Learning is a funny thing.
Beginner’s luck is a very real phenomenon. The very first time we attempt a thing, and this surely includes writing, we often do very well: by not having preconceptions and a head full of rules, we act spontaneously and without artifice, and in the process come up with a result which—however lacking in technical sophistication—is true, and may even be Art.
After that, things appear to go downhill. Encouraged by the first, surprising result, we want to understand more, to learn rules and skills. We buy a book on the subject. Maybe we take a class. Suddenly, it’s as though we’ve taken a bite of the forbidden apple: where before was only innocence and spontaneity is now duality, the knowledge of success and failure and the means to judge it… which we, if not others, surely will. Where before we were playing, we now have to struggle within a framework of rules and judgment. Play becomes work, and that’s the kiss of death for creativity, the point at which so many lose heart.
You can see this process at work in any class. Initial high enthusiasm, then a sudden, big die-off. A large remainder will stumble on for a little while, not enjoying the process at all, dropping out by ones and twos in the weeks and months that follow, until at the last a core of just 10%-20% of the original enrolees is left. If the teacher is a poor one, or the mix of students unfortunate, a class of twenty or thirty will dwindle to zero.
As writers, if we’re serious, we quickly start submitting work for publication, starting with the top markets in our chosen genre. We begin collecting rejections, impersonal form letters at that. And though the toughest, the tenacious few, will grit their teeth and carry on, most of us eventually lose heart and turn to something less punishing.
One thing I’ve found useful is to act as if, to pretend that we have the chops we actually don’t yet; or, as Pat Cadigan once put it, “show me what you wish you had.” Now, there’s a lot of motivational hooey out there that suggests that this technique generates some kind of cosmic vortex of opportunity, which is fine if you want to buy into that—I don’t. But what it does do is free you up, give you the space to play again, allow you to act spontaneously. It changes your line of attack from timid to confident, from negative expectations to no expectations, from fear to fun. Let go of rules and fears and hit that keyboard in the spirit of Nabokov or Cordwainer Smith, Tom Wolfe or Roger Zelazny. Go for it. Take risks.
I took guitar lessons for a while. One-on-one, with a teacher I greatly admired. As a somewhat compulsive perfectionist with high expectations of myself, I was nervous to the point of paralysis at every lesson; try as I could, I couldn’t relax, which totally stopped me feeling the rhythm or getting into any kind of groove. I was a terrible student, and eventually dropped out.
At home, away from my poor teacher’s laser gaze, I one day just let go, attacking the instrument with spirit and abandon, sacrificing technique for sheer heat; I wanted to feel what it was like; so I pretended, just for a moment, I had all the chops. The effect was a revelation. Before long, I found rhythm and beat, I started to sound good. I’d rediscovered the spirit.
Like gas in an engine, there has to be something to power our efforts, and I believe that thing is our spirit, our creative impulse. You gotta have fire.
This is a technique you can apply to writing. I’d likely be wrong if I told you you’ll turn out deathless prose on your first try, but I promise that if you do this faithfully, from your heart, hitting the page with the spirit of a samurai, the results will be both surprising and motivating. Yeah, you’re probably going to have to go to back to the rules once in a while, but if you can begin to incorporate spirit into your work, you’re more likely to both enjoy it and not hamstring yourself from the get-go. Fear and timidity are Art’s deadliest foes.