Never Stop Learning
(You Don’t Know Everything)
“The fool doth think he is wise,
but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”
A lot of writers — both professional and amateur alike — fall into the trap of thinking they know enough. They’ve read numerous books about writing, or they’ve attended multiple seminars, or they’ve written fifteen bestsellers, and so they give up searching for any more education on the subject. They think they know it all.
But, the thing is, they rarely do. Writing is a lifelong apprenticeship — we will never complete it. Lawrence Block once said he learned more from teaching writing, than he ever did at his keyboard. He learned by being open to new ideas; by allowing his ego to step aside and admit to himself he might not know everything, and these students might be able to teach him something new.
Many seasoned authors think that an admission of ignorance about the craft is the same as saying they know nothing, or that they’re a hack. They feel the need to portray this image of an all-knowing omniscient writer-god to those around them. The true greats, however, know that to stay on your throne, you need to keep a constant vigil. Be aware of everything around you: never get comfortable. Never sleep on your craft.
Because someone, somewhere, is waiting for you to slip up so they can take your crown.
“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, which may be true: but if that dog never quits learning, never curbs his education, he’ll never have to break his bad habits. If you make sure you’re always experimenting and soaking in advice, you’ll be fixing and adapting and growing as a writer as you go along. You’ll be an ever-evolving unpredictable writing machine.
If you aim for perfection, you’ll eventually shake hands with her. You’ll never quite grasp her — perfection is slippery — but you’ll come close.
“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”
One of the arguments some writers put forth is that they don’t need to learn any more. They’ve sold a novel, their writing is widely praised, or they know they’re competent, or whatever, and they feel that taking in even more advice can only hinder their progress. It will ruin their good work, cause them to over-think and change their style. That’s a legitimate worry. There are those who take learning too far: they change their approach and end up writing something so intricate and perfect on every level that it lacks heart. Their sentences become too refined; their stories too contrived. Everything about their work is robotic and lacks passion. That’s a risk for people who take advice literally. You need to know which parts to absorb, and which to say no to. Not every snatch of writer advice will apply to you or your situation.
A perfect example of this from the rap world is Eminem. In the past, at the height of his fame and success, he wrote intricate rhymes that were somehow both simplistic and complex: rhyme patterns that twisted and turned; he constructed sentences that had rhymes spiralling within rhymes, and yet they were also accessible to the average listener. They could rap along to him and feel as if they were part of his music. Now, however, his style has advanced to such a degree of intricacy that his music has lost its flavour. It’s not easy to connect with his songs anymore. The average listener can’t understand him, let alone rhyme along with his words. He took his learning too far. He adapted and changed in order to prove he was the best rapper on the planet: by doing this, he alienated what made him so good — his ability to write rhymes fans could relate to and vibe with.
Some writers are like that: they’ll refine their craft to a point that it comes across as inauthentic. They’re trying too hard. They’ve lost sight of the bigger picture. Every adverb, verb, adjective, is so thoughtfully and wonderfully placed that the words have lost all meaning. The pages feel lifeless; the characters are manicured to an extreme.
Don’t fall into this trap. You can learn without wiping what you already know. This is an insecurity thing. You need to realise and understand your strengths — with every piece of advice you read or hear, take it into consideration alongside what you already know. If it seems like it will aid your writing, or make it stronger, or more complex, then experiment and see how it goes. If, however, it seems ridiculous or goes against how you write, then discard it. Don’t ruin who you are to please someone else.
Remember: your style is what makes you unique. Don’t lose that.
“Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”
For those who think a writing education is a waste of time, what are your reasons? Write them down and analyse them. Do they seem reasonable? Or are you just being arrogant? Footballers practice almost every day of the week. Do you think Ronaldo or Messi don’t know how to kick a ball by now? You think Ronaldo needs a manager to tell him what angle to aim from when he shoots? Or what runs to make? Or when he should sit back? Surely the best player on the planet would know all of that by now? But even so, he practices every day — he stays behind for shooting practice. He goes to the gym. He harnesses his skill and hones it. And that’s why he’s one of the best.
Plenty of writers reach a level of competency and then arrogantly shrug off further education. Which is how many authors end up running into a brick wall during their career. Their sales flag, their books repeat old patterns, they lose their spark, and they have no idea how to get it back.
Only once they’re forced to, once they’ve crashed and burned, do they consider going back to the drawing board — but by that time, it’s too late. They’re old news.
“There is no end to education. It is not that you read a book, pass an examination, and finish with education. The whole of life, from the moment you are born to the moment you die, is a process of learning.” — Jiddu Krishnamurti
How can you learn? What should you do?
Firstly, read a shitload of writing manuals. Some will be informative, some will be smart, and others will be brainless and harmful if you take their advice on board. Those written by established authors are the best to start with — who knows better than the pros? — but even they tend to have advice that could be counterproductive to your writing career. Just because it works for them, doesn’t mean it works for you. Make sure you remember that. You don’t want to emulate or copy their rhythms. Just learn about them. That way you can pick and choose and accumulate a list of good ideas.
Many of the writing manuals offer similar advice: write what you know, show don’t tell, etc. It’s the stuff all of us know, and for the most part you won’t learn anything new reading these sections, although I’d suggest you go over them anyway. In some manuals they’ll approach these subjects from an angle you’ve never considered before, illuminating an otherwise dark corner. Further still, they may explain it in a way that unlocks something inside your creative brain. It might make you realise a mistake in one of your novels, or a way that can help with your future writing projects. Sometimes a small line from a writing book can trigger something and you’ll think: You’re right, I forgot about the motivation of my main character, and then you can fix it.
Don’t think because you know that stuff, that you actually know it. Check with someone who has a master’s degree in English. Ask him what he knows four or five years on. If he hasn’t been practicing, the likelihood is that he doesn’t know much. Memory is constantly changing and recording over itself. Try to think back to school: can you remember everything you learned? Probably not. School was a long time ago.
And what you know today, you may very well forget tomorrow. So keep learning, keep soaking it in, and keep it at the forefront of your brain — simmering in hot water.
How can you forget something if you’re constantly reminding yourself?
“He who learns but does not think, is lost!
He who thinks but does not learn is in great danger.”
Read plenty of interviews with authors. You’ll find that in most of these interviews, they’re questioned about their writing habits and practices. Every now and then they’ll drop a gem of advice that changes the way you view your writing. Pick your favourite authors, go online, and binge on their interviews. Get inside their head, see what makes them tick. Learn how they write, what brought them to the stage they’re at. Do they write in the morning? The evening? Do they have a particular ritual? Read it and learn from it.
And read lots of novels, too. And when you’re reading them — analyse the writing. If you keep your analytical mind open, you’ll always be learning. If you close it off, your mind dulls. Even with practice, you can slip into bad habits. Picking apart another writer’s style can help to keep your mind sharp. Look at what works and question why it works. Look at what doesn’t and do the same.
The more flaws you find, the more you’ll stamp out in your own work.
And this works vice versa too: if your mind loses that sharp edge, if you begin to see all writing as flawless, you’ll view your own work in this way too, and that’s bad.
In order to write well, you must hate everything.
And then love it again.
Hate it, love it, pick it apart.
Reading’s like a puzzle: it’s no fun unless it’s smashed to pieces first.
For more on critical reading, click on this link: READING WITH A CRITICAL EYE.
Subscribe To Receive New Posts Straight To Your Inbox