Heinlein’s Rules and Thinking Out Loud

I’ve been re-listening to Dean Wesley Smith’s Heinlein’s Rules and Practice Lectures, and the applicability of H’s rules to all forms of creativity really struck me. You get better at it by doing it and getting it out into the world. Don’t worry so much about it, ignore the perfectionism demons, just do it and get it out the door. You learn by doing, so following H’s rules gives you the nudge to practice, practice, practice: something I need right now.
It comes at the same time as I’m realizing that I need to learn to think out loud again, or, maybe more generally, think outside my head. In the (gulp) fifteen years since college, I’ve gradually let that part of me atrophy. Just like I now ache if I have to sit cross-legged for any length of time, I struggle to fully develop ideas on paper or in conversation. I can think through things–stories, or arguments, or learning something–completely inside my head, without recourse to writing or talking. And it was fine to do that, because I was busy with other things, like a couple of small children. The kids aren’t so small any more, and I can see the rapidly-approaching day when we will need to start having some pretty in-depth conversations about a whole lot of topics. I feel unprepared for that, which worries me. Simultaneously, I’m re-engaging with my love of words and writing, stories and ideas. I used to be able to toss off a twenty page paper in a few days: the idea makes me shiver now. But having that facility with getting words and ideas out of my head and in the open will help me immensely. And that requires practice, which means getting words and ideas out of my head and in the open on a regular, frequent, basis.
And that is, fundamentally, what a blog is. If I ignore the rules (Heinlein notwithstanding, I hate rules) about how to create a popular/successful blog (posting frequency, including pictures, staying on-topic…), it would be a great tool for me. The trick is to, of course, write things down, and put them up on the blog. Looks a lot like Heinlein’s Rules.

Williams: Luxury Is The Wolf At The Door…

Luxury is the wolf at the door and its fangs are the vanities and conceits germinated by success. When an artist learns this, he knows where the dangers lie. Without deprivation and struggle, there is no salvation and I am just a sword cutting daisies.

Tennessee Williams

Richardson: Nothing Important…

Nothing important comes with instructions.

James Richardson.

Merton: Finally I Am Coming To The Conclusion…

Finally I am coming to the conclusion that my highest ambition is to be what I already am.

Thomas Merton

O’Connor: I Can With One Eye Squinted…

I can with one eye squinted take it all as a blessing.

Flannery O’Connor

Godin: An Enemy of Fear…

…an enemy of fear is creativity. Acting in a creative way generates action, and action persuades the fear to lighten up.

Seth Godin

Churchill: You Have Enemies?

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill

“You have enemies?  Good.  That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”

Winston Churchill

The Re-View: Od Magic by Patricia A. McKillip (2005)

Od Magic by Patricia McKillip, originally published in 2005 by Ace Books (Penguin).mckillip-od_magic

A literary fantasy set in a magical kingdom resembling Renaissance Europe focusing on the viewpoints of five central characters. A gardener, a professor of magic, a princess, a guard, and the magician’s daughter find themselves entangled in the laws governing all magics regardless of size.

What I Liked

The language, the language, the language. Always the language. I try to be more aware of technical details on other levels, and I appreciate well-laid plants and interesting character arcs, but reading McKillip is just wonderfully indulgence in metaphorical language. Given that Od Magic focuses on the magic, on one thing appearing to be something else, metaphors reflect and carry that image throughout the book.

What I Noticed

This book, both as print and audiobook is particularly well packaged, in that Kinuko Y. Craft’s cover illustration, which includes both front and back captures the essence of the book precisely. Further, only after finishing the book can we the readers understand the importance of some elements in the image. When I was a kid, my parents got me classics–LIttle Women, Swiss Family Robinson, Heidi–with several plates of illustration in them. I wish they did that with books like this: adults appreciate illustration as well!

Od Magic

The Re-View: Od Magic by Patricia McKillip

Or maybe I just want to keep seeing Craft’s vision of McKillip’s worlds… The audiobook is read by Gabrielle Cuir, who is as much a master of her art as McKillip and Craft. The richness and flexibility of her voice match McKillip’s literary style, making the experience of listening to the story much more immersive than reading the book.

What I Learned

While I was re-reading this book, I was also reading Talent Is Underrated by Geoff Colvin (Potrfolio/Penguin, 2008), in which he argues that research shows that the achievements of high performers comes about not due to a genetic advantage or a gift from the gods, but from deliberate practice. He defines deliberate practice (in contrast to undirected, random , time-filling practice–like what a lot of us did as kids when we “practiced the piano for thirty minutes”) as

1) designed specifically to improve performance,

2) can be repeated a lot,

3) feedback on results is continuously available,

4) mentally demanding,

5) not much fun.

We acknowledge that sports and music, and even painting and drawing, require practice, but literature is expected to spring from the authors head as fully formed as Athena. Writers are born not made. Except, Colvin argues, we aren’t. He gives Benjamin Franklin as an example of someone who set about to follow an intensive regime of deliberate practice which resulted in dramatic improvement in his abilities. Once you realize that writing is a skill, like any other, comprised of discrete components each of which is amenable to improvement through deliberate practice, things get interesting.

Stephen King suggests that writers exist in four planes, bad, mediocre, good, and great, and while a writer can move between mediocre and good, it is impossible to go from bad to mediocre, or from good to great. I think Colvin would argue instead that it is possible to move from mediocre to good through random practice, natural improvements that come from unconscious learning. Taking one’s skills from good to great would require deliberate practice, which takes time. 10,000 hours, which means ten years of practicing twenty hours a week.

It is simply difficult for writers to put in that much time, especially if you realize that perhaps the most important skill is creating the first draft. Editing and re-writing is not drafting, even though they are important skills to have.

In view of this, Dean Wesley Smith’s relentless hammering on the importance of drafting, and of making each writing session a practice session for one particular skill, makes very, very good sense. It is the foundational habit for improvement–crucial, if you can even believe it is possible.

I grew up reading, and making up stories in my head. I didn’t compulsively write stories–in large part because it would have taken time away from reading.  For a long time, I didn’t think I was allowed to be a writer, because I hadn’t done it as a child. That writing papers for school came very easily to me simply didn’t count, nor did the fact that I did write poetry compulsively. It wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that I realized this was a choice I could make for myself, without waiting for a divine permission slip.

And so back to Od Magic and Patricia McKillip. It is tempting to close the book with a sigh and say, “that’s such a great book. So beautiful. I could never write like that,” and let that be the end of it. I am trying to learn not to do that. I am trying to find something I can focus on, one aspect that I can practice.

Metaphor, language, letting one thing stand for another in order to evoke emotion, to paint pictures. It’s what poetry is, in large part. I read somewhere–I can’t remember who wrote it–that it is good to get in the habit of assigning words to things. How are you feeling? Give it words. What does the tree look like? Give it words. Taken a step further, I can (and have) made it a deliberate exercise: think of a topic, write down all the words you can think of, without censoring, without worrying about whether it makes sense. And read poetry; see how others use metaphor, briefly or extended. Inject them all into my blood so when I write, I bleed images.

The Re-View appears the first Monday of the month, featuring a book first published at least ten years ago. I only choose books I really like: if it appears, it means it gets four or five stars.

J. K. Rowling: It Is Our Choices…

"It is our choices… that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." J. K. Rowling

J. K. Rowling

It is our choices… that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.

J. K. Rowling

Lana Del Rey: If You Are Born an Artist…

If you are born an artist, you have no choice but to fight to stay an artist.

Lana Del Rey

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