So what is deliberately practicing writing?

Anders Erikson‘s co-theory of the ten-thousand-hour rule depends on those ten thousand hours being deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is only rocket science to rocket scientists. Writers must work on what they can already do well while pushing themselves out of their comfort zone with excellent tutelage over years. Without instruction, they can practice through deliberate trial and error, which takes even longer.

But that creates a problem when it comes to public critique. Angela Duckworth talks about the problem of associating making a mistake with fear, shame or embarrassment. I will always remember the growing heat of embarrassment that started at my core and radiated outward as I realized that if I wanted to learn a second language in another country, I had to be willing to make mistakes out loud. Even though I never had a bad experience trying to communicate, it still took months of constant positive responses for the fear of one to go away.

Contrast that with the act of public critique, where shame, embarrassment and fear is unavoidable when a table of your peers are carving up every mistake the draft has, publically. I don’t wonder why “there are no rules” as a complete thought took such hold in the community. It’s a safe thought in the harsh reality that writers must learn to use their craft before they can hone it.

The first requirement of a learner in an instruction-based approach is to hear what was said and not what was wanted to be heard. “The character must be meaningfully challenged” is the most important critique aesthetically-focused writers must hear. But writers who have practiced for years to take their aesthetic-based skillset to almost publishable levels must feel safe enough in their learning environment to share something still imperfect. It is not easy to learn to create a series of events that will push their protagonist from their startling point to their turning point to their point of meaningful change (or lack thereof.)

But between “there are no rules” and the desire to shoot the message through the messenger, underpublished writers don’t hear “this draft of this work requires meaningful conflict to drive the tension to create the need for character change.” What they hear is “this critiquer doesn’t understand I didn’t intend to do any of that.”

It is true that famous, internationally award-winning stories do not require a moment that sets the character on a new path to the point where they must continue, ready or not. The story’s events don’t need to drive the protagonist to change something about their world and/or their lives and/or themselves to succeed, fail miserably, or meaningfully come to a draw. But to quote Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Movie, One vampire is always easier to kill than ten.

Writing a meaningful work in which a likeable character who wants something sets out to accomplish it and either wins, loses or draws isn’t easy. It is only easy compared to the effort required to write a meaningful work in which an unempathetic character wants nothing and doesn’t try to accomplish anything. It is difficult to tell a story from its beginning. It is even more difficult to start a story in a middle spot that requires backstory to catch the reader up with the events that have already passed. The reader will never know who the protagonist was before the dragons attacked. The character growth the reader will experience starts with the character already in their crucible with the furnace blasting.

Underpublished writers should try to shoot the moon and do more than that with less than that. But learning that way requires hearing constructive criticism for what it is worth *and* being able to structurally rewrite the work up to a second draft as an open-new-file rewrite.

To deliberately practice creative writing, it is necessary to practice what has not been perfected. In a peer review environment, the author has to be strong enough to be willing to take risks in their work that may not necessarily pay off to learn from them. But with “there are no rules” as a methodology, if the author’s peers and instructors can’t see a lack of story-building in the strong descriptions and discussions as a problem, it can’t even be considered one.

Anders Erickson specifically says deliberate practice must be uncomfortable. A provost of a major university told me specifically that their program was designed to be as gentle as possible to not cause the learner discomfort. If those two statements are incompatible, I’m guessing the one who was an engineer is wrong about pedagogical approaches.

If a learner decides that whisking in the cheese is as effective as folding it in, they may never understand why their sauce is silky and smooth occasionally, but most of the time it’s a grainy, oily mess. They are going through the same motions over and over again. Whether the method produces work that falls into place and engages the reader is outside of their control.

The author may meet the right person or hear the right piece of feedback that breaks through to them. Or they may enroll in the wrong program that assures them there is no difference between a broken sauce and an unbroken sauce if the author made it break themselves. Once that happens, they will never reach for a spatula instead of a whisk again. Once a confirmation bias has been confirmed with enough authority, the concrete errors they brought into the program become diamonds that nothing natural can cut through.

I remember how fast I ran into my wheelhouse after my first professional critique. I never wanted to leave it again. I was only ever going to do what I was good at for a story slated for public critique. After three years of only writing the safest way I knew how, I realized I’d turned my greatest passion into a chore I had to make myself do. Taking risks meant the possibility of bigger failures, but I had to accept that was as much a part of the learning process as forcing myself to speak in a second language in front of first-language speakers.

A change in pedagogy requires a change in ideology. For creative writing pedagogy to work, the learner has to be motivated to improve across all aspects of writing, be it structural writers focusing on the aesthetic nature of prose or aesthetic writers focusing on structure.

Or — as I tried to explain to the former engineer-provost — without the sensation of discomfort, there is no potential for growth.

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