Sunday, February 2, 2014

You're not a skilled expert, until you're a skilled expert

Something happened the other night that got me thinking about skill development. Please, let me tell you the story. (YES, this is about writing, bear with me.)

I visited my friend "Hank" on Friday. His wife left him recently so one of his buddies and I went over to his house to cheer him up. Hank told us he was going to make spaghetti. His wife had always done the cooking and his mother before that. In short, Hank has the cooking finesse of an infant slow loris.

He set the pan on fire while trying to cook the beef. He didn't put enough water in the pasta pot. He thought he had spaghetti, when what he really had was a package of fetuccini. He had no cooking oil and couldn't figure out why he'd need any. He thought one can of sauce would be enough for two pounds of ground beef.

It was a disaster, but it was a fun disaster. We helped him get through it and eventually we ended up with a dinner that, while not spectacular, was far from bad. But he got really upset. He realized he's a forty-year old man who doesn't know his way around the kitchen.

I'm a skilled cook. I tried to reassure him, and as the words were coming out of my mouth I had an epiphany. I said, "The only reason why I can cook is because I've been doing it for thirty years. My parents let me start cooking (I wanted to) when I was ten. My first few attempts to make dinner were disastrous. No one is an expert when they first start doing something."

No one is a skilled expert when they first learn how to do something. You're not a skilled expert until you're a skilled expert.

Just because you know how to write, or have good ideas, or your friends tell you that you tell great stories, or you've read a lot of books, doesn't make you a skilled writer. On the other hand, unless you've put in the hours and work necessary to learn the craft, why are you beating yourself up over the fact that your writing isn't publishable? Why do so many aspiring writers expect to write a publishable novel the first time out?

I attempted my first novel in the summer of '93. The only reason why my writing now gets more compliments than criticisms is because I've been learning the craft for twenty-and-a-half years.

Stop thinking you're Hemmingway just because you wrote some alcohol-fueled hoopla that your friends told you was wonderful. BUT also, stop kicking yourself for not being Hemmingway if you're only just starting out. Please learn that you can't be a best-selling author after your first draft, just because you know how to write. I know how to use a scalpel, but I would make a terrible brain surgeon. But brain surgeons exist, and so do published authors. Why? Because they put in the work. They learned, from books, from schools and from professional experts in the field. And it took time. If you've only been writing for a year and you think you've got a masterpiece, you're deluding yourself. If you've only been writing for a year and are ready to stab yourself in the eye because your book is a plot-hole ridden, cliche driven, amateurish grab-bag of unoriginal ideas and mental masturbation, PUT THE KNIFE DOWN. It's okay to be awful when you first start out, EVERYONE IS.

You're not a skilled expert, until you're a skilled expert.

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