The other day in an online writer’s group a gentleman asked, “A question for all you writers: did you spend time learning about the craft of writing before you wrote anything, or did you start writing first, and learn along the way?”
After a few hours, no one had answered him, so I jumped in.
My answer: I definitely started writing first, and I’d wager most (if not all) writers do.
Writing is a means of expression first. I needed to express myself, so I wrote. It wasn’t until I realized (was told) I had an aptitude for it that I began to pursue the skill of writing (learning craft) and I will constantly pursue skill to refine my expression.
But first and foremost, expression. My desire to create spurs my desire to learn craft, and I learn as I go, more often than not.
BAH! I should have used plainer language. From my answer, I hope you will see that A. I write first and B. I learn my craft as I go. In other words, I learn by doing. And I call Shenanigans on anyone who says they don’t.
In my opinion, we all learn by doing. There are a couple writers at said group who really get under my skin by (over-)emphasizing reading. This is NOT to say that I don’t believe reading is valuable. I think it is of inestimable value! One should read as much as possible! HOWEVER! Here is the part that sticks in my craw when they say things like “oh, I learned my craft first; I read.” (Somehow in my head this is a snide, pretentious, knowing voice. I’m probably wrong.) Here’s the thing – the only way to get better at a skill is by practicing said skill.
As a singer, I can listen to all the brilliant voices in the world, I can recognize every aria backward and forward and recite the libretti and histories of all the great operas. This doesn’t make me a great singer. This makes me a learned listener with refined taste and specific knowledge. I might still sing like a mule. I’ll know how I ought to sound, but I won’t know how to go about creating that sound!
The only way to become a great singer (or a skillful singer) is to do, do, do! Sing! Most helpfully, sing with a teacher/technician who will help you understand the mechanics of the voice, will guide you in the right direction, and teach you to hear/feel/know when the voice is functioning optimally so you can guide yourself when they aren’t with you. This means, essentially, that there is a LOT of experimentation and hit/miss going on for a while. I make a whole bunch of weird wacky sounds to get my voice lined up when I sing, constantly reminding myself of my limits while pushing the envelope to stretch and learn. The goal is not just to be a skillful singer, but to be my own singer, using my voice to its best advantage. April’s voice, not a decent imitation of Beverly Sills or Renee Fleming. If I only listen, I’ll (maybe) learn to parrot these women. I won’t truly find the voice inside me. If I practice the skill, I discover my own unique instrument.
Isn’t this how it is with writing? With any artistic skill?
Read! Read fiction, read non-fiction, read books and articles, comics and cereal boxes. By all means, take classes and join communities of writers. Study your art; follow the examples of others.
But if you’re going to find your voice, truly hone your craft…
Write! Don’t give me a list of all the books you’ve read or classes you’ve attended, show me what you know – show me your work. Otherwise, you’re not a writer – you’re an armchair diva.