Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Craft and Canes

Henry James famously advised writers to "Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost." Alas, plenty of things sail right past me. I can claim, however, that I make immense use of the little that I notice. Let me pay serious attention to something and I'll chew at it until it looks like something the rats have been at.

All that by way of talking about my ankle yet again. (And about writing. Just bear with me a second here.) I'm walking around again, with the occasional wince, and I'm finding that I don't quite remember how I went about it all these years.

About 15 years ago, I returned from overseas with something that progressed into a nasty bout of encephalitis, and I temporarily forgot how to do pretty much everything--speak distinctly, walk, pick things up. At one point I found myself sitting on the toilet, pants down around my ankles, without the slightest idea in the world how I had usually stood up from that position. I knew I had always somehow grabbed my pants and pulled them up in the process of rising--but how? I don't recall when I learned to do this, and don't clearly recall a time when I couldn't, but for a very long moment I sat there trying to work it out.

Performing this action was a struggle for a couple of months. Now it's safely reinstated as an automatic piece of my wetware, and I'm once more not sure how I go about it. Some acts--like tightrope-walking--aren't improved by thinking about mechanics during the execution.

Writing is one of those sorts of activities. Thinking too hard about how the writing is crafted while writing results in all kinds of hesitations and stumbles. We're all happiest when it flows.

Many writers I meet are reluctant to think about issues of craft. In some cases, I'm guessing they like to think of the process as magical and don't want reason intruding on it. But I believe many of the others are fearful that if they think about the process--even when they aren't at the desk--they'll make themselves stumble and even fall.

There's something to be said for the theory that improving your practice can result in a major setback, at least initially. I'd certainly be able to type faster if I used all ten fingers, for example (I do most of this with my the index and middle finger on my right hand and my index finger and thumb on my left). But I've tried to learn real typing, and I'd have to slow w-a-a-a-y-y-y down before learning the new technique could make me faster. I hear this principle applies to many sports activities, such as swinging a golf club--if you learned to do it in a suboptimum way originally, you may have to suffer a decline in performance before you can learn new, better habits.

Now, I don't claim there's an exact analogy between physical coordination skills and writing, but I've sometimes discovered that there are, if not better ways of attacking a writing, at least many alternative ways of coming at a problem. When we start out, I think most of us are simply doing our best to do what we can do to tell the story. Later, when we acquire more skills, we begin to worry more about the optimum way to tell the story--and the more experienced you become, the more possible approaches you can see.

Trouble is, of course, if I drop my tried-and-true approach (I mistyped that as 'tired-and-true' the first time, which would be equally applicable) for something I haven't attempted before, I can find myself in the position of learning to walk all over again. Some people's resistance to thinking about craft may be nothing more than that: if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

But most scribblers are also voracious readers, and the more we write, the more we are prone to notice how other writers tackle a problem--say, their approach to exposition, or how they deal with the passage of time, or shifts in POV. Not only do we all tend to admire precisely those techniques we haven't already mastered, but some of them look damn handy...

But it's often like starting all over again.

I seem to do that a lot. Do you?


Jen said...

That's rawther spooky - I was in a barroom brawl in Birmingham, England in 1991 (don't ask) and got clubbed on the head by - something. For about six weeks afterward I had a serious short term memory problem that gradually went away. I'd be walking across campus (I worked at a university library) on my way to some other building to do something and - and I'd stop in the middle of the sidewalk because I suddenly had no clue where I was going, why I was going there, why I was even on what was obviously a college campus (wasn't I too old for that?), etc. etc. I wrote myself a lot of notes. And it did gradually go away but it was quite upsetting at the time. (No, it never occurred to me to seek medical attention. One of the darnedest things about concussions is that you aren't logical when you have one.)

Also, I've just started Part the Third of the Mindbender Saga and for the first time ever, it's not coming easily. Yeah, I know where people are and what they're doing and even what they're saying sometimes but putting the actual sentences together is like breaking bricks. I hope I didn't accidentally drill myself in the head (see blog).

During an allergic reaction to sulfa I once hallucinated that the cat was melting into the bed and tried to pull her out by her ears. Remind me to skip encephalitis as my current cat is not all that patient.

Ryan David Jahn said...

I tend to be of the opinion that if you're not learning you're probably stagnating, so with each new project I start I try to bite off just a little more than I can comfortably chew. Not a lot, mind you -- I don't deal well with failure; this is why I've never much liked chess -- but enough to keep me reaching, which in turn helps to keep me interested.

Sometimes, though, yeah: you write yourself into a corner and spend an awful long time staring at it, amazed that there ain't a door there. So you climb through the window instead.

Haarlson Phillipps said...

Excellent post. Thanks for sharing your experience of encephalitis, David. My ex-wife was struck with encephalitis. It was very scary. The scariest bit was before getting her to hospital (we were on a camping holiday in the Yorkshire Dales, a Bank Holiday and 40 miles from the nearest hospital and I didn't have a clue what was wrong. I wrongly thought it was sunstroke at first - yes, in the Dales!). The kids were eight and six at the time. It was about a year before she felt fully herself.
As goes craft, writing, practice and analogies with sport, well, wasn't it Gary Player who said something like, "The more I practice the luckier I get"? I'm no sports fan though I often take some inspiration from Johnny Wilkinson, the England rugby hero, who kicks a ball at goal 45 times every single day, from every angle and length. This is on top of his usual fitness programme. I practice every day - but I don't feel any luckier!
All the best.
ps It's not really a plug -- but you may want to check out my blog when you've time -- I've given you a positive namecheck in today's posting.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I call it the ugly duckling stage - when you learn a new set of techniques, but haven't integrated them into your practice, and for a while everything's awkward and you write worse, in a more sophisticated way, than you did before you started thinking about it.

A simple analogy would be when you've just bought a new piece of kitchen equipment, but a) don't know how to use it very well and keep frizzling things, and b) when you've got a familiar kitchen task, like melting chocolate or warming milk, it doesn't occur to you to use it anyway. Eventually, you realise one day that you can't remember how you managed without a microwave, and you never, ever frizzle the veg. Well, only occasionally.

I don't think there's any cure, except to know that eventually it will work out, the scruffy brown feathers will wear off, and you'll be the better for it, so it's worth keeping going. Ten-finger typing wihtout looking at your fingers, for instance. How does anyone ever write a limerick, let alone a novel, without being able to do that? :-)


David Isaak said...

Hi, Jen--

A major difference between you and me is that even today I would assume the cat had really been melting into the bed, and would conratulate myself of having saved it.

Hope Part Three begins behaving better for you.

David Isaak said...

Heya, Ryan--

There isn't always a convenient window, though. I need to start bringing along a chainsaw.

You're right--one's reach should always exceed one's grasp. But by how much--and how do you gauge the gap in advance?

Janet said...

Oh yes, I hear you loud and clear. I'm starting to think that "turning off the inner editor" is a pretty good technique. I can always fix the clunky bits later.

You have such an ability to put your finger on things. I'm always impressed by the things you come out with. What's your secret?

David Isaak said...

Hi, Haarlson--

I picked up my encephalitis in Vietnam. But according to Monty Python, Yorkshore is part of the Third World.

I actually didn't know you had a blog until just now. I clicked through. Very impressive, and undoubtedly very useful to many people. I'll draw folk's attention to it some day soon.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Emma--

You be surprised how fast I can type without using all ten. Sort of like a baby who decides to specialize in crawling rather than learning to walk--I won't win any races, but people are always astonished at my rate of crawling.

Luckily, I don't think very fast anyway.

I like "Ugly Duckling" as a metaphor for this. But sometimes in that situation I fear it may not grow up to be a swan, but just a really large Ugly Duck.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet--

"I'm always impressed by the things you come out with. What's your secret?"

I'm obsessive and neurotic. That makes it a snap to come up with things to wring my hands about.

Matt Curran said...

Totally agree, David, for me it's also about walking. If I try to think how I walk, I can't do it - I fall over my own feet. I'm just too conscious of myself.
Like talking in public: I can manage to bullshit to strangers as long as I don't listen to myself, because the moment that happens, is the moment I clam up and it doesn't flow anymore – I become literally tongue-tied.

While I like reading about writing on occasion, I don't get wrapped up in it, preferring to read prose rather than how prose is written. I guess that’s how I learn new tricks: by example, like a kid will learn new tricks in football (soccer) by watching David Beckham or Ronaldo performing it on the pitch – trying to replicate those same moves later in their back yard by repetition.

When it comes to talking about writing, it’s ephemeral because I’m too aware of what I’m doing. These aren’t secrets to me, because I’ve learned them from regularly available books. While I don’t mind getting my hands dirty from time to time, I also find that if I talk about how I do something too much, I become self-conscious about what I write. It doesn't feel natural. It's clumsy. It stalls...
Like walking.

So I've decided whatever I do, I won't be too self-conscious of my own breathing, or the beating of my heart...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Matt--

Oh, I agree. The really interesting craft issues are so integrated into long passages of text that they can't be dealt with in books on writing.

One of the reasons I re-read some novels is because if I'm engaged enough in the book the first time through, I can't (and don't want to) stop and examine how it was done.

On the other hand, I'm never reluctant to talk about how a given writer achieves a given effect (or fails to do so). Other writers often have great insights that wouldn't have occured to me.

I'd go on more here--except that your comments have made me think about so many things that I'm going to have to write a whole post (thanks for the idea).

And, oh, I agree--thinking about one's heartbeat is a very bad idea indeed.

Nikwdhmos said...

Hmm. Fascinating as always, David. Perhaps one of my weaknesses as a writer is that I tend to write new things based almost exclusively on a new technique, a new style, or a new vision I've either stumbled across or that I believe (but have no proof) is possible.

My reach is constantly exceeding my grasp, which is good in one way, but bad in the way that many of my works are failures. And when something is too easy to write -- when I haven't exceeded my grasp -- I get annoyed with it and start believing it is crap before I've finished it.

Leesha Ford said...

I just wanted to pop over to your site and visit for a bit! It was a pleasure to get to meet you in Torrance during Jamie's book tour!
Thanks for telling me about Tomorrowville-it's been great to look at some of your back postings! Great insight!

David Isaak said...

Hey, Nikwdhmos--

You've put your finger on the problem in a lot less words than I used in the post.

Acquiring any new way of doing something familiar, no matter how simple the skill, always seems to result in at least a slight setback. But if you're not pushing the limits, why bother, right?

As you point out, it's a dilemma.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Leesha--

Yes, it was great to meet you, too (though a book signing is always of necessity a rather fragmented and jumbled situation for a conversation.)

Jamie mentioned you write (and write quite well). What sort of things?

Nikwdhmos said...

I've noticed that a lot of writers are afraid of talking about craft, as well. That's why I like your blog so much. You talk about the nitty-gritty a lot.

This phenomenon -- experts not being able to explain why or how they do something (and in fact getting worse at what they do when they start to think about it ) -- occurs in martial arts as well. And in golf. It's the difference between natural talent and methodical training.

Tiger Woods, for instance, has retrained his swing several times -- and each time he slides backwards for a while until the new swing becomes natural. But after all that work, he is even better than before.

I believe this is part of the cycle of moving from unconscious competence to conscious competence, the typical method of developing any skill.

A year ago (almost precisely), I decided that my current writing style was too stiff and too stilted, and I started retraining myself. I identified two different styles that Cormac McCarthy used -- one verbose, one terse -- and tried to dissect them and apply them to my own writing. After I felt a bit more comfortable, I decided I wanted to try to develop at least a modicum of Michael Chabon's fascinating ability to lace in exposition in the middle of action. Since then, I've been picking and choosing new techniques and trying to add them to my skill set. It's likely I will never be the equal of any of these writers, but at least I feel like I am trying.

-Sam (S. Boyd Taylor)

David Isaak said...

Hi, Sam--

What a great comment! We're on exactly the same page.

Nice factoid about Tiger, too--I didn't know that, but it's spot on.