Training and Practice

“You don’t like that idea? I’ve got others.”

Marshall McLuhan

Dominik Lukes raised a good point in the comments to my last post. “Your running metaphor,” he said, “is going to filter out a lot of students who do have foundational problems with the basic building blocks of writing.”

No metaphor is perfect and Dominik here catches an important imperfection in the idea that being able to write good prose is like being in good shape. Many struggling writers simply don’t see their problem in those terms. They have no analogue to “just put one foot in front of the other”; when you say “just put one word after another on the page”, they think you’re making fun of them. When you tell them to pick something they know and write a paragraph about it they literally can’t imagine what you’re talking about. They need someone to show them them the basic building blocks (often sentences) and how they go together. They don’t know, we might, say the first thing about writing. I grant Dominic’s general point. Pedagogical analogies like this are rhetorical figures and they have to be judged on their persuasiveness. If they don’t work, they aren’t good metaphors.

So one thing I would emphasize is that you really do have to be more specific about the task than “put your ass in the chair and write”. A jogging coach will give you some reasonable distance to run, tell you to take a day’s break between runs, show you how to stretch out, and even give you some advice about what shoes to wear. A coach might also anticipate problems that could come up along the way (pains, cramps, general tiredness) and what to do about that. I try to be helpful in the same way about how to manage your writing moment. I even tell you what to do if you realize that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Like a jogging coach (I imagine) I tell you not to give up. Walk the rest of the way. Then try again another day.

I sometimes say that scholarly discourse is a bit like boxing. Not everyone likes this metaphor either, so I usually offer an alternative even before being asked: it’s just as much like the tango. You have to think of your reader as an equal and you have require a measured amount of energy, of yourself and your reader, for each move in your writing. Grace emerges not just from knowing what to do, but from knowing how much you can accomplish in a single move, round by round, dance by dance.

This brings us to the part where I really agree with Dominik. Learning to write is much like learning how to play a musical instrument. Perhaps it’s not so much a matter of “training” as a matter of “practicing”. Many people face their writing difficulty much as they would face a piano they don’t know how to play. Yes, they know what the keys do. They understand that the high notes are on the right and the low notes on the left. But whenever they hear someone actually play the thing they also understand that they could never do anything like that. They lack a basic understanding of chords and melody. When they see a good piece of writing they simply don’t understand how it was made.

I’m grateful for Dominik’s prod here and I’m going to write a few posts imagining basic exercises to practice. It’s a good way to get clear about what I think those “basic building blocks of writing” are.

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