Practice Breaks Plateau

At least I hope it will because I’m currently fighting my way through closing the gap between how I expect my writing to be and how it is in reality. You know how you get this amazing idea for a story and you can see how brilliant it will be written down but then you write it and it’s just crap. I have been for some time (we’re talking many years). Also, I feel like I’m not improving at the moment. I’ve reached this point of not being terrible: I know the basics – avoid adverbs, avoid cliches, show don’t tell, all that stuff – so I can write better than Dan Brown (let’s face it, it isn’t difficult) but I persist in this inability to be good. I’ll get occasional flashes of good – sometimes I’ll even write something really good (and we’re talking words, phrases, maybe sentences on a really good day) although, thinking about it, that hasn’t happened in a long time. Mostly it’s…not terrible. Bordering on OK but not even quite good enough for that.

So as always, when I get stuck, I have turned to google for the magic solution to my problem. And I may have found one. It’s called deliberate practice.

Now this is a new term to me and I’m not sure I’ve fully understood it but my interpretation is that deliberate practice is when you find an area that you need to improve in – something specific so, for example, I’m terrible at narrating events – just getting a character from A to B (I really struggle with this, I tend to over-do it so it gets all clunky) – and deliberately practice that area. I think the actual method is up to you but a suggestion I’ve come across is to read a passage you consider to excel at this area, compare that to what you’ve attempted and pick apart the differences – what makes theirs good and yours bad and how you can make yours better. Repetition is important, too, so keep practicing that particular aspect of writing. And another thing: it’s meant to be hard.

When I first thought about applying deliberate practice to writing I had a strange, dismissive reaction. It was like I almost-consciously thought ‘this doesn’t apply to me’ or maybe ‘this doesn’t apply to writers’. I think I’m embedded with this view that writers are ‘inspired’. They don’t practice – they channel the muse. It’s odd because I don’t really believe in muses and I’m very aware of how much hard work writing is. Yet something about the idea of ‘practicing writing’ rang false to me.

And yet if you think about a different skill – dancing, playing an instrument, sport – you would expect to practice. Why is writing different?

I’m pretty sure this isn’t just me because it’s not the sort of thing I think – this seems very much like a collective subconsciousness thing. A hangover, maybe, from the days when writers were seen as these magical creatures who lolled about waiting for inspiration, scribbled frantically for days on end then collapsed. Myths are hard to shake.

So…is it just me? Or does anyone else find the idea of ‘practicing writing’ a bit…inconsistent without a logical reason.

Also, anyone else having the plateau problem? (That can’t be just me: Ira Glass says everyone goes through it.*)

Well, anyway, I’m gonna give this deliberate practice thing a try. I’ve already identified my strengths and weaknesses and some books to learn from. Just need to get on with it, now.

Wish me luck (and inspiration!)

*I’ve shared this video before but it was hidden away in a ‘click here’ type scenario, and it’s something I keep returning to, so…here’s Ira:

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Getting into ‘the Zone’

Where is this ‘zone’? How does one ‘get into it’? Do you have to be invited? Is there a guest list? Or do you just have to find its location and the way in? Maybe there’s a door somewhere to ‘the zone’ – like the door to Mr Barrat’s bedroom in Finding Neverland. Maybe there’s a station for it on the tube – there’s an Elephant and Castle, there’s even an Angel, why not a ‘zone’? It would probably be somewhere near Barking, right?

OK, enough of that. We all know the zone is not an actual place. Nor is it some mystical realm where you can pick ideas like apples. It’s not a place – it’s a state of mind. Hm how hippy-esque of me but it is, right? When you are ‘in the zone’ you are focused so much on what you’re doing, you forget everything else – you shed time like a cat sheds fur in molting season.

So how does one get into ‘the zone’?

I hate those websites that promise a golden answer or solution to this sort of problem and then end up telling you there is no answer – usually suggesting you buy their book – and always after you’ve wasted a lot of time reading a lot of vague rubbish. So, I’m going to save you that time and be straight with you right here, right now:

There is no golden answer.

The truth is you can’t deliberately induce ‘being in the zone’. There’s no magical method, well, none that have been discovered yet. I myself don’t know how I ‘get into it’ – it just happens.

However, I have done some research, thanks to the help of my brother, who’s much cleverer than I am and part-way through his PHD in Philosophy. My bro’s in the know – he’s got RSS feeds and that to academic forums about stuff and he introduced me to Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (the link’s to wikipedia – in case anyone wants to swot up on him themselves). Csikszentmihalyi is the guy who coined the term ‘flow’ (the proper word for what I call ‘the zone’). According to him, people are most happy when they are in the state of flow, which he describes as ‘being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.’ (Geirland, John (1996). “Go With The Flow”. Wired magazine, September, Issue 4.09.)

Interesting little nugget of info, by the way: the reason you feel so involved and forget everything else is that a person’s mind can only attend to a certain amount of information at any one time – 126 bits per second to be precise – and when you are in ‘the zone’ your brain is using up all of that capacity so there is none left for anything else.

That was a slight side-track but I wanted to share it so tough. Now, back to ‘getting into the zone’, I said there was no way to deliberately induce flow but there are conditions for it:

  1. One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals. This adds direction and structure to the task.
  2. One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and his or her own perceived skills. One must have confidence that he or she is capable to do the task at hand.
  3. The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows him or her to adjust his or her performance to maintain the flow state. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology))

So, how do you meet these conditions? It has been argued that meditation can help – i.e. if you meditate regularly your mind will be more used to focusing and you’ll get into ‘the zone’ more regularly (I wanted to say easily but that sounds like you can make yourself get into the zone and we already know you can’t). I guess, also, if you do the task through which you meet these criteria there’s at least the possibility of managing it but it’s not guaranteed.

The question I’m most interested in, being a writer, is: does writing fit these conditions? Now, the thing is, it must do because I have experienced the flow when writing. However, I’m not sure I agree with number three (I hate to question an actual genius but I’m obnoxious like that) because if three is necessary, how on earth could I achieve flow when writing? I have no clear and immediate feedback, in fact, if I think about feedback or judgement at all, I’m out of the flow. I can only achieve ‘flow’ when I’m writing a draft – I can’t manage it when editing. Perhaps this is why it’s difficult to achieve when writing – well, I find it difficult – maybe other writers don’t. I don’t know – why don’t you tell me?

It would also be great to know if anyone has found a way of inducing the state of flow. I know a lot of writers have rituals and that, which I’m sure are meant to help with this. Perhaps it’s not always seen as a means of inducing flow but isn’t that what it is?

Again, I don’t know – why don’t you tell me?

P.S. In case anyone was wondering – this is that awesome post on ‘the zone’ that I promised when I abandoned you all possibly 10 days ago, and I have to confess, I have been back for a couple of days now but my life does not revolve around this blog so I didn’t finish and post it the second I got to a computer. OK?