We live in a society that, for the last few decades, has touted instant gratification and overnight success.
We are enchanted by the story: someone who bursts onto the scene and is brilliant at his or her metier and catapults to untold stardom and riches. Wish-fulfillment video games further bolster this perception–you’re suddenly a golf pro, swinging your wii like a club, or a guitar idol, pressing buttons to “play” an instrument. But all this plays into the deeper fantasy. We love the idea of the “found” genius, who can just pick up an instrument, begin typing on a keyboard, start sketching something in a notepad, and create art. Part of why we love it is because that means that there may just be a tiny chance that if we try the right thing, we might all be found geniuses at something. Opera. Polo. Aquatic ballet.
The reality is not particularly glamorous, as I am frequently reminded in the context of my new career as a lawyer. It involves spending a long time just learning how to do the tasks that make up the larger work–a lot of time building foundations.
I’ve got a lot of foundations to build, a fact which is brought home to me on a daily basis. I know so much less than I need to know at this point in my day job, that I can only be deeply grateful for the patient, helpful oversight of the senior lawyers at my office. Between them, they have about 70+ years of experience that they are happy to draw on to help me learn how to handle the ins and outs of a challenging (or even a standard) file. But each time I go into one of their offices, or ask a question, I walk out with another, small brick to mortar into that foundation I’m building–just one. And the work of placing that brick and mortaring it place… that takes longer than you’d expect.
It will be years before the foundation is completed. To believe otherwise is problematic, as I see again and again. We know what happens when a house is built on shaky foundations, and that metaphor holds, at least to some extent. Though, at least with a legal practice, the foundations can be bolstered or rebuilt without the expense of tearing the whole house down in order to do so.
But my real point is: shortcuts don’t always make sense. I’m a big believer in optimizing, and in following the route that requires the least effort for the most yield. But in some cases, that route is simply taking the time to learn, and to build the proper foundation of knowledge and skill. Building a skill takes time and practice, and taking a shortcut the first few times isn’t going to net you those hours of learning–which just means that sooner or later, you’ll have to take the time. Sometimes, of course, it’s a matter of deciding what is learn-worthy and what is shortcut-worthy. But there are things out there that truly do just need to be learned.
The same goes for writing and for the writing career that will ensue, for those who persist. Shaky foundations–a lack of time spent writing, and building those fundamental skills (grammar, punctuation, diction, syntax at the most basic level, along with plotting, story arc, characterization, dialogue, pacing at the next level) will often show. It doesn’t mean that a writer won’t have a hit, without these fundamentals, but rather that a single hit does not a career make. And a career built on a shaky foundation will be all the more vulnerable and prone to collapse, should anything in the surrounding landscape shift.
If you’ve been around the block a few times, you know this: for some types of learning, there are no shortcuts. You just have to put in the time. But I’ve recently spoken to a few people who have talked about wanting to be a writer, or wanting to be a musician or… fill in the blank with a relevant artsy profession. When I ask what kind of writing they do, or music they play and if they get in a lot of practice, I am sometimes shocked by the response: well, I’m going to take University/College/Diploma program X so I can learn how to do it.
Taking a course is great. But ultimately, you have to have the passion and the drive to do whatever it is you say you want to do, whether you’re officially studying it or not. And to do it a lot. People who are passionate about their chosen artistic pursuit do it, whether they’ve taken a course or not. They work through the tedious, boring and frustrating moments. And they keep doing it in the face of setbacks and disappointments, because notwithstanding the rare-to-mythical “found genius” phenomenon, you’re probably going to be really bad at it, at first. And then you’ll get better. Slowly.
The courses will help you hone your learning. A good course is invaluable because it will help to shake you out of your routines, or get you to question your paradigms or diversify your skills, by forcing you out of your comfort zone. It will provide you with turning points and may help prevent you from reinventing the wheel. But even if the course provides the starting point, in order to get good at making wheels, you have to make a lot of them.
So if you want to be a writer, but don’t actually choose to spend time writing, you need to ask yourself why. Is it because you’re afraid of being terrible at it? Because if that’s the problem–stop worrying. We’re all terrible at it, and it’s likely you will be too. But the only way to stop being terrible at it, is to keep doing it.
Or is it because you want to be respected/famous/acquire some kind of perceived cachet, and being a writer will allow you to do it? If that’s the case, then you may need to take a serious look at the outcome you’re seeking. Do you really want that outcome, or do you just like to dream of having it? If it’s the fame/respect/cachet that you actually want, then it’s time to figure out a way to get at it, via something that you’re actually going to be passionate about and do, long enough, and with enough sustained effort, that you will stand a chance of achieving that outcome.
Because here’s the thing. I’m working as a lawyer. I spend about one hour and twenty minutes of my day, minimum, commuting. I have multiple volunteer commitments, and other projects. But each day, barring some emergency or crazy obstacle, I get up early, so I can have about 30-40 minutes to work on my writing projects (write, plot, do research, whatever it is I need to do). It may only be 10-15 minutes for some people. But if it’s important to you, and you want to get good at it, you have to keep doing that. Daily. You can’t expect to just sit down at the computer on some mythical afternoon, when you have weeks to spare, and bang out a masterpiece, having not spent any time writing for years. It could happen–but likely won’t.
The blog sometimes doesn’t get updated, because I usually write my posts, if I have time, on the weekend. But one way or another, I make the time to write fiction. In many ways, it isn’t just with law that I’m in that foundation-building stage. In some ways, despite years of doing it, I’m also still building foundations in my writing–one 30-40 minute brick at a time.