The first thousand mistakes

1 Dec

A comment from a former student on a previous blog post reminded me that back in the furthest recesses of my career as a creative writing teacher, I used to instruct students in McKay’s Two Rules of Writing.  These were two rules I came up with partly as a spoof of the whole concept of rules, a concept I found much easier to mock and to distance myself from when I was younger and less permanently invested in the educational system.  But in part, the two perhaps frustratingly still unnamed rules do represent  a couple of key concepts I think it important for apprentice writers to wrap their heads around.  They are:

1. Writing is writing.

2. Writing is not writing.

The obvious self-conscious absurdity of this auto-cancelling dichotomy aside, hidden in the septic dental work of my own seemingly irrepressible silliness lie a couple of truthful gold teeth.

Writing is writing.

Any creative process, I suspect: making music, painting, doing theatre or film work, requires that the apprentice artist develop in her or himself a pair of opposing  and apparently self-contradictory skills.  The first of these skills involves the raw energy and confidence to simply and boldly create without much thought as to whether or not what you’re creating is great or even very good.

There are fanciful and mistaken notions about writing (mentioned in another context in an earlier blog post) that probably reflect what the fancier him or herself imagines writers do: these notions often involve the writer as a sort of intellectual bon-vivant: holding forth wittily at dinner parties and perhaps occasionally scribbling down a pithy insight or two.

But what writing actually involves is hard work and plenty of it.  To learn to write, one must be willing to sit quietly and alone for hours at a time and days on end, scratching pen across paper, bringing an imaginary world to life in the mind in a sustained enough manner that what passes fleetingly through the brain may be brought, however awkwardly at first, to the page.

Perhaps the hardest thing about this part of the creative process is the potentially stymying knowledge that much, sometimes even most, of what one is currently writing is dross.  In a book of art instruction I once picked up briefly in a book store, the writer/ teacher advised the apprentice artist thus: the quicker you can make your first thousand mistakes, the sooner you can get to the task of fixing them.  The same holds true of writing.  One of the ways you learn to write well is by writing poorly again and again and again.  And you must keep on writing poorly, even when you know that’s just what you’re doing.  Ask any parent of a fiddle player (or trumpet player for that matter): there is no substitute for the sheer, sometimes dull-witted, brute force of practice.

Writing is writing.

Writing is not writing.

It is re-writing.

Edison famously posited that genius was one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.  This same ratio holds true to the creative process for writing.  The skill of nurturing and channelling inspiration contained in the first rule: Writing is writing, is counterbalanced by the much greater need to be able to objectively look at one’s own work, spot what’s wrong or bad about it, and rework the problems, like going over a cotton shirt with an iron, until they shrink back into the fabric of the better parts of the text.

This is what most people find the single most difficult writing-related skill to develop.  And it’s difficult for very good reasons.   First and foremost, in order to get to the point where you need the critical skills involved in reworking your own writing, you must first have gotten over or beyond an inner critical voice.  In order to create, you must have great self-confidence and trust that what you’re doing may turn out well.  In order to successfully shape your creation, you must be willing and able to re-develop the critical voice you had to ignore in the first place.  You must learn to not necessarily trust yourself.  You must learn to be skeptical of your own output.

And the hard truth about re-writing is that in all but a few cases, so few in fact that they are almost negligible in number, the massive, ninety-nine percent bulk of the work is re-writing.  For a sense of the number of drafts needed to complete a novel and call it whole, check out this video I made a couple of months ago while shamelessly campaigning for my own work on Canada Reads.

This is not at all atypical.


I’m thinking of these processes now because I’m at the start of a brand new first draft.

It feels like a strange place to be.  I have not been here in years.  And what this is requiring of me is that I switch from the critical eye, a mode I’ve been in for five or six years, to the more relaxed, self-nurturing process of trusting rather than mis-trusting.  Of putting down the first idea and leaving it, not letting the desire to perfect what I’m writing get in the way of the momentum of writing it.

I’ve used the term apprentice quite a lot in this post, as though it no longer applied to me.  But one of the hard adjustments of starting a new big project is facing the fact that not only is every creative project new, but the creative process itself must be entered freshly, as a novice enters, each and every time.  Beginning a new novel for the second or third or fourth time is a whole lot like beginning for the first time.  Some lessons learned on other projects will not apply to this one.  Some good practices on previous work may be a detriment to this one.

I’m having to do something very much like starting over from scratch.  I will have to teach myself how to write this novel as I’m writing it.

Each new book is a new apprenticeship.  I will have to re-apprentice myself to this new project, and to every new project.  The process has already begun.


3 Responses to “The first thousand mistakes”

  1. Kellan Menhennett December 18, 2010 at 1:23 pm #

    I believe the quote “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration” was spoken by Thomas Edison.

    • Leo McKay Jr. December 19, 2010 at 1:58 pm #

      A quick google tells me you are correct.

      I’m going to change the post accordingly.

      Thanks, Kellan.

      • Leo McKay Jr. December 19, 2010 at 2:01 pm #

        Edison is also credited with another of my favorite quotations: “Successs depends entirely upon luck, and I find that the harder I work, the luckier I get.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: