Of all the arts, why is writing the only one that looks effortless? Why is the struggle of learning to write so invisible to the outside world? Can they not see the blood, sweat, late nights, and myriad revisions?
No one wakes up in the morning and decides to be a concert pianist by lunchtime.
No one picks up a paintbrush for the first time and figures they’ll just paint a masterpiece to kill some time before bed, and then sell it to Sotheby’s in the morning.
No one loses a job and tells their spouse, “No problem. I’ll just carve some marble sculptures and send them to a famous New York art gallery to make ends meet for a month or two until I find a new job.”
But over and over, I’ve heard people say, “I got laid off. I think I’ll write that novel now because I need some money.” Or, “I don’t need to hire a writer—my admin can type.” Or, “Writing exercises? Why do I have to practice writing? You either know how to write or you don’t, right?”
If owning a guitar doesn’t automatically make you a great guitarist, why would owning a keyboard make you a great writer? And yet, and yet… That seems to be the pervasive attitude.
Art, unfortunately, does not spring forth fully formed, Aphrodite-like. It takes years of practice. Yes, years. Yes, practice. And just like any other artist, we can never achieve perfection. There is always more to learn, more to master, more to aspire to.
So we writers practice. We do writing exercises, whether we call them that or not. We write throw-away stories to see what we can do with our words and our ideas. We hammer out a scene, then we go back and tweak. Or slash and burn. Or begin again.
The guitarist practices chords and plays scales—the same ones over and over to strengthen the fingers, yes, but new ones, too; always new ones to find new patterns, new melodies, new rhythms. Every scale and chord is an effort to commit that technique to muscle-memory, to lay in a supply of building blocks, to free the mind to write music unfettered, to create new architecture that gives those building blocks purpose.
The woodcarver begins with a piece of wood and a knife. But he doesn’t carve an eagle in flight on his first try. He starts simply, maybe just sharpening his wood block to a point (a toothpick, even). He’s learning the feel of the knife and how the blade pulls along the grain of the wood. He carves a small wooden dog, perhaps. Then a cat—the ears give him trouble, but he tries again. Each time he learns something new about wood, about grain, about hardness and strength and knots and flaws, and their interaction with steel and imagination. He creates mostly sawdust and bloodied shavings at first. But eventually, after years of patient practice, a wooden eagle takes to the wing.
The painter sketches a dancer a dozen times, each time exploring something new—the weight of line, the play of light, the emotion of color and tint and shade. The painter calls them studies; a series of studies shows how the artist’s thought process—and skill—builds to the final work, how they endlessly explore the curve of a hand, the drape of a skirt, the angle of a leg at the barre. They practice the small techniques singly until they can apply them all together into a masterwork that comes close to capturing their vision.
And now the writer. The writer loves stories. She’s grown up hearing them all her life. She loves them, reads them, loses herself in them. Then one day she decides to try creating her own. How hard can it be? As hard as it must have been to become Van Gogh, although she doesn’t know it yet, because a writer must build the skills and knowledge like any other artist. So she picks up an idea—her block of wood. She imagines the eagle within it, but there are a lot of shavings and sawdust to make first.
She learns the basic tools of her art: words, then sentences, then paragraphs. She practices until she can write a pretty good sentence—and the painter gets to where they can draw a pretty good oval.
The writer tries her hand at description… and learns a hundred ways to show how a broken heart feels. The painter tries a hundred ways to use shadow and light to give an impression of tears.
The writer studies dialogue, and mostly learns how easy it is to make all her characters sound the same: flat, boring, pretentious. The artist spends a hundred hours on just the eyes, painting over them every time because they can’t quite get them to say what they know they could if they can just get a little better at brushstrokes and pigment.
The writer writes a hundred possible variations of apology from son to father, each time getting just a little closer to the version she hopes will wrench open hearts and ring true. The painter tries a hundred shades of color, mixing and blending and bleeding them onto the canvas, knowing they’ve almost found the exact color of shame. Almost.
And then finally, it’s there. A story that comes close. It’s not perfect, of course, but it took the writer somewhere she wanted to go (or maybe didn’t want to go, but she’s there now, and that matters more than anything).
Then as she closes his book, she realizes, perhaps with a touch of fear, that there is something new she wants to say. And there are a thousand unexplored ways to say it, each of which is more than she thinks she can handle. But each of which she knows she will try and learn from, until she feels her abilities finally grow to fit her need.
So she picks up her pen and turns to a new page. And begins again.
Effortless? No, of course not. Worth the effort, the repetition, the exercises, and the revisions?
All art is.