Time horizons and getting old

It’s also sad not be of an age to think, “Oh. I could practice and get good at that.”

My brother

I’m meaning to write something about rejecting this thinking. I’m constantly thinking, “Oh, well. Maybe if I’d started that in my teens or early twenties, there’d have been time to get good at that thing.” But this is crazy talk on many levels. You can only get good at so many things (is one level). But based on the age of my (both still living) parents, there’s no reason to think I’m not going to live for another 30 years. When I was in my early twenties, my time horizon was way shorter than 30 years.

There are a lot of skills that it might take three years of steady effort to get good at. (I’d guess that drawing is one of those.) I could do TEN of those in the time I’ve got left.

Practice

Years ago, my dad pointed me to the seminal article by K. Anders Ericsson The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. From 1993, it’s the ur-text for all the later popularizers of the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to get really good at something.

Of course, if you read the actual article, that’s not what it says at all. What it says is that it takes 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” to acquire expert performance.

A friend of mine once objected strenuously to Ericsson’s term “deliberate practice,” on the grounds that we already have a perfectly good term for this set of activities: practice. If you weren’t doing what Ericsson called deliberate practice—if you weren’t monitoring your performance, evaluating your success, and trying to figure out how to do it better—then you weren’t practicing, you were just dicking around.

That being the case, you will not be surprised to learn that there was nothing new for me in Debunking the Myth of the 10,000-Hours Rule: What It Actually Takes to Reach Genius-Level Excellence. If, on the other hand, you have fallen into the popularizer’s trap, and started to imagine that spending 10,000 hours dicking around with something would make you an expert, there may be quite a bit for you to learn.

Having dug up my copy of the original paper and looked through it again was I was writing this post, I’m glad I did. It’s a great paper, and it’s good to be reminded of what practice really is.

I often figure that the time I spend writing is practice for getting better at writing—and sometimes it is. Sometimes I do monitor my performance, evaluate my success, and try to write a sentence or paragraph better. But, of course, that’s not the fun part. The fun part of writing is when you get immersed in the world of the story and the words just flow effortlessly—and any thought of monitoring, evaluating, and improving is deferred to some future editing phase.

And, unsurprisingly, Ericsson was there ahead of me:

Recent analyses of inherent enjoyment in adults reveal an enjoyable state of “flow,” in which individuals are completely immersed in an activity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Similarly, analyses of reported “peak experiences” in sports reveal an enjoyable state of effortless mastery and execution of an activity (Ravizza, 1984). This state of diffused attention is almost antithetical to focused attention required by deliberate practice to maximize feedback and information about corrective action.

In contrast to play, deliberate practice is a highly structured activity, the explicit goal of which is to improve performance. Specific tasks are invented to overcome weaknesses, and performance is carefully monitored to provide cues for ways to improve it further. We claim that deliberate practice requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable. Individuals are motivated to practice because practice improves performance.

Yeah. Exactly.

And yet, there can be a certain kind of enjoyment in practice.

When I’m writing and I’m not in flow state, but rather am struggling—trying over and over again to get something right—that’s practice. And, granted, that’s not much fun—except that pretty often I do manage to get something just right. (Or at least, get something that’s better than I can do on an average day.) That’s fun.

It is perhaps even more obvious in my taiji practice, especially the qigong practice, where we do simpler moves than the movements of the taiji form, and where we do the same move over and over again. Those exercises are (or at least can be) practice. Doing the same movement a dozen times, watching how the instructor does it, trying to match his form—that’s practice. Creating a small variation with a goal of improving some specific aspect—that’s practice. And yet, it can be fun, too, if approached with a playful attitude. (Today I tried to do some of my single-leg standing practice with my eyes closed. I picked the easiest of the various single-leg standing exercises that we do, and still wasn’t very successful—I almost toppled over a couple of times. But it was amusing in a way—and in the course of just a few minutes, I became perceptibly better at standing on one leg with my eyes closed. That was fun.)

Practice. It’s not just for getting to Carnegie Hall.

On doing what comes easily to other people

Here’s Marissa Lingen with one of those ideas that ought to be obvious, and yet is so very much not-obvious in practice that I’m very glad she wrote about it.

When her critiquers suggested that her books needed more setting, she made a plan for including more setting:

Very, very early on in the writing process I started thinking about setting and the specific locations that each scene would take place in. Then I sat down and wrote settingy stuff for those scenes first. Sometimes it was just a few lines, sometimes a paragraph or more, but, for example, when the protag was going to join her crazy mad scientist magician genius little sister in said sister’s room for some crazy mad science magic, I did not let myself run along with what they were doing until after I had put down some thoughts about what a crazy mad scientist magician genius little sister’s room would look like.

A great idea for adding description, but also a great idea for adding anything that you tend to under-write—because it is so much harder to add this sort of thing in later, when you’ve already got carefully crafted paragraphs, each one leading to the next, beginning with a great opening image and ending with a nice little cliffhanger.

And however great this idea is, much greater is her insight that people who are naturally good at something usually have no idea how someone who is not naturally good at it can get better.

I learned that fairly early, with my difficulties learning how to spell. Teachers tried putting me next to people who were good at spelling, in the hopes that their spelling skills would somehow rub off on me. This did not work at all, because people who are naturally good at spelling have no idea how to get better at spelling. (People who are naturally good at spelling tend to be people who see words in their head and then can just read off the letters and write them down. Since I can’t do that, I had to come up with a completely different way to get (barely adequately) good at spelling.)

I’m always on the lookout for people who do well things they aren’t naturally good at. They’re often hard to spot. (Spend thousands of hours honing your craft, and you too can look like someone who’s naturally good at something.) But there are clues—such as earlier works where the author or artist wasn’t as good, and works where some aspects are crafted like a masterpiece, while other aspects show merely a journeyman’s skill. Those are the people who might have some insight into how they got better.

With this sort of thing, it’s always useful to put it in terms of KA Ericsson’s model for the acquisition of expert performance. Just practice isn’t enough to get better at something—you also need to monitor your performance and evaluate your success—with help, such as a critique group, when possible. Then you need to figure out how to do it better—which Marissa’s post is a perfect worked example of.

Clarion at home: Expertise

This is part 5 of a series on what to do if you can’t go to Clarion, which provides my thoughts on how you can capture part of the magic of Clarion—even if you can’t attend. This post is on developing expertise.

Acquisition of expert performance

The process of developing expertise has been studied. Expertise is developed through practice. It has to be good practice, though. One of the researchers into the acquisition of expert performance uses the term “deliberate practice” to distinguish it from other (bad) kinds of practice.

Deliberate practice is:

  1. Performing your skill
  2. Monitoring your performance
  3. Evaluating your success
  4. Figuring out how to do it better

Obviously your medium-term goal is to improve your performance of your skill (point #1), but a teacher can’t really help much there—only practice will improve your skill. Where a teacher can help is with points #2–4. And that is what Clarion is all about.

Everything at Clarion is focused on improving those skills:

  1. The time spent reading is to help you with point #2 (monitoring).
  2. The time spent preparing critiques, together with—especially—the time spent in class listening to your classmates’ critiques of the same stories, is to help you with point #3 (evaluating).
  3. The classroom instruction—the part that Clarion-at-home replaces with a book on fiction writing—is to help you with point #4 (figuring out how to do it better).

Developing expertise in fiction writing is exactly like developing expertise in anything else—like playing the violin or playing tennis. An instructor will spend some time early showing you how to hold your bow or racket, but most instructional time is not spent on how to do your skill better. Most instructional time is spent on points #2 and #3—because once you can monitor and evaluate your own performance, you’re in a position to develop expertise through practice on your own.

In tennis, for example, beginners often evaluate their performance based on whether the ball makes it over the net and lands in the court. With instruction, however, they learn to evaluate their performance at a finer level: Did they anticipate where the ball was going? Did they move there? Did they turn sideways to the net? Did they prepare their racket correctly? Did they swing correctly? Did they follow-through?

The Clarion process is the equivalent for fiction writing. There are a thousand little questions like that to ask yourself about each scene (potentially each line): Does every character in the scene want something? Is every action in the scene motivated by those wants? Are changes in the characters reflected in changes in how they try to achieve their wants—and in what they want?

That’s really the core of what Clarion offers. Read stories, critique them, and then compare your critique to other critiques of the same story. From that process, learn how to monitor and evaluate your own work. Once you can do that, you’re in a position to improve your work through practice on your own.

Part 6 of this series is about my big Clarion misconception, about applying these lessons to your own work, and talks a little more about the cool stuff that you miss out on if you have to do Clarion at home.

See the Clarion at home page for links to all the posts in this series.

What if you can’t go to Clarion?

You can capture pieces of the Clarion experience without going to Clarion—pieces that will let you step up your writing game just as much as going to Clarion would.

Acceptances and rejections for Clarion are going out about now, so the writer blogs and twitter feeds are full of excitement and dismay.  Those who get to go to Clarion are in for a wonderful, magical experience. But what if you can’t go? What if you got rejected—or didn’t even apply, because of a lack of time or money or confidence? You can capture pieces of the Clarion experience, without going to Clarion—pieces that will let you step up your writing game, perhaps as much as going to Clarion would.

Of course, you can’t really recreate Clarion at home. You can’t duplicate the community of fellow writers working together on the common goal of improving everyone’s skills. You can’t recreate the network of pro writers who’ll take an interest in your career because they’ve gotten to know you as a person. And you probably can’t recreate the time and space—six weeks with no obligations but to write and critique. Given all that, you can still do a lot.

So, with the proviso that I’m just a writer who attended Clarion ten years ago and has continued writing since then, I’m putting up a series of posts on “Clarion at home.” (Be aware that I tend to over-think and over-plan this sort of thing. A minimalist version of this would probably be just as good, and might be better.)

Here’s what I’m expecting to post over the next few days. (I’ll links here as I get the posts up. I may also edit the list if I make changes.)

  1. Planning: Pick your six weeks—and a book on writing
  2. Writing: Write a story a week
  3. Reading: Read many mediocre and a few great stories
  4. Critiquing: Compare your critiques to others
  5. Expertise: How to become an expert fiction writer
  6. Summation: What about getting critiques?

I’d be particularly interested in hearing from other folks who’ve attended Clarion and have some thoughts on how you can capture a bit of the Clarion experience for home use. I’ll approve pingbacks and trackbacks for this post, so if you write something about recreating Clarion at home, I’ll link back to your post.

[Update 2011-03-28: I’ve gathered the links above together on a “Clarion at Home” page.]