to improve. They support her, taking her to lessons, encouraging her, watching her perform. The girl is driven, because she gets so much pleasure from dancing. It sweeps her away, it makes her feel right. It’s what she wants to do forever. When the time comes to choose a college, her parents tell her to “make the choice that you will never, not once, regret for the rest of your life.” They know she is too young to know something like that, but their experience tells them that the world is limitless, that their daughter will go as far as her drive, and that nothing gets done without hard work. There is only one way for her to know if she is good enough, she has to do it.

On the night of her first performance with a major ballet company, her parents are the ones crying in the crowd, maybe next to girl number one, because they are seeing how dreams come true. They come true because first you want them, then you prepare for them, then you prepare some more, and finally you choose them. You say “yes.”