Over the past few months, I’ve read some books about talent, and more specifically the age-old debate about whether it is possible to grow it. Some of the books I read are: Grit, by Angela Duckworth, Talent is Overrated, by Geoff Covlin, The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle.
According to these books, it’s apparent that talent can be grown by resorting to deliberate practice. However, there’s nothing new about this, and I’ve already covered the topic.
Nonetheless, when they describe deliberate practice, they say it’s a particular type of practice — extenuating and far from enjoyable.
This detail, I should have noticed at once. Also, I should have thought about it and what entails a lot more than what I actually did. Instead, it took me some time to realize the full significance of this take on talent.
In fact, only later on, when I came across a couple of famous quotes about writing, I made the connection. The quotes I’m speaking of are:
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” by Stephen King.
“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.” by William Faulkner.
The “truth” about reading
Now, while I love reading, and I’ve no plans to stop doing so, it’s apparent that telling people to read is too generic a suggestion to be of any real help when it comes to growing talent.
In fact, if deliberate practice is so far from being enjoyable, and is so also so extenuating, then reading for mere pleasure, no matter how much, isn’t going to improve our writing in any significant way.
At best, we can probably think of reading as a low-intensity sort of training that can help us keep our imaginative muscles warm.
In fact, if deliberate practice has to be specific to what we want to do, namely writing, and grueling in terms of intensity, the ideal scenario for any serious beginning writer who wants to improve would be one where the beginning writer has to write a series of assignments, and then submits them to an already well-established writer — a writer that can really offer an in-depth and unbiased critique of the piece.
With the word assignment I don’t necessarily mean a whole short story. In fact, an assignment could simply focus on the different component of a story, like description, dialogue, or characterization.
However, about this point I’ve read somewhere — though I can’t remember where — that complex sports like ice hockey are better learned if you start learning to skate and push around the puck at the same time. Because, otherwise, our brain considers learning to skate, and to control the puck, entirely different activities. Activities that then need to be integrated, with varying degrees of success, into a larger activity.
Keep it short
So, by the same token, I think that writing a lot of short stories while focusing intensely on getting all the different parts of good storytelling working together, and then having someone who is already very good at writing going over your work and comment on it, really is, if not the only one, at the very least one of the best strategies.
Besides, the moment you should decide to turn your attention to novels, you could always consider each chapter of your book as a short story.
Just a last word about reading. While it isn’t the best activity we can resort to to improve our storytelling skills, it’s one we can use in many situations when we can’t sit down to write — for example when we’re stuck in a line. Besides, reading is also an extremely enriching activity, so rather than considering whether or not to drop it, we should strive to find more quality time for deliberate practice.