Practice Makes Perfect?


How many times have you heard, “practice makes perfect?”

Recently an article written by a teacher who taught an MFA creative writing program caused a lot of backlash.  Chuck Wendig’s blog post alerted me to the uproar otherwise I would have never heard of the controversy.  If you haven’t read Chuck’s post or the teacher’s, both are worth the few minutes of time.  The teacher’s opinion is just his opinion, of course.  I’m not planning to drag us all into the weeds all over again about it, at least I hope I don’t.  Chuck did a great job (when does he not?) at articulating his views, and as usual I found myself nodding many times while reading his thoughts.

The debate about inherent talent versus anyone can do it if they work hard enough, is interesting, another hot button topic if I ever saw one.  For the most part, I think some people do have an extra advantage.  Call it talent, or “natural aptitude,” as one commenter on Chuck’s blog pointed out.  If not for that, wouldn’t we live in a world where all of us would be able to do just about anything, become pro football players, elite runners, play any instrument, become physicists, write Pulitzer Prize winning books, etc., if we set our minds to it and practiced or studied like hell?  Personally, I don’t think so.

Our bodies, our brains are not all equally alike.  When I was reading about gene/DNA coding, a fact sheet states “There are small variations between every individual in their genetic information that makes each of us unique.

I think all of us are aware of that, and it’s not really the main point.  Writing, painting, sculpturing or whatever art form chosen, the trite saying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” couldn’t be more true.  And what about “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”  The argument was about who decides who is talented.  It’s simply that whole subjective thing – all over again.

After I read Chuck’s blog, and then read the teacher’s article too, I sort of shrugged and thought, “well, I just don’t know what to think about that, and I’m not sure I care.”  Maybe I should care.  It’s about the writing community, after all.  It’s about all of us hopefuls out here, MFA’s or not, who work so damn hard to finagle and wrangle and wring words into stunning, captivating, sentences that might thrill, excite, and grab someone, anyone’s attention and make them turn pages, again and again.

Think about Betsy Lerner’s book, THE FOREST FOR THE TREES, where she breaks down into six specific writer personalities or identities. (I think it’s six but, I’m too lazy to walk upstairs and verify, so oops if it’s seven.  Or eight)  And what’s one of them called?  “The Natural.”  When I first read her book years ago, that’s the one I wanted to be.  The one who bubbled to the top of the pile with a natural born, uncanny talent for prose, the one who’d taken years for editors to find, the one they would whisper about around the water coolers (do they still even have those?)  “did you read her…,?  did you hear about…,?  Her name is…”

Huh.  Yeah.  Well.  Rrrrrrrrrrrrrreeeep! That there’s the sound of a needle dragging across vinyl.  If you’re too young to get it, oh well.  Let’s say I’m still “practicing,” shall we?

It’s obvious though, Betsy believes some out there have that awesome, wonderful, “natural ability.”

And then, about three weeks ago I watched the movie WHIPLASH.  Have you seen it?  Watch it because let me tell you what, my heart rate stayed elevated the entire movie.  Talk about perseverance.  Talk about not quitting.  Talk about PRACTICE MAKING PERFECT.  That movie holds all the lessons we receive from the writing communities we dwell in about “never give up, never stop believing it won’t happen, never stop writing, you can’t win if you don’t play,” and on and on.  But, it still brought me full circle back to the question; was the MC as good a drummer as he was because of talent or was it because of all the practice?  I think it was both.

That made me start thinking about the article that fired everyone up, and what if the MFA teacher had a point?  Maybe he was sort of like the jerk of a teacher in this film, who recognized talent, and was simply on the lookout for it.  Maybe he was just calling it how he saw it, but back to the rub, who was he to dictate a writer as talented or not?  Subjective, subjective, subjective.  And around and around we go.

What if I don’t have talent, or natural aptitude for writing?  Is it going to do any good to keep at it?  Is it possible to raise myself above mediocrity, and who will decide when I have?  Will I actually get better and better or will I eventually come to a point where no matter what, this is as good as it gets?

What if we’re really being lied to when told, “practice makes perfect?”

creative-writing

Courtesy Inside The Writer

 

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10 Comments

No, I have not seen Whiplash.

That’s a good place to start.

I believe that some people have natural affinities or natural aptitudes towards certain things. I do not believe in a “natural”.

As a sometime athlete at certain times in my life I have come to understand that most things come down to technique and control. There are people that have a certain advantage in certain areas but they still need to learn technique and practice control.

In junior high I was the fastest kid in school. Then another kid transferred in and my records were toast. He was an alright guy and told me he had come from a military school with a real track coach. He taught me more about technique and I got faster. I didn’t get fast enough to beat his better control but I did get faster.

I am also a nine time state champion kayak racer. These were recent and not when I was younger. In kayak racing people sometimes have an advantage by having a faster boat. Some people get a faster boat and go slower though. The reason for that is because their technique doesn’t match the boat they are trying to paddle.

Writing also is built on technique and control. Some people seem to have an advantage because they started at a very young age. So much of our belief in ourselves is something our parents hammered into us. Sometimes it matches a natural affinity and sometimes it doesn’t. It also sometimes causes deluded people with deluded self images. Some of the worst writers have been doing it since third grade and though technically perfect lack something. That something is what opens the sport for the rest of us. Style and world view.

I am never going to be a literary writer. My writing is based in escapism. I want to write things that take people away. I really want my writing to be a bomb that you light when you read the first page and have to chase the fuse to the end.

Will such works be panned by those who expect books to be literary? I sure hope so.

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    Kayak racing! I’ve never heard of it, but honestly, if I could get over my weird fear of fish in the water, I’d take it up if for nothing else other than it sounds cool. And fun.

    Not sure if you’ve seen my comments about running, but I do run. I’ve trained and run two marathons. Both marathons are fading into the distance, due to injuries (double stress fx on right tibia) that sidelined me for a LONG time, and then, a lovely case of plantar fasciitis probably due to mechanics of making up for the right leg str fx issues. I am still running, just not those distances.

    And the thing is, I know I’m not a fast runner. Oh, I had a running partner once and I got faster (like you) but I will never be “fast.” I’m more of a distance runner – or was. I’m planning to try and add some miles now that I seem to be turning a corner on injuries. (knock on wood)

    I’ll say this too – when it comes to writing. I’ve read books that are considered to be “the shit” when it comes to literary. (McCarthy anyone?) I’m not as well read as I ought to be – i.e. the classics, (Lord no, not Don Quixote), but I don’t care about that as much as I do reading a story that grabs me from the first sentence and won’t let go. Your analogy of a bomb lit on the first page that has to be chased to the end? That. Yes, that. That’s what I want to do with my writing too. Not. There.

    Yet.

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I’ve used up my “Reply” quota so I’ll add a new comment–don’t worry I’ll be brief(-ish). 😉

Yes, this is fun, and I think I will blog on it sometime–expand these thoughts out to maybe a few articles. I know it’s something people struggle with, and clearly I struggled with it enough to think it through to who-knows-how-many words of comment!

And yes, I do believe in what we call “talent.” But I don’t think it’s an all-or-nothing. We all have various degrees of talent in a variety of things. That MFA teacher clearly doesn’t believe this since he has set up an arbitrary standard of what constitutes “talent” and judges all his students by that measure. Lord protect us all from that kind of teacher! Are there people in the world who think they have talent but clearly don’t? Yes, and we hope they have a Simon Cowell in their life that will tell them. But if you’re serious enough about writing to invest money in an MFA class, the chances are you have at least some degree of ability. You may not write the kind of stuff the MFA teacher likes, and you may not be as gifted as Jane Austen, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have any talent to work with.

Bottom line: Accept whatever talent you’ve been given, and work with it until it shines. Don’t compare yourself to others. Just concentrate on what you have.

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I believe in natural talent and the fact that even natural talent needs practice for it to mature and be better. When I teach writing I can see who has a natural ability with words and who doesn’t. My goal is always to help each student improve from where they are, because most of them will never be great writers, but they can be decent.

Maybe all talents aren’t created equal? Maybe writing is a harder talent than, say cooking? Maybe practice makes perfect works for one talent but not for another?

And yes, in the background is always the idea of “it’s subjective.” But even with writing, just because someone doesn’t like the story doesn’t mean they don’t think the writing is good.

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    You’re sort of landing on the side of the discussion with the MFA teacher from the standpoint of believing in talent (I do too).

    Where you and he part ways to some extent is that he said in all of his years teaching he’d encountered it very little – so not sure what he considered “talent.” Of course that turned into the uproar, and comments of literary snobbery, etc.

    Truth is, I think most of us do recognize some are better at certain things than others. If we didn’t, why do we have “Advanced Classes,” or “Gifted Programs,” etc…, right?

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      Yea, I think I’d cry snobbery possibly too. As a teacher, it becomes obvious that some have talent over others in certain areas. At the high school age they have only done what they like or know, so much of what they do comes from natural ability and not from tons of study or necessarily practice. I have a gifted student right now who cannot write worth much of anything. Found out she is actually highly gifted in math and science. She is in my honors class to “stretch her.”

      Liked by 1 person

The proverb is a lie. Practice NEVER makes perfect. It makes better, but no-one can ever be perfect, no matter how hard they practice. This is true, if only because it depends whose idea of perfection you’re holding to: mine? yours? Stephen King’s? God’s? 🙂

I’ve blogged around this topic before, but to sum up my thoughts: Yes, everyone has a gifting to do something. But not everyone is gifted equally. Whatever gifting I may have for words is not equal to, say, Stephen King’s. His may be a BMW gift, and mine may be a lawnmower gift. I practice not to become a BMW–that won’t ever happen. But I practice to be the best lawnmower I can be. In other words, I don’t complain about not being as gifted as someone else, but make the most of the gifting I have. If Stephen King spent his life idling away letting his BMW rust, but I labored day after day to get my lawnmower purring like a tiger, I might appear to be more gifted. Not because I am, but because I take the time to work at my gift where Mr. King doesn’t.

And both BMWs and lawnmowers are published and loved and touch lives, so it doesn’t really matter which you are! 🙂

Another aspect to this “talent” thing is *what* the talent is exactly. I see this question more easily from a musical viewpoint. There are plenty of people who can play musical instruments, some to a great degree of proficiency. However, the ability to play a musical instrument is no indication of musical talent. It may indicate good hand-eye coordination, or mental agility, or good dexterity–talent in those areas. But being “musical” transcends the mere mechanics of playing an instrument. Looking at it from another angle: would a gifted concert pianist still be musical if he lost the ability to play the piano? Take someone like the late Dudley Moore, who was a very talented classical and jazz pianist (as well as being a comedian and actor). In the last three or four years of his life, he suffered from progressive supranuclear palsy, a neurological disease that eventually killed him. In those years, he lost the ability to play the piano, which devastated him. Did he stop being musically talented?

Anyone can put words together on a page. But not everyone is a writer like Stephen King. Or Donna Everhart. 🙂

How do you know you’re a talented writer? People you respect and know good writing tell you. Also, the amount of time you’re willing to spend on your writing skills can be an indicator. Your willingness and ability to “extemporize.” In musical terms, this would be spending time improvising, creating music of your own and not just playing the assigned pieces. The writing equivalent? Perhaps experimenting with genres, playing with words in new and creative ways, reaching for depths you’ve not reached for before–that kind of thing.

OK, so that’s more a blog article than a summary! Sorry. 😀 But that’s my $5 worth.

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    I saw the length of your comment and I thought, “uh oh. Colin’s gonna be on his soapbox from Carkoon.” 🙂

    Very thought provoking and worthy comments, all $50 worth. Ha!

    I still would say, do I believe or do you believe it when you’re told you’re a talented writer? What if someone comes along, a professional or expert in their own right and says otherwise? By my questions, I’m really only pointing out the subjectivity. (also part of my input on JR’s comments today)

    One thing though on perfection, I’d say this is easier to pin on music than it is writing. If a musician plays a piece to the exact specifications as the person who wrote it, plays it eloquently without one mistake, all the right nuances and makes the person who wrote it swoon, wouldn’t it be considered perfect?

    Also, I have to know – have you watched WHIPLASH? I loved it. I want to watch it again and I don’t often say that about many movies.

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      ” If a musician plays a piece to the exact specifications as the person who wrote it, plays it eloquently without one mistake, all the right nuances and makes the person who wrote it swoon, wouldn’t it be considered perfect?”

      Like any other art form, I don’t think music can ever be done to “perfection”–at least not by us mere mortals, and not without a lot of qualifications. “I think I played that perfectly, according to the music as written, and as far as my musical ability allowed me to interpret the composer’s intent, and by the standards of Western music…” Each of these points could be contested. You may disagree with how quiet my pianissimo was. The composer may have intended a D instead of a B but there was a misprint on the music that was perpetuated and the original is now lost. Someone in a rural Chinese village might hate it because she doesn’t “get” Western music. If perfection is a standard agreed upon by all people everywhere, then it ain’t ever happening. 🙂

      I haven’t seen “Whiplash” yet, but I’d like to.

      On the question of whether you believe it when someone tells you you’re talented, here’s what I think (for what it’s worth). We all have things we would like to be good at, usually a good many things. I would love to be a world-class writer, musician, theologian, linguist, artist (the drawing/painting kind), actor, chef, conversationalist, comedian, historian, and probably a bunch of other things. But as much as I love watching the Food Network and can make a pretty decent Yorkshire Pudding, I’m not a talented chef and never will be. I simply don’t have the consuming passion it takes to get to that standard–and to me, that consuming passion is a sign of some innate ability. I’m fascinated by languages, and have worked on acquiring some, and want to acquire others. Yet the time I put in and the success (or lack thereof) of acquiring fluency in that time indicates that any gifting I have in that area is small. I’m way too socially awkward to ever be a natural conversationalist, and it’s possible that whatever gifting I have for writing is a compensation for that. During my teenage years I spent far more time with instruments than I did with either my school friends or my school work. I had a passion to play and an insatiable desire to learn about music. I would say that’s probably my strongest gifting, and I think that’s born out not simply because people tell me, but because I play, and get invited to play again, and to play with others. And when people tell me, it’s not a shock. I don’t think I’m the most talented musician who ever lived (far from), but I know it’s an area in which I have a gift, and of all the things with which I’m gifted (and there aren’t many), I think that’s the strongest. Second to that would be writing. I spend a lot of time writing, I’ve always enjoyed writing and making up stories, and I love reading and always have. I’ve been told I’m good at writing from a variety of people since I was 8 years old, but again, when they say that, I’m not shocked or surprised. I’ve always known I have an ability with the written word. Again, I’m not the most talented writer who ever lived, or even in my little corner of NC. But I do have a certain talent for it.

      I’m sorry! Long comments. Clearly this is something I’ve thought a lot about. Perhaps I’ll cut-and-paste these and make a blog article (or 2) out of them! 😀

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      That’s okay, I enjoyed reading your thoughts!

      I think all I was trying to get at is we’re told to keep writing to get better, but if we have someone like that MFA teacher who said no matter how much his students practiced, they’d never get any better, why would they (or we for that matter) keep on? Like an exercise in futility.

      I think the idea of “perfect” and subjectivity re: art forms are a set up for the proverbial merry go round of opinions.

      Wasn’t this fun. 🙂

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