Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Chip Before You Drive

Learning to write is a lot like learning to golf.

Golf is simple in its objective but complex in its execution. What could be easier than hitting a white ball towards a hole? The game is rife with frustration and exhilaration. And it has many paradoxes. For example, it seems like the task of hitting the ball to a pin 400 yards away would be more difficult than if its only 120 yards, but alas, usually it’s the exact opposite. The closer to the hole, the more difficult it gets. In golf, its not distance but accuracy that’s key.

In writing, accuracy is everything. It doesn’t matter how many pages you’ve written—all you need is one good sentence. One good line. Even one good word sometimes. One thing that crystallizes all that you want to say with your piece.

But to learn how to find "le mot juste" (as the French would say) can feel like scoruing the earth for the holy grail. Eventually one masters words in a way that no one else can, just like even the average duffer creates a unique swing.

But it starts with fundamentals. When you learn golf you want to crush the ball 300 yards with your driver. But no one has that innate ability (even Tiger Woods). You have to start with the core fundamentals: grip, stance, setup, balance, and the swing. You have to learn how to hit a 9 iron straight for 50 yards. And then you work your way up with the harder clubs. Finally, you start to work on the driver. Of course, then there’s putting, which is a whole other game.

In the same way, composing a sentence should be the easiest thing in the world, right? Subject, verb. Sometimes a direct object. Any dummy could do it. But it’s the difference between, “My name is Ishmael” and “Call me Ishmael.” They’re both sentences, but one is much tighter and more interesting. One is passive and one is active (telling v. showing). One hints at a story. That’s what we want, any words that help our story. And eliminate any clutter.

In writing a play or screenplay, most people think they’ve got a Broadway musical or two-act play in every idea. That’s not always the case. Sometimes it’s best to start out with a ten-minute or even a five-minute play. If you really do have a big idea with characters that can hold an audience for more than an hour, maybe its best just to go scene by scene, even if its only a page or two, here and there. Concentrate on the small chunks. It takes awhile to see the big picture, to put the scenes together. In this way, it’s like the golf game. You learn a few different shots, long and short. When you go out on the course is when you start putting them together. First you look at things hole by hole. Eventually, you can see the layout of all 18 holes and how you have to play each one. And that makes the game.

So writing is like a game. It should be fun and you should learn the fundamentals before trying the advanced stuff. So what’s the advanced stuff? What separates the pros from the amateurs? Rewriting.

In golf, you want to get to the hole in as few strokes as possible. In writing, you want to use as few words as possible. So you grab some scissors and you cut, cut, cut out all the repetition and unnecessary words. (This is the philosophy of Occam’s razar) When you’re done cutting, you do some rewriting. Maybe you’ll add some more words, maybe you’ll cut some. It’s never-ending and quite maddening. You’re searching for "le mot juste". Sometimes you find it hidden in the dark crevices of your mind and sometimes it eludes you. Just like a golf pro putting for hours on the green trying to nail that twenty foot putt, you can spend hours on a few words. That’s the difference.

Someone once told me, “if you want to play better golf, go back in time and start when you’re five years old.” That’s how long it takes to get good. Why would writing be any different?

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