Practical Wisdom

By Kathryn Heyman

Woolf2At almost every party, there is someone who wants to be a writer. When they retire, they are going to write novels. Everyone has a book in them. It’s just a matter of persistence. You’ve got to ignore the haters. Look at Lord of the Flies – endlessly rejected and now, ha! Who has the last laugh, huh?

Writers spend a lot of time at parties cornered by these people. Writers who also teach tend to be the ones smiling and saying, yes, that’s right, you should try, certainly, persistence is key, everyone can do it. But that’s a lie and we know it.

Writing a novel is not simply a matter of persistence. It’s not simply a matter of ignoring detractors, of staying up late and switching the television off. It’s rare to meet a person who thinks that when they retire they will compose symphonies, become choreographers, design public buildings. Why not? Because they understand implicitly that craft is a crucial element of these comparable arts.

In most writing classes talent is rarely mentioned. Talent, it’s true, can’t be taught. What can be taught is the ability to harness talent. Craft can be taught.

Sanzio_01_Plato_Aristotle.pjgAristotle wrote of three forms of wisdom, defined as critical learning (epistemē), practical learning (technē) and practical wisdom (phronesis). It’s this final form that most applies to the writing life.

Creative Writing teaching has tended to exist in the sphere of the first of these:  critical learning. In the academy (and in general courses) creative writing tends to be delivered through the workshop model, popularised through the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In this model, writers bring their work in progress to their peers for critical feedback. Here, the writer-instructor serves not as expert but as facilitator and the student-writer learns through correction rather than instruction. This  – along with a critique of published works – tends to be the default model of writing teaching.There have been criticisms of this model but certainly one risk is the ‘house style’ that can result – if fifteen people in a room respond favourably to one approach, writers will learn to favour that approach, to seek approval. The supposedly critical devolves into groupthink. Outside the academy – the community writing sphere, if you like – the model tends to be one of technical exploration. Write about a tree. Write about love. Find a park and write what you can smell.

These models are useful. Critical and technical skills are necessary for writers. The ability to sit, imagine, create, think about senses, write what you notice – this is clearly important. But this in itself will not produce a novel, though it may begin something. Nor will the ability to critique early drafts of others enable you to coax your own creativity from its shell; though it may provide a sense of writing community.

A deliberate process of learning can, in fact, make you better than you are, it can make you a better reader, more empathetic, more skilled in your use of language, more willing to experiment, to feel, to notice. These things will make you a better writer. Most importantly they will lead –  with time, with practice, with patience – to the acquisition of practical wisdom.

We admire athletes – insofar as we do admire them – because they have exercised discipline, demonstrated determination, overcome inertia. We understand that their excellence is based on ability combined with commitment, skill matched by will. Why would art be different? Under what ridiculous circumstances would we pay to attend a concert performed by an orchestra who have not rehearsed, or practised, or spent years honing their skills? Who among us would walk into a building designed by an architect who woke one morning with a picture in her head and sketched it out, miraculously, with none of the grinding back and forth required? And who would expect effortless writing to result from anything other than a particular kind of effort?

william-goldingIn desperation to qualify writing as an art, epistemē, and avoid relegating it to ‘merely’ a skill, technē, we risk overlooking the patient, careful discipline that produces wisdom in action, phronesis. I believe it is a major failing of our culture that we have no accessible way of translating this word into everyday English. The gap in our language becomes a gap in our philosophy.

Back to the myth of The Lord of the Flies. Golding didn’t merely prove the haters wrong. In response to professional editorial feedback he reflected, struggled, rewrote and reworked his manuscript until – eventually – he had a masterpiece.

In this short series of blog posts I will be exploring the key virtues required for the writing life. But to do so it’s crucial to start with the one virtue upon which, for Aristotle, all the others depend. This is the first writerly virtue, it’s the hardest, because it takes the longest to master. But it’s also the easiest, because we all have it in us. With time, with discipline, with constant practice, it will emerge. It’s at the heart of what it means to be a writer and of what it means to be human. We were born to be wise.

(© Kathryn Heyman 2013)

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