Next Saturday, I’ll begin teaching another session of Method Writing. And as usual I wonder if I can do this. I’m a wonderer. I’m never certain of anything I do. My life and my work and my teaching are always tentative. I ask more questions than I have answers. Like other creatives, I am chased around in circles by self doubt. I am chased around in circles by my past failures and successes. I am chased around in circles by my history. I am chased around in circles by every teacher I’ve ever had and every book I’ve ever read. And if I keep looking back at my pursuers, I can’t get anything done. It’s a pain in the neck, to tell you the truth. Sometimes I feel like a punching bag. And it’s tough to be productive while you take a pounding. 

What I really wonder is whether I’m such a good writer that I can presume to tell others how to be good writers. And the paradox of this question is that no creative worker can really predict the effect of the work on the audience. I can’t sit down to write with the certainly I will write something good. Everybody who does creative work knows the inevitable chilling self-doubt that shadows everything we do.

What warms the chill for me is asking myself “am I working well” which is quite a different question then whether I am making good work. When I work well, I may or may not produce good work, but I am not likely to do so if I do not have an effective, systematic way of going about the work. 

When a baseball player stands at home plate, preparing to hit the ball, they don’t know if they’re going to hit a home run. What they do know is whether they are holding the bat correctly, whether it is angled over the shoulder, whether the weight of the bat is appropriate, whether their stance is well balanced, whether their eye is on the ball. And if all these things are attended to (and no doubt a few more I don’t know about it) they might get the result they are after. 

It is working well that can be practiced and taught. Good writing is not something that can be practiced. I can’t sit down at the keyboard and say to myself, “Today I’m going to practice making good work.” Who knows if I am to make good work? Nobody. It’s unpredictable. Trying to practice “making good work” is a hopeless endeavor. It’s like saying, “Today I’m going to practice winning a race.” You can’t practice winning—it isn’t up to you. What you can practice is RUNNING as fast as you can. Which may be much too slow to win the race today, but is the best strategy you have to win the race tomorrow. 

What we can learn in class is how to work well. We can practice “going to Ralph’s to get a chicken.” We can practice not being pulled away from the exercise by the gravity of our story. We can practice massaging a transformation line. We can practice the repetition exercise of “to be read and song” — which, you may notice, I have been doing in this very paragraph. 

We can plumb the depth of our emotions, swim in the oceans of our inner selves, manipulate words with the profundity of the “lost world” voice. And then we can land with a solid plop into straight talk – like, KABOOM. 

In other words we can forget about making a good piece of writing, or saying something in particular, or telling a story. We can focus on the exercise. We can take our skills out for a drive, and see what happens. We can have fun instead of angst. 

And that, my friend, is how we can practice and learn to be better writers. 

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