Leading Against Your Strengths

Practice is necessary to the development of skills in every field, from work to sports to Metronomeart. Watching Wimbledon this week reminds me of the hours I put into tennis when I was a kid, tossing balls in the air to practice my serve over chalked marks in the driveway, hitting shots against our uneven garage door. Originally my backhand was lousy, but years of leading with it in practice turned it into my best shot. In Jeremy Denk’s fascinating article on his life in piano lessons (“Every Good Boy Does Fine,” The New Yorker, April 8, 2013), he quoted his teacher, the Hungarian pianist György Sebők, as saying that you don’t teach piano playing at lessons; you teach how to practice. Practice is where the learning occurs. Good students know what they need to drill.

Writing is unusual in that the most intense practice happens in the course of writing drafts. Even if we attend classes, keep a journal or follow writing prompts, the real work of improving our writing takes place on the ground. We practice on the very same pieces that will become our finished product. Everything that goes into that – all the brainstorming, outlining, writing and rewriting – is both part of perfecting a particular manuscript and part of learning our craft.

I’d like to suggest that you structure your approach to new work with a view to pushing yourself in your areas of weakness. I don’t mean that you should tamper with what inspires you, whether you begin with a character, a plot, an insight or something else. My suggestion comes at the next stage, when you begin to outline or brainstorm scenes. If you’re great with character but weak on plot, then push yourself to consider the what if’s of plot – to get some ideas on the table. If you’re great with plot, then try to invest some early work in your characters. If dialog is your best shot, then experiment with action and description. If description, then make your characters talk. We all have to deal with our weaknesses when we’re revising: the idea here would be to increase your awareness of those areas at the outset – not only to enrich the manuscript in front of you, but to work on your mastery of writing skills.

Once your manuscript gets going, you’ll naturally play to your strengths. You won’t be able to help yourself from paying attention to the aspects of writing that you love. But if you start by leading against your strengths, then over time your weaknesses should improve in a more integral way, rather than just being something other people always have to tell you to fix at the end.

You know better than anyone else what needs work. Own it. Drill it. Be brave.

Remembering To Play Pretend

If you’re a writer, then I’m guessing you played pretend when you were a kid. Your dolls had distinct voices, your trucks, loads of attitude. Your forts housed secret heroes in hidden rooms. If you had a stick, you could have a character. Some of you may have even had imaginary friends. I did. I once begged to return to my grandparents’ house because I’d forgotten to bring home my ‘visbul friends. My parents just laughed, but the next time we visited, I was relieved to find my friends hanging out in my grandparents’ basement. I never actually pictured their bodies – personality was enough. They were big talkers, my friends. I supplied all the dialogue, of course, but that wasn’t how it seemed to me then.

So much of our creative process as adults seems to center on rules and restrictions. Writers may not mean to intimidate each other into normative behavior, but sometimes I’m concerned that we do. Use third person, not first, if you’re a serious writer. Don’t vary your point of view. Never use backstory. Show, don’t tellDon’t use serial commas. Don’t forget serial commas. The list goes on. But with first drafts especially, forgetting about the rules and being willing to experiment is essential. You want to remember how to play pretend.

1. Keep asking “What if?”

“What if?” is at the heart of all games of pretend – really, of all acts of creation. The way I kicked things off as a kid was “I’ll be….” I’ll be this lion tamer – at a circus – and the lions will secretly be my friends. We’ll go on adventures. And you – you can be a monkey who turns into a human at night. You get in trouble – no, you overhear the owner. He’s a crook and no one can stop him, but us…. Writing first drafts is like that. Free-wheeling, open, changeable, exciting. You take on a part, imagine the place, the challenges, the other players, and you go. I don’t mean you can’t outline. But you don’t want to worry if you’re getting it “right.” Instead of crappy first drafts, try thinking of crazy first drafts. Glorious, all-in, no-holds-barred first drafts. Be a kid.

2. Inhabit the moment

Inhabit the moment – be fully there in your mind. When kids play pretend, they don’t let normal things break the spell. The room or yard and everything in it become part of the make-believe world. When you’re writing a first draft, try to recreate that feeling. Be present in your work. Sink all the way in. Take on the mind set of your main character and see what’s around you, sense it, feel it, notice how it affects you. Truly hear what others say. Write it all down. This is your raw material – you can shape it later.

3. Trust yourself

As writers, we have to cycle through more than one stage in our work. We need to be open to criticism – to hear what others tell us – to continue to learn. We need to edit our own work with honesty and detachment. We need to be professionals who hold ourselves up to high standards and who can handle the business aspects of our careers with aplomb. But when it comes to first drafts, it’s time to put all that aside. We can’t edit before we’ve even let ourselves create. We have to remind ourselves that this is something we love. Trust your own talent. Let yourself be young.

You may just find the only hard part is typing fast enough.

Does a way you played as a kid ever come to mind when you write? Please feel free to comment.