[process] Psychotic persistence and deliberate practice

Over the weekend I posted a link to a story on Freakonomics about deliberate practice in achieving excellence. I’ve written about this before as an auctorial career issue in the framing of what I only somewhat jokingly call “psychotic persistence”. (See [ jlake.com | LiveJournal ] and many other places on my blog.) What’s interesting to me about the Freakonomics piece is the focus on directed learning. That is to say, learning in a focused, intentional way.

In effect, they’re saying simple, sheer practice is insufficient in its own right. You have to employ focus, direction and a high degree of self-awareness. (For a casual but effective example of this, see this post a few days ago from [info]matociquala, a/k/a Elizabeth Bear.)

Well, this is what all the manifold stages of writerly development are for, is it not? In my case, years of workshopping with instructors, mentors and peers are many different levels. Frequent mentoring and teaching of my own, once I reached a point where I could deliver value there, because talking to others about their work also focuses me on craft and development issues in my work. A constant reconsideration of my own goals and capabilities. Directing my novel projects towards specific objectives, such as writing Green to tackle female characters and the techniques of tight first-person POV.

But mostly just writing. And writing. And writing. But with intent.

You can’t find that intent all on your own. At least I can’t. Maybe some people can. Writing is an inherently solitary act, but writers don’t develop in a vacuum. We are influenced by the books we read, the advice and commentary we pay attention to, the people who fill our heads with critique and technique and bar gossip. The deliberate practice discussed in the above link is something that has to be learned, like everything else.

So I try to listen and learn. Not just from writers, but from artists and moviemakers and children and the world at large.

In this vein, I was thinking this weekend about art guru James Gurney’s frequent posts about his going out to sketch. Here’s one from yesterday. This is a man at the top of his career, with international best selling books both of and about art (he’s the Dinotopia guy, if you don’t recognize the name), and he practices, all the time. This particular post led me to ask myself if I practice, in the sense that Gurney does.

The answer to that is no, not really. Pretty much everything I write is intended for market. Unless you count my blogging output (which I do not, in this context), I don’t do the literary equivalent of sketching in a notepad.

And maybe I should.

When chemotherapy has released its grip on me, sometime early next year, I’m going to try a new-to-me kind of writing exercise. I’m going to go sit in a public place with my laptop (sorry, [info]scalzi, but writing by hand is a truly lost cause for me) and I’m going to sketch in words what’s going on around me. Setting, maybe a little character, sensory detail. Just let it flow without direction or commercial intent. Do what James Gurney is doing, exercise my writing muscles in the real world, for no other purpose than deliberate practice. Heck, I might even write some poetry, and I am a dreadful poet.

I’ve never done that. I’ll be quite curious to see what I get. As I won’t be able to do this for a while, if you’re moved to try this exercise, do report in and let me know how it goes.

In the mean time, practice. Deliberate practice. As I’ve said for years, there’s only one piece of writing advice that is truly canonical, and that’s “write more”. Everything else is a matter of perspective.

5 thoughts on “[process] Psychotic persistence and deliberate practice

  1. I must be writing in the deliberate practice sense, then, because I have stopped and started and stopped and started and re-written the same damned 2000 words over and over, trying to find exactly the write angle for my two characters to get into each other’s lives, without success.

  2. Jake Kerr says:


    I found this quite relevant to my personal thoughts of 2012. I wrote a fair number of stories solely to investigate theme and craft, without nary a thought of commercial market. To me this was practice. The kinds of things I did were to see if I could do them. Some were successful (my story using an epistolary technique while overlaying the Kubler-Ross model of grief on one of the characters was sold to Lightspeed), but most were not. At least one was an outright failure. But in my mind the whole year would have been wasted if I didn’t have at least a few failures–that’s the point in reaching high.

    Everyone has their own path, but my “practice” involved not so much writing scenes as looking at structure, point-of-view, character motivation, and more. Hell, I wrote a fairy tale just because I’d never written one before, and I thought my kids would like it. Two birds with one stone!

    Anyway, much of what I’m discussing was not intentional. I came to fiction writing after a lengthy career in journalism, and part of my “practice” was little more than a kid in a candy store running around sampling all the new flavors. But I did find it helpful and for sure.

    So 2012 for me is going to be a bit different. Much less focus on craft and much more focus on imagination and sense-of-wonder and story. I’ll still “practice,” and play with various ideas in prose, but I’ve tasted most of the candy. Now it’s time for me to make some candy of my own!

  3. I highly recommend the practice writing — the sketching with words as you put it. My favorite is to find a corner spot in a hotel bar and just record the conversations around me and then take a snippet and build a scene from it. I’m curious what other deliberate practice things other writers do.

  4. This definitely works for me, perhaps because I’m a naturally a focused person and can’t do things without some purpose to it.

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