On Resolutions and Goals, Part 3: Goal Setting And Practicing With Intention

Shaquille O’Neal was one of the greatest basketball players of all time, but he had one glaring weakness: he was a poor free-throw shooter. While he was a dominant force in most other aspects of the game—one of the most dominant of all time—his inability to shoot free throws was so glaring that many teams adopted the strategy of fouling him on purpose, sending him to the line for a chance a free points because they would rather take the chances that he would miss than let him try to score against their defense.

Now, Shaq knew he had this weakness. He worked to correct it by shooting many, many practice free throws and by working with a plethora of shooting coaches. One offseason, it was reported that he was shooting thousands of free-throws a day. His coach, however, was not impressed.

“If he’s shooting them with incorrect form,” his coach, Phil Jackson, said (I’m paraphrasing here), “he’s not going to get better. He’s only reinforcing bad habits.”

This story, I believe relates not just to basketball, but to most skills, writing included. The quality—and intentionality—of your practice is just as—if not more—important as your volume. As I wrap up my series on new year’s resolutions and writing goals (part 1 here; part 2 here), I want to look at the types of goals we set as writers, and whether these goals are the best approach to improving at our craft.

Most writers, as I detailed in the previous posts in this series, set word count or writing time goals. Write a certain amount of words or a certain amount of time per day, and your writing will improve. If you want to be a writer, you have to write, the common platitude goes. And so we write. We add to our work in progress, slog through our first draft of our novel, but do we really improve as writers? Are we improving at our craft? Are we better today than were yesterday? Or, are we, like Shaq, reinforcing bad habits?

If we answer the question honestly, I think we will find that most of us are not growing as much as we could. We have random spikes when hit on something great, and, occasionally, we might actually learn something, but that growth is often random and passive rather than intentional. Imagine how much better we’d be if we were purposeful in our practice and worked to address our weaknesses.

That is the fallacy in the 10-thousand-hour rule. Instead of shooting 10000 free throws, shoot 1000 shots sitting in a chair, shooting with your wrist and working on your follow through. Master that, then work on aligning your elbow. Figure out which part of your form is off and isolate your practice to focus on that aspect.

There are two types of practice: practice that mimics performance, and practice that builds the necessary skills and attributes which are necessary to perform successfully. In writing—and this is true not just for aspiring writers, but for the way writing is taught from elementary school through the university level—we tend to focus on the performance aspect, the final piece intended for publication, at the expense of the skill and attribute-building aspects. This sets writing up in opposition to many other fields where skill and attribute training reign supreme. No one questions the utility of the speed bag for building hand speed and coordination for boxers, yet no boxer goes into the ring and tries to hit his or her opponent with the same technique that they use to hit the bag. Serious chess players do not just practice by playing games, either against each other or against a computer, they work at problems and exercises designed to isolate the strategy needed in certain situations. So why don’t writers, by and large, spend their writing time practicing their similes, working on their sentence structure, and their meter, their dialogue? Perhaps we should.

Recently, I spent an evening completing a writing exercise where I had to list and define as many portmanteaus as I could within a certain amount of time. This list, which was based off of an exercise James Joyce would do, was not designed to produce a publishable piece of writing, but it allowed me to improve at a device which was not one I commonly use in my writing. I expanded my toolbox, and actually wrote a passage in one of my works-in-progress recently that had two portmanteaus in it.

One exercise that I often suggest to young writers is mimicking a writer whom they admire. Try to write a paragraph in the style of that author, about any subject. Focus on the model’s sentence structure, literary devices, etc. This exercise is unlikely to produce a publishable piece of writing (unless you, unintentionally, create a brilliant satire), but it will make you more aware of any author’s style and allow you to begin to critically evaluate your own. There is a great passage in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own in which she mimics the style of famous male and female authors of the 19th Century. Internalizing author authors’ style will expand your own and make you a better writer.

Similarly, W. H. Auden would give his students poetry exercises where they would have to use certain combinations of metrical feet in each line and to use different types of rhymes at proscribed points in the poem (see picture below). This exercise was not designed to produce great poetry—and if you look at Auden’s poetry, he does not often combine that many different meters in a single poem—but it is designed to teach students the various possibly combinations of rhyme and meter. It is similar to the athletic exercises delineated above.

Choosing which exercises to do—which skills to focus on—requires you to analyze your own writing. Internalize the feedback you get from others and read yourself critically. Maybe you are prone to simile and want to practice metaphor or allusion; perhaps you want to work on writing realistic dialogue; maybe your writing is too structured and you want to loosen it up and make it more natural; maybe you write stream of conscious and want to gain more control over your style. Whatever your goal, whatever your weakness as a writer, there are exercises that you can do to improve each of these skills—and any other area you on which you desire to work.

There are exercises you can do to improve your attributes as well. Engage in speed writing to see how many words you can put on a page in a given amount of time; read the dictionary to improve your vocabulary (Both John Gardner and Chris Bohjalian as a warm up exercise before you actually start your writing session for your work in progress). Diagram a complex sentence (say one of Faulkner’s famously long ones) to gain a better understanding of grammar.

By engaging in these types of skill-and-attribute-building exercises, you will improve as a writer. You must choose your exercises intentionally; you must analyze your strengths and weaknesses honestly—which is hard—but you will improve faster than if you just write for the sake of hitting a word count goal.

Now, engaging in this type of practice may seem like it might slow your progress. You will likely end up with fewer finished pieces, and your word count totals on the pieces you intend to publish might suffer in comparison to what you’re doing now, but the ones you do finish, will be better and you will notice improvement from one piece to the next as you build your writing toolbox.

Notice, that these exercises take time. You will still be working those 10 thousand hours, but 10000 hours will help you grow as a writer rather than just turning your wheels like Shaq with his free throws.

Be sure to check out the links page to read some of my published writing, and to follow me on twitter and facebook.

Tao of Writing, Part II: A Finger Pointing A Way To The Moon

I ended my last blog entry talking about Bruce Lee and finding one’s way as a writer. I would like to expand on that theme in this one. In that entry, I wrote a lot about what writing advice is not. In this one, I would like to examine what it is.

Consider, if you will, the following scene from Lee’s most famous movie, Enter The Dragon.

At the end of the scene, Lee says, “It is like a finger pointing a way to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger, or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”

This quote, in my opinion, is the single greatest statement I’ve heard about teaching and learning. I’ve written about this quote on numerous occasions, including in papers for graduate school and for my second black belt essay, and used this quote in lessons I’ve given to students ranging from young martial artists to graduate students in English education. Every time I ask my students to interpret the quote, I receive similar responses. Most people talk about missing the forest for the trees. They focus on the phrase “don’t concentrate on the finger,” interpreting the “finger” as the minutia and the “heavenly glory” as the bigger picture. This, I believe is gross misreading of the quote, as a close reading of the line will reveal.

Let’s break down the sentence: “It,” Lee says, “is like a finger.” That simile is the core of the sentence. We will return to the “it” momentarily, but whatever “it” is, is like a finger. Later on, Lee says, “don’t concentrate on the finger,” which, I is section that trips people up.

Is the finger a ruse? Is it a trick to misdirect the student, to get him to look? Does its seeming significance in the sentence only set up a straw man, which the teacher will later undermine? I do not believe so. While it is true that Bruce Lee encouraged his students to break free from classical structures and seek their own truths, he still believed in the necessity of teaching and of the teacher. Why else would he work as a kung fu instructor? Why would he continue to teach even after he became a celebrity actor who was financially secure? Clearly, he saw some great value in the pedagogical process.

Moreover, the text itself undermines the notion that the finger is a misdirection. Let us return to the “it”, the pronoun that is subject of the sentence. What is the antecedent of “it”? While it is grammatically vague, the scene’s context necessitates that the “it” refers to the feeling the student felt at the moment Lee was satisfied with his technique. The student does achieve that plane without Lee’s guidance. He does not know that he had achieved it without Lee telling him what he’s achieved, and, perhaps most importantly, he does not understand the takeaway which Lee intends him to internalize until Lee, the teacher, explains it to him. In a broader sense, “it” is the lesson and/or the teacher—or even the pedagogical process of teaching and learning—which is the true antecedent of “it”.

The “it”, however, is not important in and of itself. The teacher merely points the finger. If the student had truly learned, if he is unable to apply the lesson in situations when he finds himself without his teacher there to guide him, he will not have gained anything. If he concentrates solely on the finger, he will, indeed, miss “all that heavenly glory.”

The finger, therefore, is both essential and not to be focused on. This seeming contradiction can be resolved by examining the most often overlooked phrase in the quote: “a way”. The finger does not merely point at the moon, rather it points “a way” to the moon, a path by which one can get there, a Tao, in the sense that my last post discussed. Through the lesson, the teacher shows the student how to follow “a way.” That is the function of the finger, the teacher, and the lesson. Without the finger, the student would not know where to look. Without the teacher, the student would be groping, blindly, on his own. The teacher cannot walk the path for the student, but the student is more likely to be successful with the guidance of the teacher.

This quote also encapsulates my theory about writing advice and writing models. When we concentrate on the “finger”, when we try to emulate exactly what a famous writer or writing teacher recommends, we set ourselves up for failure. I’ve seen many writers fail because they focus too much on the specific piece of advice rather than the path—or way—that it points toward. You are not Hemmingway, or Mamet, or Morrison, or Gaiman. Your path with differ from theirs. You must find your own Tao. Only then, will you be successful. You can make that search easier, however, by looking beyond the “finger”, looking beyond the narrow piece of advice—even if it’s stated as an absolute by your chosen teacher—and try to seek the larger idea to which it points. Only then, will you achieve your “heavenly glory.”

One of my favorite examples of looking where the finger is pointing is from the introduction to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children. Rushdie writes of his debt to Jane Austen and Charles Dickens:

I have written and spoken elsewhere about my debt to the oral narrative traditions of India, and also to those great Indian novelists Jane Austen and Charles Dickens – Austen for her portraits of brilliant women caged by the social convention of their time, women whose Indian counterparts I knew well; Dickens for his great, rotting, Bombay-like city, and his ability to root his larger-than-life characters and surrealist imagery in a sharply observed, almost hyperrealistic background, out of which the comic and fantastic elements of his work seem to grow organically, becoming intensifications of, and not escapes from, the real world.
 – Salman Rushdie

[From the Introduction to Midnight’s Children
Rushdie, Salman. Introduction. Midnight’s Children. By Rushdie. New York: Random House, 2006. eBook.

Rushdie’s writing does not resemble these authors in style or structure, but he saw certain things in their writing—Dickens’ description of a city and ability to incorporate surrealist imagery in a realist setting, and Austen’s portrayal of women caged by society—which were instructive to him in his own writing. He used their writing—their lessons—as fingers, pointing a way at something significant. He used their examples to find his own path toward success. I hope that you and I am can free our minds from the literal, narrow view of following writing advice and find out own Tao’s of writing. And, if the way that I—or any other writer—point toward is not your way, that is ok. Remember that the finger points “a way”, not necessarily “the way” to the moon. There are many paths to glory.