Easy, Painless, Fast. No side effects.
Those are the words you want to see associated with a treatment or remedy for whatever ails you.
It’s the same thing for improving a skill. Writing for example. We want our improvement at it to be easy, painless, fast. “Follow these three simple and patented steps and ‘Poof!’ You’ll be a better writer!”
Sorry Charlie! It doesn’t work that way! For pretty much anything that requires development of a skill or set of skills in order to achieve success, effort is required—despite the innuendos on the covers of many writer magazines.
For a writer, the primary skill isn’t so much enhanced word-smithing skills as having a very good imagination. I’m not going say a really good story writes itself, but it is a very good lubricant for the creative mind. Absent creative thinking, the best wordsmith will not succeed as a writer. A writer must tap into his or her own imagination and the imaginations of the readers to leave behind emotional fingerprints. A writer requires more than technical skill with language; he or she must be capable at using that skill to touch the soul of the reader. To achieve that, a writer needs to able to look at the same things that other people do but see something different or with a different perspective—even see what others cannot imagine. Writers simply think differently. They shine light into the nooks and crannies of intellectual darkness, and pry up the rocks and look underneath. They poke around in the cracks and crevices of life—their own and others—and shine a different light on their findings, which they observe through lenses of alternative perspectives.
To get better at anything requires effort, but to develop and hone the ability to see options and alternatives that other don’t, depends on the variations in the willingness, and talent it takes—as they say—to think outside the box. You’ve heard the phrase: When things get tough, the tough get going. There’s a lot of truth to that when it comes to writing. Where most endeavors get easier as you gain experience, and thus expertise, writing can work in the opposite direction: It can get more difficult in order to get incrementally better. And you might sometimes have to stop, backup, and simply start over. The reason for this is simple: Once you achieve the fundamental knowledge and practice as a writer, the challenges of creativity become, well, more challenging. Writing involves skills you identify and label as well as skills and talents that defy definition. They aren’t always subject to objective description. A writer has to embrace the concept of “unknowingness.” It’s a world where extra effort does not always produce improvement. A writer’s transmission can have as many gears for reverse as for forward. And, progress is not always neat and clean.
Writers’ magazines are filled with articles stuffed with rather practical writing advice and recipes for success, but you’ll be hard pressed to find the article that delves into how to create the nuances of behaviors and facts that bring a character, say on with mental illness, for example, to life on the page. (Once again we return to the joke of the cabbie responding to the question if he knew how to get to Carnegie Hall: “Yes. Practice, practice, practice!”) But practice delivers no guarantees when it comes to writing. Running the scales on your clarinet has the side benefit of making you more nibble in playing difficult passages of a concerto, but in writing the playing (what lands on the page) will not likely get easier. Each new sentence, each new paragraph is like starting over from scratch. There are many facets to a writer’s skills—some technical, others more ethereal in nature. The latter is difficult, but therein lay the keys to success.
A writer’s talents may not so much involve seeing the obvious but seeing the unobvious within his or her life experiences and activities and experiences of others. A writer relies on unfocused facets and unsupported extrapolations. They must bring clarity to the unfocused and unclear.
So many things we do in life require an enhanced level of discipline and “rule compliance.” Writers reside in a world beyond that, where they need a disciplined level of undisciplined thinking and wildly variable observation skills so they can see what others cannot, and to invent what they can not see, and to bring it all to life in words.
Writers not only think differently, they literally see differently. As a young child I had a hand-me-down tabletop radio that would suddenly spasm into a cacophony of noise. That’s probably why I got it! I learned, through frustration, that if I smacked it just right on its top with my fist it would start to behave again. Undoubtedly a loose wire somewhere, but to my eight-year-old self, I had the magic touch.
A writer must not lose that magical sense of wonder about real things by allowing age and the maturation process to brush aside the output of imaginative thinking and creative reflection. What’s the line: From the ridiculous to the sublime to the sublimely ridiculous. That describes the boundaries of a writer’s territory. And the closer you hang around the border of sublimely ridiculous, the better off you’ll be!
But don’t expect it to be easy, painless, or fast.
Remember: practice, practice, practice!