Ever find yourself on your high horse—you know the feeling: a bit self-centered and full of yourself about some insight or opinion you’ve taken or adopted. Like you’ve cornered the market on some invaluable elemental piece of knowledge. You may even have criticized or denigrated those holding opposing views. It’s a “condition” a writer can occasionally fall into . . . but should avoid.
I call it a condition although attitude might be more accurate.
A long ago favorite lawyerly cartoon expressed the feeling quite accurately: One of the nine justices leans over slightly forward in the line of seated colleagues and says: “Frankly, gentlemen, my dissent will be rather brief—You’re all full of crap!” A wise jurist would find such a statement imprudent to make, but as likely would have liked to have said it as he listened to some windbag lawyer drench him in legal balderdash.
I would on occasion share the image during a closing argument, then tell the jury that I appreciated their attention and reminded them it was indeed they, who, once in the jury room, would decide the case based on their assessment of the evidence and the facts. They were free to dismiss in totality my comments and those of opposing counsel. Of course, the psychology behind my comments was that a jury tended to follow the suggestions of the lawyer who told them they had every right to ignore him. Ah, the power of reverse psychology!
There’s elements of that approach at play anytime a writer, or teacher, presents a list of “warm-up” exercises newish writers might use to, well . . . I guess . . . warm up. I’m not so sure the “assignment” was intended to help the audience as much as to stroke the creative ego of the teacher or prof giving it. Typing a few lines to get used to the feel and action of a never-before-used keyboard makes sense, but if there is anything to warm up it’s not the writer’s fingers but her his or her brain, and the best way to that is put it to work—writing.
Most proffered writer warm-ups, as the good justice would say, are crap. The physical and frequently repetitious act of a writing exercise is unlikely to help make you a better writer; it’s the required mental contemplation behind the effort that does, which brings me to a recent e-mail that landed in my in box entitled “10 Writing Warm-Up Exercises.” My first response was, “Just what the hell am I warming up? But writers are attracted to metaphors that link the unbelievable to the believable. Do screenwriters warm up by writing silly dialogue? Well, as you think about it, why not. Whatever gets your creative juices flowing can be a warm up, but there is a limit. I’m not going to jot down random sentences or conjugate a few esoteric verbs to warm up the literary segment of my brain. Thinking does that. Writing does that. Doing what you do as a writer does that.
I certainly understand that you might start writing and have to wonder around a bit to find or get back into your grove. Arguably, that could be called warming up, but immediate editing and rewriting—write a paragraph and then immediately rewrite it with the goal to make it better—might be considered a warm up exercise, too. It might also serve to develop bad writing habits.
Writers should avoid wasting time on frivolous activities and exercises that serve little more than to waste time or keep them from their primary effort(s). I keep saying it: to become a better writer you need to constantly work on making your writing better. If you want to write a really good story, your focus should be on writing a really good story. Reading some really good stories by other writers might serve you better than diddling around doing writing exercises. Again: writers don’t exercise, they write!
I take a view contrary to many who say speed should come first—just get something down on paper as fast as you can and fix it up and make it pretty later. To me that excuses and reinforces sloppy initial effort. It’s like Groundhog Day if you’re constantly repeating the rough-then-refine process ad infinitum. You really want to learn to get better by being closer to right out of the starting gate. That’s the horse that win races.
You may chew up a few paragraphs to recapture the flow of your efforts from yesterday or whenever, but your focus should be on your primary effort—the draft or whatever you’re working on.
Editing and redrafting is the writer’s exercise program. It serves the same purpose as calisthenics for a runner—tone the muscles you use so you run (write) better. But the focus always should be to get to your best effort as soon and directly as possible. Rewriting should become more a process of closing a gap than crossing a chasm.
At play, is the ever-present inclination to think there is some magical formula or hidden power that will reach out and take your wrist and guide you through the creation of beautiful prose? Sorry, those guys are still on assignment helping make the cobbler’s shoes. They are unavailable to help you cobble together your prose. You’re mostly on your own. Later a friend or editor might have something to say!
We have a natural inclination to find similarities between our activities in one area of effort with those in another—usually through metaphor, analogy, and simile. But the differences between writing and any analogical effort are there and are intellectually important. Writing is not like combining the ingredients of a recipe. A writer first has to create the ingredients before s/he can mix them together into a tasty batter. The writer must determine just the right quantity of each ingredient and how to best blend them. It is the ultimate in baking from scratch.
Think of it, with words you are painting pictures (sorry about suddenly shifting my metaphors) in some reader’s mind. You are also tapping into the reader’s emotions, and though you might be tempted to wax eloquent by describing that first paragraph as similar to pulling back the bow and feeling the tension and taking control to put the arrow in the center of your target, it pretty much boils down to the basics of communication—effectively sharing an idea or telling a story: enabling and empowering your readers to relive the experience about which you have written.
But writing exercises are dissimilar from their exercise brethren in critical ways. You sit, charged with expanding your writing skills by writing about trivial examples or concepts. An example: select an object on your desk and write about it for two minutes. (A real exercise I’ve come across.) Reminds me of the contestants on the 1950s TV show called “Beat the Clock.” They would be given a set amount of time to complete some silly and slightly challenging (awkward) task, say capturing some very slippery object (an egg) with an equally slippery spoon held in his or her mouth and dumping it into the narrow opening of an equally slippery container. You had to be there, but you get the idea: busy work with little or no purpose beyond being entertaining.
The question, of course, is what is the precise purpose, i.e., value, of a suggested exercise? For the TV show it was to beat the clock and win prize money. For the writer, it is ALWAYS about becoming incrementally better at your craft and reflecting the best of your present abilities. Too many writing assignments send you off on a wild goose chase of sorts, and rather than bring you to the outer boundary of your current skills and encourage you to step across to the next level, they become redundant.
So you read the warm-up assignment: write a scene blah, blah, blah. It might require some initial thought and planning and organization, but still smacks of a warm-up exercise, and a potentially time-consuming one at that. You’re closing in on eating up two hours and for what exactly? You still have to shift gears and start back down the road to your primary effort.
One more time, with feeling: Writers don’t need to warm up. They need to write. Writing is warming up. You warm up by writing—focused and on topic. But if you like wasting time, here are a few exercises I recently came across:
- Write for five minutes about the last book you read. (Isn’t that a mini-book review?)
- Write for five minutes about a recurring dream or daydream. (If it’s recurring, you might want to have a chat with your therapist, or think about developing it into a psychological thriller.)
- Write for nine minutes about your first day of school. (How much time might you have to first invest in plumbing the depths of your childhood memories in preparation for that?)
Don’t waste time. Time is viscous and will escape your best efforts to contain it. To be productive, focus your efforts on things that are truly productive. Writers mostly don’t need to practice writing; they need to make writing their practice. To do that, you need to climb down off your high horse, sit down, and get to work.