For some time now, I have been obsessed with learning the basics, or at least about getting them right. Like a guitar player who must routinely strum and then make chords so that later they can rely on muscle memory to eventually kick in. Or as my niece says, play without looking. It’s been six years and without a steady music teacher, I am beginning to see places where my tactics are working, and others where they have fallen short. I realize, however, that if you stick with it and do them often enough, there comes a time when it begins to feel like magic, as though your fingers are actually flying off the guitar as you move between chords: going from G to A to D. Or vice versa.
This is a result, like muscle memory, of something that has already become ingrained in you. This is what a writer and anyone learning a new skill aims for. Something called mastery. Effortless proficiency which is an indication that your hours of hard work has indeed paid off. And this is why so many beginner questions may seem like an affront to anyone who has already put in their hours. Or paid their dues, because the struggling writer, grappling at straws, may seem more like someone aiming to know outright, something that has taken them ages to master.
Worry not, the answers will come.
Even to questions that at first may seem rather pesky. Questions about the very semblance of a writer’s life. Questions about routine, and schedules and writing utensils. For me the beauty of writing has always been that all you need is a pen and pieces of paper. Yet for the beginner it becomes: Which pen? What type of paper? Or even more probing questions, like where do your ideas come from? A couple of weeks ago, I watched a youtube video where Neil Gaiman joked with an audience member that writers are awful to people who ask such questions and that such questions shouldn’t be asked of writers. In many ways I agree with him, although I am also beginning to understand the need for the question in the first place.
Remember the writer, grappling at straws, is trying to figure out just how this thing is actually done. Needing only a little bit of guidance and maybe luck. Although persistence will be the best advice in the end.
How to learn the basics and get some handle on writing utensils? you ask. Get a good book on grammar like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Read a lot. And most definitely, write a lot. And concerning writing utensils, they tend to vary. The writer and instructor Natalie Goldberg suggests writing in a funky notebook like the ones you would get for back to school. The ones with tweety bird. I use them sometimes, but I also write on yellow legal pads (like John Grisham) and use inexpensive faber pen. Although any other brand will do. You might need to keep a stapler or binder nearby to collate everything. I like Goldberg’s suggestion because she says as writers we should try not to take ourselves too seriously, especially when what we are trying to do is be creative. So if time permits, take a read of: Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones or Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. These are two excellent books for writers at stage of their writing career. And also check out Chuck Wendig’s site: terribleminds.com. It always has lots of info for writers.
Until next week, keep reading, writing and blogging!