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My friend Sean Craven recently wrote an essay about practice.  (Has anyone not heard of Ericsson’s 10,000 hours of practice makes an expert theory?)  The entire essay is interesting, but what particularly struck me was this section:

But I have noticed not just in myself, but in most of the serious beginning writers I know, a sense of stern duty, of feeling that we must steel ourselves for the rigors to come. Writing these days feels like a polar expedition, where we expect to lose a finger or nose to frostbite in the process of starving to death while surrounded by bears.

I laughed out loud in recognition, of both myself and many of my writer friends.  In the last few months, I’ve lost contact with that touchstone of living an artistic life: remembering that I love what I do, and making sure I continue to love it.

It’s so easy to become concentrated on the duty aspects of learning a craft.  I must practice this many hours per week, or I must meet this minimum daily word count.  I must write x number of short stories, or add x number of songs to my repertoire.  I must work diligently on mastering a, b, and c issues that I know are holding me back from being the artist I want to be.  I need to submit or audition more, write better and faster, keep up with Writer K who seems to be achieving SO MUCH MORE than me in the same period of time.  And maybe I should consider attending another workshop or masterclass.

It’s not that these goals are inherently wrong or bad (except possibly for keeping up with Writer K, which is a slippery slope filled with disappointment).  But when your brain is filled with the ear-splitting chorus of duty, sometimes it becomes hard to remember why you started in the first place.  In other words, once a beloved hobby transitions into being “work”, how do we keep the fire going?

I faced a similar transition when I moved from office work to teaching music.  I worried that by making my living with music, I might lose my love for it.  This fear proved to be  unfounded because:

1. Teaching music was infinitely better than the office work I had previously been doing.

2. I really like teaching and working with kids and teens.

3. I really do love music and singing and particularly musical theater that much.

4. Finally, and I think this point is crucial, my job was to spread a passion for music, so I was constantly reminding myself of how cool and amazing music was and pointing out these elements to others.

I had to make some small adjustments to keep myself going: I transitioned away from teaching how to sing pop music, for example, because it began boring me to tears.  And my job was certainly not free of duty, not by a long shot.  But when I closed my studio this summer, I still loved music, singing, and musical theater just as much as when I started.  Thinking about this now, I realize I achieved no small feat in keeping my passion alive.

It is my belief that I love writing, fiction, and narrative just as much as I love singing and musical theater.  I’m just so weighed down by duty that I forget to think about the positive, and unlike at my studio, one of my principle duties isn’t to show how amazing writing can be.  On the contrary, I sometimes feel a certain amount of grumbling is required just so people understand that I’m actually working at all.

So I’m going to be trying out a little experiment for the next few weeks.  When I sit down to list my five happy things, I’m going to add something to the end: reminding myself of concrete reasons why I love to write.  My hope is that this exercise will allow me to enjoy writing more thoroughly, not because it’s an item on my to-do list but for the sheer joy of it.  When I stop and think, it doesn’t take me long to realize what a privilege it is for me to have artistic and challenging work.  I’m officially giving myself the time to remember.

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Over the past two years, since my entering into this crazy fiction-writing world, I’ve noticed that many of my compatriots are often discouraged, depressed, worn out, or feeling hopeless about their writing.  Serious devotion to writing as a calling and career seems to take quite the emotional toll.  And two years has been enough time for me to experience this emotional stress firsthand.

What is interesting to me is that I come from an arts background in music.  I did musical theater, got a BA in music, played my own music publicly in London, etc.  And my experience with music and being a pre-professional musician was in no way as brutal as my experience now of being a pre-professional writer.

Please note this is not because I think writing is inherently harder than playing music.  If anything, I think I have slightly more of a natural knack for writing than I do for music.  And I don’t think being a professional musician, especially one who makes her entire income through performance, is any easier than being a professional writer who makes his entire income through writing fiction.  But on the whole and in my own experience, being a pre-professional musician was easier than being a pre-professional writer.1 Here’s why:

1. Higher barrier to entry: Most American adults can sit down and write a sentence without having to practice first.  But have you ever heard someone pick up a violin for the first time and draw the bow across the strings?  If you haven’t, count yourself lucky because the results can be painful to the ear.  This basic difference means that being an aspiring musician generates more respect than being an aspiring writer.  It also weeds out most of the wannabe and non-serious musicians right out the gate, because to achieve even a basic level of musical competence requires non-trivial amounts of practice time.  This is not so with writing.

2. Simple mentorship system: As a musician, it’s common to have a private teacher who will mentor you, give you tons of individual attention, and keep you on the straight and narrow in terms of continuing practice and improvement.  Or you might even have several teachers for different instruments (for instance, at various times I’ve had private piano teachers, voice teachers, and composition teachers).  A good teacher will keep you encouraged and inspired most of the time, and kick you in the ass when you really need it.  There are many resources available for finding a teacher, and you pay a set fee for the privilege of study.  This contrasts to finding a writing mentor, which I don’t know how to do and which has no set way to achieve.  Interest one of the teachers at your workshop or your writing class, perhaps?  But once the class ends, then what?  There’s not a clearly defined business model for this as there is in music.

3. A more respected educational system: It is also common wisdom that a writer should major in something besides creative writing, and the opponents of the usefulness of an MFA in creative writing seem to be as numerous as the proponents.  While I’m not arguing these points one way or another, it stands in marked contrast to music’s mentorship system (discussed above) and higher educational system.  While if you’re doing certain kinds of music, a degree might not be necessary, most music programs help develop skills that will obviously come in handy later on, and musicians don’t tend to argue about their usefulness.  This means if you know that you need to build skills as a musician, you can have the institutional support of a university music program while not constantly worrying that you might be wasting your money.  I’m not saying there aren’t MFA programs that are fabulous, just that general opinion is mixed.  And thank goodness for workshops like Clarion, Odyssey, and Taos Toolbox and organizations like SCBWI that take up some of the slack here.  But workshops and organizations don’t generally offer the same consistency as a four-year program.

4. More emphasis on collaboration: As a musician, I had many opportunities to perform with various groups.  I was taught how to work with other musicians and had group performance opportunities in choirs, musicals, and operas.  Instrumentalists have orchestras, bands, and chamber music ensembles.  And then there are jazz bands and ensembles and rock or pop bands.  Finding other musicians to make music with tends to be pretty easy.  Writing, on the other hand, is a fairly solitary experience, and while one could argue that the critique group is the equivalent of a band, a lot of critique groups don’t meet as often and/or aren’t working together as closely.  The result of this can be a lack of deep working relationships.

5.  Possibilities to practice art in the real world: Speaking of performance, not only did I have many opportunities, both during college and afterwards, but it was highly encouraged, even expected.  A young and inexperienced musician went out and gigged, auditioned, joined a band, whatever.  And if you weren’t paid for your efforts for awhile, well, that was the norm while building up your chops.  Contrast this to writing, in which well-respected writers advise new writers not to submit to markets that pay less than five cents a word (the current “pro” rate).  Leaving aside the absurdity that a couple of cents per word one way or another isn’t going to make a difference in quitting your day job anytime soon, this attitude means that new writers are actively discouraged from showing their work in public unless it can hit the bar and taste of the few pro markets.  This in turn lowers motivation and increases both pressure to improve at unattainable rates of speed and accompanying feelings of futility and isolation.  For the pre-professional artist, any recognition, however small, is powerful incentive to continue, and in writing, there just don’t seem to be as many of these opportunities.

6. The stigma (or lack thereof) of indie artists: The indie music scene is vibrant, exciting, and most importantly, not overtly stigmatized.  In fact, it’s hip to be an indie musician.  Sure, you might have trouble paying your bills, but in return you get to make the music you want to make, thumb your nose at The Man, and live a musical life.  Most other musicians will either be actively supportive or not care one way or another.  Cutting your band’s own CD has gotten a lot easier with recent technology, and bands do it all the freaking time.  Contrast this with the indie writer scene (otherwise known as self-publishing).  You may have a hard time paying your bills this way too (or you may have an easier time if your name is J.A. Konrath), but regardless, other writers will sneer at you.  I’m not kidding.  The stigma against self publishing of any sort is incredibly strong.  It’s so strong that a lot of established professional writers aren’t putting their backlists (the rights of which have reverted to them) up on all the electronic platforms.  Now this might just be lack of business sense, lack of interest, or technophobia, but I find it very striking.  To me, this doesn’t even count as real self publishing because the work has already been published with a publishing house and received the full traditional treatment.  But I digress.  Most writers I’ve met are firmly in the “traditional-publishing-deal-or-bust” camp, even though distribution channels and producing a final e-edition of a novel have gotten much easier with recent technology, just as producing CDs is now easier.  The main effects of this attitude are less options for writers of all levels, not just the pre-professionals, and less emphasis on business innovation and experimentation with new business models.  Meanwhile, there are already huge amounts of self-published material flooding the marketplace with no gatekeeper, and somehow readers seem to be surviving the onslaught just fine.

All this said, I’m incredibly grateful for the assistance I’ve received from the writing communities I belong to.  My friendships and discussions with other writers have been some of the highest points of my writing life.  If anything, this analysis shows how critical these communities and fellow writers truly are.  But if nothing else, I hope this comparison between pre-professional musicians and writers will serve to illustrate the difficulty of the writing path, and encourage us to be supportive, patient, and kind to one another.

For those of us who are nonconformists, it can also act as a reminder that change may be coming, but change isn’t always such a terrible thing.

1 Note that I am most familiar with the speculative and YA communities in writing, and have at least passing familiarity with Classical, jazz, rock/pop, and musical theater in music.  What I’m talking about may not hold true in other genres or styles.

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Dichotomies are popular partly because they’re catchy and partly because they’re so easy on the brain.  Black vs. white, capitalism vs. socialism, introversion vs. extroversion, right vs. wrong.  Sometimes I wish things were actually this simple, but most of the time I don’t because these comparisons don’t allow any wiggle room or tolerance for difference or adjustment.

So when we talk about quantity vs. quality, both of these attributes contribute to overall well being and success (I’ll save defining “success” for another time).  Is one more important than the other?  I would argue that for many people, one is weaker than the other, and therefore we need to expend more effort and awareness on whichever side is more personally difficult.  Let’s look at some definitions.

Quantity:

  1. Music: number of hours spent practicing and learning new music.  Also preparing music for a performance or audition deadline.
  2. Writing: butt in chair principle; number of hours spent writing and revising, or a daily word count goal.  Also would include having a submission goal of how many markets you submit to per period of time.
  3. Interpersonal: amount of time spent both thinking about what your relationship (and loved one) needs and implementing that, whether by spending more time talking, doing activities, writing emails, cleaning the house, or what-have-you.
  4. Running a business: amount of time spent both on finding and implementing strategies in advertising, marketing, getting your name out there, as well as time spent providing your core service or product and planning special events.  Focused on goals either financial or quantity-based.

These are all great goals, concrete goals, measurable goals.  They require self discipline and commitment to achieve on a regular basis.  Unfortunately, sometimes quantity is not enough.  Standing in the practice room day after day for sixty minute practice sessions that go exactly the same way every time is not usually going to lead to improvement or make a great singer.  Being so obsessed with word count that you can’t afford the time to stop and think how you can use your words more effectively does not make a better writer.  Trying really hard to be a better spouse without being willing to take some personal risks isn’t always effective.

But what happens if we don’t focus on quantity?  Our brilliance is often derailed by lack of organization or dedication.  Projects don’t get finished or maybe don’t even get started.  Businesses fail due to lack of exposure or avoidance of hard financial numbers.  The people we love may feel neglected or friends might characterize you as a flake.  We might sound great when singing but our inability to learn music on time and behave professionally holds us back.

Quality:

  1. Music: choosing one or more technical suggestions to work through during that day’s practice session.  Being willing to try new things even if they feel weird and don’t work right away.  Working on what your teacher brought up during your last lesson and then giving her feedback as to how it’s going in practice.
  2. Writing: choosing subjects/stories that are close to your heart and therefore dangerous.  Taking the time to revise as much as a story needs.  Doing the necessary preparation work (whether that be research, outlining, note taking, character profiles, etc.) that you personally need to write your best story.  Focusing on a particular aspect of craft while writing, even if it slows the work down.
  3. Interpersonal: prioritizing by finding out what makes the most difference to the other person in the relationship.  Getting to the root of any issues between you.  Attempting to see that person without your usual bias and love them unconditionally.  Being honest and open about hard things as well as good ones.
  4. Running a business: Providing individualized service to your clients.  Prioritizing the goal of improving your product or your abilities.  Remembering the people factor in business.  Not cutting every single corner for cost reasons if the quality detriment is high enough.  Focusing on goals of service and satisfied customers.

What happens if we don’t focus on quality?  We work hard for many years and get “stuck” in the same spot, like we’re running in place.  We crank out large volumes of work lacking the spark that will lead to publishing that novel or winning that part during auditions.  Our relationships coast along but don’t necessarily deepen.   The business tends to get a higher than average turnover of clients or customers.  We rush to complete a task without thinking of the meaning behind the task and making sure we do it to their best of our abilities.

Now for me, quality is a lot harder than quantity.  Quantity is easy for somebody like me who has determination, self discipline, and organizational skills in spades.  Quality, on the other hand, is a bit more mystical because it depends on stuff you can’t measure in numbers.  It depends on taking risks.  It doesn’t always conform to plan.  It could end in spectacular failure instead of middling mediocrity.  So for me, I need to put a lot more focus on quality to get myself in balance.

What about you?  What do you need to focus on, quantity or quality?

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Another reason I really like the Newsweek article on creativity is that it explodes the myth of creativity has some kind of magical, inherent talent that someone either has or doesn’t have.  No, creativity can be learned, creativity can be taught, and creativity can be practiced.

When decoupled from its traditional fused relationship with artistic pursuits, this assertion makes perfect sense.  Thinking creatively is just another way of processing information, and if the human mind can be trained to memorize (and believe me, my brain was resistant to this one), it follows that it could also be trained to work creatively, that is, to combine divergent and convergent thinking into a coherent and well-practiced process.

Artists know this about creativity already, at least subconsciously.  It is why we obsessively practice.  Not only are we practicing our craft and our discipline, but we are also practicing creativity.  I’ll give myself up as an example.  I wanted to write a musical for several years before I sat down to do so.  Why did I wait so long?  Partly because I had no idea what to write about.  I couldn’t think of a single idea that I felt had enough merit to pursue.  I eventually had an idea, sat down, and wrote my musical in 2006-2007.  After a short-ish break, I wrote my first novel in 2008.  It was still hard for me to think of ideas, and I’m not just talking about that one break-out idea that is the best thing I ever thought of.  I had trouble coming up with any ideas, but at least it wasn’t as difficult as thinking up the idea for the musical.  During this time period, if I had a truly good idea, I felt like I had to hoard it, save it away until my writing skills improved enough to do it justice.  I certainly didn’t want to waste a good idea, after all.

It’s been two years since I started writing that first novel, and now I have lists of ideas.  There are so many of them that I’m sloppy and sometimes don’t write them down.  It feels as if there is a never-ending FLOOD of IDEAS pouring from my brain that I will never have time to explore.  I can sit in the bath and come up with two or three ideas that I believe have merit in twenty minutes.  No kidding, I did that last week.  Granted, coming up with novel ideas is still more fraught than thinking up ideas for short stories, because writing a novel is a much bigger investment of time and effort, so I want to be sure I’ve picked an idea that will still appeal to me in three months, or six months, or however long.  But it doesn’t seem to be the insurmountable task that it did only two or three years ago.

Why the radical change?  I think it’s because I’ve been practicing coming up with ideas to the point where it’s not a huge deal anymore.  Ideas don’t seem like rare precious things to hide away; the more I play with them, the more of them are born.  This may also be why there’s this huge disconnect between readers, who always ask where ideas come from, and writers, who get so sick of what seems like an obvious question that they sometimes lapse into snide remarks.  Writers have trained themselves to come up with endless ideas.  Readers who don’t also write have not, so to them it remains a mysterious process.

I don’t want to get into a big brouhaha about the current educational system in the United States, and how it’s not training creativity much at all.  Feel free to rant in the comments if it makes you feel better, but I’m just going to take lack of creativity nurturing in the public schools as a given at present.  Until this can be changed, the onus of teaching children how to think creatively lands squarely on the shoulders of parents.  I don’t have kids so perhaps I’m not the best suited to speak on this topic, but I have spent many years teaching kids, so I’ll have a go anyway.

Creativity Training for Kids:

  1. Avoid over scheduling. I’m serious.  Even if it’s all artistic classes, having constant structure even when at play is not going to foster kids’ opportunities to role-play, play make-believe, make up elaborate fictional worlds, or even develop the ability to entertain themselves.
  2. If a child shows a passion for a certain artistic or creative pursuit, encourage it. If he shows an interest in music, see if you can get him music lessons.  If she shows an interest in building complex buildings with Legos, see if you can provide the materials necessary for really innovative construction ideas.
  3. But don’t force a passion that doesn’t exist. As a long-suffering piano teacher, I can attest that forcing a child to play an instrument they hate is probably not going to encourage them to think creatively, unless they get elaborate in coming up with reasons why they can’t practice.  Instead, the child will develop negative associations with an activity typically associated with creativity, and therefore might ultimately devalue creativity itself.
  4. Allow a child to reason out the answer to her own question. Help her out if she needs it, but let her be an active participant in the process.  Also let the child hear you going through creative problem solving processes out loud, and if he wants to , even let him join in.
  5. Limit time with more passive, less creativity-motivating media. Yes, like TV.  I’m not saying no TV, but spending less time watching TV will give a child more time to do other activities that will engage their creativity.
  6. Read read read. Yeah, I know this one is obvious, but I couldn’t resist.  Read to your child, encourage your child to read to herself, ask your child questions about what he has read and what he thinks happened after the story ended.

Let me know if you have other ideas for how to help kids think creatively.  Also feel free to throw out your ideas of how you stimulate your own creativity.  (If you have no ideas about the latter, check out the blog post I linked to yesterday for a starting point.)

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Donald Maass said about originality in fiction, “Originality can come only from what you bring of yourself to your story.”

I think this idea is not only true in fiction, but also in blogging.  If, for instance, your interest is in writing, as one of mine is, you can read thousands of writers and would-be writers blog about their experiences.  Some writers are notably successful with these blogs; others have extremely small audiences (Hi Mom and Dad!).  The end goal of starting such a blog is not, at this point, to educate people about writing and the writing life — if people want to be educated, there are plenty of established places to go.

What’s interesting about writers as a group is that, in many cases, they inherently have something to say to the world.  In the blogosphere, this often ends up being about writing because that’s what writers spend their free brain cycles thinking about, but unless they’re writing a how-to-write book (which I’m told actually often sell better than novels, but that’s neither here nor there), a writer will be talking about other subjects in their actual creative work.  Part of being a writer, for me, is having that burning sensation somewhere in my chest that demands that I express myself.  Concurrent to that need is the belief that I actually have something to say, and that I can say it in a way that is unique to who I am.  Hence this blog, which is not primarily about writing so much as it is about what it means to be an artist, and more broadly, what it means to be human.  Amy-style, of course.

We don’t tap into our originality by pretending to be someone else, by hiding behind someone else more important than ourselves, or by adopting self-defeating thought patterns. (“I don’t actually have anything important or interesting to say” or “Why should anyone listen to me?” come to mind.)  We do it by engaging others in conversation about what is important to us, by daring to be both different and honest, and by having the courage to not always agree.

Playing it safe can sometimes be a decent strategy to employ in life, but when it comes to creating art or forging deep, intimate relationships, it can lead us away from our true authenticity.  For example, I was an amateur pop songwriter for many years.  At one point, after I had amassed a healthy repertoire of songs, I recorded them all, posted them on the Internet, and asked several friends to listen to them and rank their top five favorite songs.  I already knew which songs I thought were the best, both in terms of their musical qualities, the lyrics, and my ability to sing them well.  But I figured I would learn something from the experiment, and maybe come out knowing the one or two truly best songs that showcased my abilities.

What I found out was twofold: first, that my friends were more likely to pick the songs they were already familiar with.  (This is a well-known psychological effect that must drive some musicians crazy, as they are then forced to play and replay and replay the same top hit song from however many years ago.)  Secondly, and more surprisingly (and this was especially true of those listeners who weren’t as familiar with my songs), a few of my guinea pigs expressed a strong preference for my song “Crying”.

Why was this a surprise?  Because “Crying” had only barely made the cut of the songs I even included in this little experiment.  It was raw and edgy, hurt my throat to sing because whenever I sang it vocal technique went straight out the window, and it tore me apart to write it.  Singing it literally felt like sobbing.  Plus I didn’t think it was any good – it certainly wasn’t as polished as any of my other songs.  Even now, it makes me cringe to listen to it.

It did, however, lay bare my soul and a whole lot of feelings I was keeping inside.  I wasn’t playing it safe even a little bit when writing or singing.  And some of my listeners heard something that was true and passionate in that song, and so it was their favorite.

I don’t know about you, but I’ll take the audience that recognizes passion and authenticity over the one that wants the same old, same old repeated for the thousandth time.  I’ll take them any day of the week.

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