Monday, November 7, 2011

A learning curve for writers?

A writing friend's blog recently generated the following question in the comments section and she invited answers.  It was such an interesting question and my sojourn in the stone age as a result of Winter Storm Alfred gave me time to contemplate a response.

What should a burgeoning writer’s learning curve look like?

I started writing without KNOWING how to write i.e. creating a scene, plot development, arc, transformation.
I’ve been to writers conferences for memoir over the past couple of years, and no one addressed these subjects! So I just kept writing. I wasted a lot of time.
I’ve been writing full time for 2 ½ years, and now just beginning to incorporate these practices. If I had known this from the beginning, I wouldn’t be feeling so burnt out and frustrated.
I understand the first book is the hardest, but I sure wish I knew the elements of writing a long time ago.....Lisa Mae on Soul of A Writer

Dear Lisa Mae:
When it comes to writing, I'm not sure there is a "learning curve," or at least not one readily identifiable. A learning curve suggests that there is some trackable, documentable, progression that a writer might follow. Alas, I doubt there's any such thing.

According to recent studies, true mastery of any skill is generally achieved after approximately ten thousand hours of practice. If you've really been writing for all of those two and a half years, you have not wasted your time.

Two and a half years is a drop in the bucket for most of the writers I know. And while I sold my first novel within two and half years of beginning to write it, my learning curve began when I began to write as soon as I learned to read – little two and three sentence stories. I wrote my first novel in high school as a senior project. I was blessed with parents who not only valued education enough to provide me with one of the best available in late 20th century America, but also generally supported my first literary attempts. Writing fiction is something I've been practicing since I was five.

According to Somerset Maughan, there are three rules for great writing, but no one can agree on what they are. No one can tell you what they are for you, anyway, and that for me is the number one difficulty when it comes to discussing measures by which a writer might gauge his or her progress.

In terms of progress, I believe much depends on where it is you want your writing to go. For me, as a novelist, the progression might be described as finishing a publishable manuscript, submitting that manuscript, getting an agent, selling that manuscript, and then going on to write and publish more.

But what exactly a publishable manuscript is, and how you go about producing one, are subjective matters all their own. Until relatively recently, memoir wasn't a topic you saw much of at writers' conferences.

The effective practice of writing involves craft, skill and art. In terms of skill and craft, certainly there are things one can learn and whether one learns those things in grammar school, high school, college or absorbs them on one's own doesn't really matter. I think one might identify a goal for yourself (I want to write a memoir as affecting as Angela's Ashes, or, I want to write a novel as great as Ulysses, for examples) and then plot a trajectory backwards. Just understanding that there are things you need to learn is a step in the right direction..or write direction if you will pardon my very dreadful pun.  Writing coaches, mentors, critique groups, community colleges, online courses and writing conferences can all be very helpful in determining specific steps to take.

But the real reason there is no definable or readily perceivable learning curve for any individual writer is that beyond acquisition of the skills required, beyond the practice of the craft, is the art of writing itself. I practice the art of writing every day not because I write well or badly or anywhere in between but because I must. And even after years of practice and a list of published work, the learning curve I perceive ahead of me is still a straight arc up.

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