A friend of mine is an internationally renowned jazz trombonist and a professor of music. He shared recently a set of trombone practice drills for lip slurs. A lip slur is a movement practice on a brass instrument in which the note changes without a corresponding change in a valve or slide. The practice set my friend assigned to his students increases in difficulty with each drill. Such practice sets increase a student’s tone and flexibility.
This all left me to wonder if we have such drills for writing. Seemingly we do not. We dress up our creative field with tropes of “writing cannot be taught.”
Writing fundamentals can be taught. But perhaps this statement speaks to the willingness to learn. Musicians striving to become professionals understand the long and distant horizon they seek. No one, least of all the musicians themselves, believes musicians just happen, that it is a creative field that “cannot be taught.” All of us understand the time commitment and singular focus needed to succeed as a professional jazz musician.
In many ways we lack a similar understanding of writers. Norman Mailer once remarked that by the time he published “The Naked and The Dead” in 1948 at age 25 he had written over 350,000 words. Now, if having a book named as one of the 100 best novels in English resulted solely from word count, we’d all become Norman Mailer. We know that writing is more than word count or page count.
Writing well is ultimately about creative decisions. Knowing how to use second person may be helpful. But if I don’t know when to deploy it, what then? Writing well – and that is my goal for myself and I hope for other writers – requires skillful creative decision making. Change this word and not that one. Choose English words derived from Latin rather than those derived from German.
In addition to skill these decisions require control. The less skilled we are the more fearful we will never write well again. With the right kind of practice, I think, we lose this fear. We know how to create a particular effect. The question becomes is this the right effect for the story I want to tell.
All of this is nothing more than a call for writers to practice deliberately. Writing practice is deliberately practicing with the goal of becoming a more confident and skillful writer.