Learning on the hard setting

The past few months, I’ve been trying to teach myself brush lettering. If there’s one thing I’m not going to be good at are things that demand both precision and looseness, and using a brush to write with is the ultimate of that. The rules are simple — thin lines on the upstrokes, thick lines on the down stroke, but my upstrokes always look like the spidery line had had a few pints before getting caught driving home.

But I had two pens. The easy one, that behaved like a brush, but was just flexible rubber and the other had long, individual brush hair. The first was so much easier to make it look good, but I have cats and they skittered it somewhere so I had to keep practicing with the long brush if I was to figure it out at all.

It was frustrating, going from something that sometimes looked like it was almost there to using a brush that made the letters look awful no matter how careful I thought I was being, but with the brush, there was no fudging it like the flexible rubber pen. Day after day I spent really concentrating on lifting the pen at the right spot or upstrokes that wavered less and less until they stopped wavering at all.

And then I found the pen that was so easy to use. After all that time with the difficult pen, using the brush that made it look easy with the techniques I learned having to do it the hard way was easy-peasy from the first time I put it down on paper again.

In my education degree, we had a tennis instructor come talk to us about teaching. He asked if you were teaching someone who had never played tennis before, if you would raise the net or lower it, and we all said lower it, obviously. Make it as easy as possible. He said no, you raise it. It makes using the skill easier, not harder.

And because I can’t go thirty seconds without thinking how anything applied to writing, it made me think of all the writers who told me that they understood the rule that they broke inefficiently was broken inefficiently on purpose. I wonder if they took the time to write enough stories where the character shows the reader their backstory enough times, how much clearer they would be able to see that the shortcut they gave the reader didn’t take them to the same place that the long way around would have.

I don’t need to know how your characters got from the end of the street fight to the tavern. You can tell me they arrived an hour later and I believe you. I’ll even follow you if up that point, you’ve shown all the important bits and the group comes in, talking about the manticore they had to slaughter to gain entry to the bar. Sure. Every book has a few opportunities to tell the reader something important. But if the rest of the story is told to that point, it’s just more telling. Pacing matters. You would think it didn’t for all the times I’ve been told the story is just fine if the rest of the critique group likes it. Show me you know how to show the moving parts of the story, I’ll think the manticore thing was hilarious instead of another missed opportunity to show the interesting bits on paper.

I absolutely agree that there are no rules. But if the story tells more of a story than it lives and the sum is less than its parts, there are lots and lots and lots of guidelines that has to be shown in the writing and not at the critique circle.

But anyway, I’m glad I found my pen. I’ve been wanting to learn how to write “happy birthday” on cards and have it look like sober spiders for a while now.

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