There is no clear benchmark for achieving “mastery” in writing. No matter how much I write or study the craft, I will never reach a place where there is nothing else for me to learn.
But is that even what it means to master writing? And would I want that? Having nothing else to learn about writing would be horribly depressing.
A big part of what I love about writing is experimenting, studying my mistakes, and course-correcting. Writing is not paint-by-numbers; it is a dynamic process with uncertainty as a creative catalyst. I build my stories up in layers, never sure until the very end what exactly the final product is going to look like.
I never sit down at my computer with the mindset that I will “show off” how well I can write. If I did, my stories would be tedious to read because my ego is a worse writer than my cat. It cares nothing about honest expression; it only wants to make me look good, or at least not bad. It wants to keep me safe. However, most stages of the writing process, especially the earliest ones, fail to flatter me at all; it takes a kind of faith to believe that, in the end, my shaky initial efforts will result in a product that will work, much less dazzle.
However, if my writing does succeed, it is only because it is a dynamic record of my exploring, floundering, learning, wondering, trying, failing, and problem solving. The unseen, imperfect layers matter, including my bumbling first drafts I had to delete before starting over, because from them I learned what not to do. Every successful story is a record of growth. If my writing were to lose its aspect of uncertainty, if I truly had nothing more to learn, if I knew exactly what would unfold from my efforts, I would stop writing.
So if I say I want to “master” story telling, if I want to make a goal of it, I had better figure out what I actually mean. What do I mean by mastery? Does it mean writing a New York Times bestseller, getting rich, becoming famous, and purchasing a beachfront condo in the Keys? Does it mean being awarded the Pulitzer or the McCarther Genius Grant?
I recently found a metaphor for mastery I like better: “unlocking space.” I came across this phrase in a book about how to draw. The terms describes creating a sense of physical depth in a drawing. Objects a long distance away from us appear smaller than super-close objects, even though the faraway objects like trees may actually be bigger than, say, the apples right in front of us on a table top. Artists use such principles to create realistic drawings. Formally the rules for creating depth in drawing are called “linear perspective” and they can get mathematically complicated, but I love the idea of “unlocking space.” There is something enticing — and almost magical — about transforming a two dimensional sheet of paper into a place where the eye can roam in all three dimensions. Linear perspective is a complicated technique that, once mastered, grants the artist unimaginable control and freedom. It seems almost as incredible to me as the power to walk through walls.
What does this have to do with writing? A similar “unlocking” of space happens for a writer when all of his craftsmanship, experience, insights, and creativity come together to form a convincing illusion of real people acting freely according to their real desires, obsessions, or past suffering in an imaginary physical place. When I am reading a book written by a master writer, all the words fall away like a curtain to reveal settings so convincing I feel like I could walk around in them, pluck leaves from their oak trees, cool my bare feet in their streams, or warm my hands by their camp fires. Unlocking space means seeing, touching, and hearing a world engendered by the imagination of an artist.
The best fiction creates a sense of life unfettered by the limitations and tools of the craft. Mastery evokes a feeling not of struggle, but of ease and freedom, and that is where I want to go. That is what I mean when I say I want to master writing. I want to unlock space. The more I practice and the more I learn, the more space I will unlock, and the more realistic my illusions will seem.
However, because there will always be more to learn about writing, mastery is a path with no endpoint. My ego hates that. My ego wants to sit atop a lofty precipice labeled “success” and avoid trying anything new. My ego, like a yipping puppy, is a noisy impediment to mastery, but it is here to stay. I have considered giving it up for adoption, except without it I would never take baths or comb by hair and I would eat nothing but chocolate chip cookies all day long. Since I have no choice but to live with my ego, I have had to learn how to talk to it in order to keep it calm while I subject it to the tortures of trial and error.
“Trial is fine,” my ego wails. “It is the error part I have a problem with. Keep the trials but get rid of the error!”
“I understand your pain, Ego,” I say. “However, success is built upon failure. You need to fail, you need to fail again and again, and that’s why I will continue to seek activities in which you are unlikely to succeed the first time, the second time, or even the third time. But failure doesn’t make us a bad writer. It makes us an adventurous writer. if you are curious, if you try new things, if you keep going, at some point you will learn, and you will become a more skillful writer as a result. That means you will have more control than you did before, and more freedom. However, now that you are writing a rough draft, it is time for you to make a big mess. It won’t flatter you at all but it might surprise you and you might have fun.”
At this point I am usually able to calm my ego down to a point where it will allow me to try new things. And because I love writing, there is a lot I want to try.
I have never tried writing a thriller, romance, or mystery story. I have never written a screenplay or a comic book script. I have never included a subplot in a novel. I have never written a battle scene. But I want to try all of them.
My ego would rather I not. “Stick with what you already know,” it says. “Remember the stories you were praised for? Do more stories just like that. Figure out a formula if you can. I would hate for you to disappoint anyone.”
I am sure I have disappointed people at times, but I suspect I have disappointed my ego more than anyone. And even though it might enjoy hearing that it has nothing more to learn about writing, that it has “arrived,” the artist in me would wilt if she believed that. Failure is not the opposite of mastery. A willingness to fail for the love of the art is the lifeblood of creativity, and while my ego might not always be happy with me, at least I will never be bored.