My parents were cleaning out their house the other day and decided to get rid of the old piano. Seeing it go to my young cousin brought back memories of my attempts to learn to play. I didn’t take lessons, at first. I just banged away on the thing, sure that I was creating masterpieces. I was sure that I was the one in a million prodigy who didn’t need lessons. I could create and compose beautiful works without any formal education, thank you very much. (I’d like to apologize now to my parents for subjecting them to that!)
Then came the lessons. I hated them. Lessons did not jibe with my image of myself as a prodigy. Practicing scales and simple pieces felt like going backward. It was boring and frustrating. Did I really need to learn how to place my fingers on the keys? Did I really need to practice Chopsticks again? I did not (I thought to myself). So I rebelled. I whined. I dragged my feet. I refused to practice what was assigned and went back to creating my “masterpieces.”
Thankfully, my parents insisted that I stick with the lessons for a year. The first six months were a battle, with one or both of them hovering over me making sure that I did what I was supposed to do. Then something happened. I started to get better. I progressed to better pieces. I played in a couple of recitals and found them fun. The practice became something that, while I still didn’t look forward to it, I didn’t hate because I could see that it had value. I started to enjoy learning the rules of piano playing. And I gave up on my masterpieces because I realized they were really crap. Once I understood the “rules” of the piano, I understood that I was breaking them all to no good effect.
Today I’m still not a prodigy or even particularly gifted on the piano. (Others in my family have the gift and I know that I don’t have it compared to them.) But I am proficient. I may never play in Carnegie Hall, but I can hold my own. I know the rules and I sometimes break them, but now I understand what rule I’m breaking (and why) and it sometimes turns out well. I occasionally compose my own work for fun and it’s not completely terrible because now I know what I’m doing.
So why am I telling you this story? Because learning to be a better writer follows much the same journey for most of us. When I started writing, it was pretty much the piano all over again. (Possibly worse because in this case some well-meaning teachers had told me that I was a good writer, fueling my prodigy fantasies even further.) I churned out poetry that I thought was deep and wonderful. It wasn’t. I churned out novels that I believed would make me millions of dollars. They didn’t. I churned out articles that made no sense and had no focus. None of this was because I had bad story ideas or nothing interesting to say, but because I had not yet mastered the basics of the craft. My grammar was poor and my punctuation was worse. I didn’t know the first thing about novel or article structure. I didn’t have the discipline required to learn the rules (and I didn’t really think I needed it because, hello, prodigy here). I just banged out whatever caught my fancy and thought it was wonderful. Agents and editors were less than enthusiastic.
The good news is that those piles of crappy manuscripts were practice. I learned something from each of them (primarily that poetry should be left to others because I am really bad at it). At first I thought, “Phooey. Those people who are rejecting me don’t know anything.” But then I slowly realized that they were right. I needed more practice before I would be even close to publishable. So I wrote more crap and gradually found that it got better. I got some low paying assignments and won a couple of contests. I took some courses and read a lot of how-to and reference books. In other words, I learned the rules of writing and publishing and I practiced.
My writing career has progressed, although I’m still not where I want to be. But I’m closer. I still don’t know all there is to know, and I likely never will. Through practice, I understand the difference between good work and bad. I know that I cannot just slap words on the page and expect them to be good. I have to learn the craft and master the rules (and then play by the rules when seeking work). Only then will my work be good enough to earn money and support me.
We all want to believe that we are the exception, the prodigy, the “gifted one.” We want to believe that we will succeed on the first try and be the overnight success story; that everything we churn out is gold. The truth is that most overnight success stories have often spent years laboring in obscurity before hitting it big. The media conveniently leaves out their failed attempts and years of struggle in an effort to make the story more glamorous. Success in anything, be it writing, piano, or painting, requires lots of practice. The oft-quoted number is 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at anything. You have to learn the fundamentals before you can progress.
It’s not always fun or glamorous and sometimes it’s downright painful, but practice is the only sure way to succeed. If you think you can skip it because you’re that, “one in a million,” you might be right. Likely, though, you’ll simply find yourself having to go back and practice like the rest of us. Welcome to the club.
(Photo courtesy of Pedro Ribeiro Simoes)