Monday, February 8, 2010


If you practice enough, the common wisdom proclaims, you may not achieve perfection (although you might), but you may indeed achieve muscle memory, that precious ability that allows you to do without thinking and thus reach beyond the received standards of excellence. Buoyed by your muscle memory lapel ribbon, you may even achieve freshness, invention, ownership however temporary of the ability to demonstrate your art.

At some early age, most individuals are urged by their parents and teachers to practice. This urging is often at odds with a young person's own interests and enthusiasms, producing a stand-off in which there is no real winner, loss emerging as the dominant residue. You will appreciate in later years, the parent and/or teacher admonishes. Yeah, right, thinks the young person. There are those young persons who are drawn into practice by their own interest and curiosity, rendering it a form of play rather than a relative of discipline. Some of our cultural icons, Mozart, for instance, or Beethoven, or Schubert or Gershwin, and yes, girls, too, thinking Mendelssohn's sister, Fanny, and the likes of Margaret Drabble and her more famous sister, Antonia Byatt, strode forth in youthful play, developed their craft and their talent for craft. Others among us practiced at another level to the point where we became adept, yea, even unto the point of achieving muscle memory, but not at piano or poetry or composition, rather at loafing or scattering such attention span as we had in the interest of being well-rounded.

The result: a good deal of catching up by way of no longer reading for mere pleasure but for content; writing not for mere familiarity with the sixteen verb tenses of our language but for the ability to sketch in emotion and implication, the steady hand of subtext underscoring the even steadier hand of substance.

Thus at some relatively advanced age, the age beyond which we first had crushes on older persons such as teachers or the parents of our friends, or even the friends of our parents, into the age where we experienced hopeless crushes on contemporaries or near contemporaries. Thus we suffered the anguish of romantic loss, perhaps cataloging that loss with the loss of beloved pets, possibly grandparents, possibly even parents.

The next step on the learning curve was risking a full commitment for some achievement. Ah, the hours you spent trying to master the techniques needed for being an effective center fielder in the game of baseball! They were satisfying hours, emphasizing some abilities you didn't know you had such as speed and a sense of where a given batter might hit the ball. But there was the sinking--no pun intended--feeling that went with the increased knowledge that you could not hit the curve ball, and the growing awareness of others with whom you played that your knowledge was no secret. It took some--but not many--years for you to recognize that you were not much for spectator sports; your interest was in playing. A fond, avid reader, your interest similarly was predicated--note the verb there--on writing. You read others to write you.

Hail, your arrival at the risk plateau! Everything you read involves a series of risks. It is not merely that Writer A is more advanced or prolific or proficient or even more insightful; the risk is that you might find yourself taking chances that, even if successful, are derivative or worse, which is to say cliche. How do you like that? You don't, any more than you like the fact that a risk may not pay off. No wonder you feel such an affinity for Wile E. Coyote, thinking himself shrewd in his agenda to bring down Roadrunner, but more often than not finding himself having just overrun the edge of a mesa, nothing under him now but cubic meters of warm desert air to cushion the inevitable fall. Wile E. Coyote's destiny is to be humiliated as a result of his attempts to catch Roadrunner. You found ways of publication early enough on to give you the (mixed metaphor coming here) albatross of the Young Wonder, and it took you considerable time to get beyond that.

What do you risk when at the very outset, you abandon thought and proceed as though seeking your way in the darkness?

The simple and simplistic answer--for they are the same--is fresh discovery. A more sophisticated answer is an accidental insight or implication that supplies new dimension to the work at hand.

Both these qualities relating to discovery and potential art via accident may as well appear as the result of thought and, indeed, careful planning--but as well, they may not. Both qualities do not put in guaranteed appearances when you abandon thought before plunging into a work, leaving you with the quandary of what to do as (1) the beginning, and (2) any moment of having found a narrative wall you cannot scale or otherwise avoid smirks at you while waiting for your decision.

You move forth in as close a relationship with one of your characters as you possibly can, reaching toward one of that character's goals, feeling as much as possible that character's emotions and needs. This empathy forces you toward visualizing a specific scene where the goal is alive and radiating within the character. Now an obstacle, reversal, or distraction--all three, if possible. Whatever comes first.

Time later, after it has been written, to approach the ways of making it seem plausible.

1 comment:

Querulous Squirrel said...

This thing about muscle memory is very true. My writing has improved since I started blogging a story a day. But, on the other hand, when I write a really good story, I find I am tempted to skip a few days, to leave it there for all to admire, because I know the next few will likely be dregs. I have no control over when the good ones will arrive, and all of my writing is done in "public" on my blog. I know I have to stop this, as the daily writing is for me and for my writing and the admiration thing is totally bogus. So I'm due to write a story but the other thing is the more days I go without writing a story the weaker my muscle memory gets and harder it is to get started. It's easier when it's just a ritual that I do the first thing every day.