Practicing the Techniques of Our Craft

For some reason, I’m thinking today about how I learned to drive. When I was around twelve years old, my father started letting me steer his Oldsmobile on the gravel roads near our farm in Lukin Township. I’d scoot close to him on the bench seat and steer while he operated the gas and, if necessary, the brake. He taught me to feel the tug of the wheel either right or left and to straighten the path with slight, barely perceptible counter turns. Driving, I learned, was nothing like it seemed in television programs where actors give dramatic turns of the wheel as they pretended to drive. Instead, it was a series of small reactions to the feel of the car’s track. “Nice and easy,” my father said. “Just keep it straight.”

In a way, those roads were the perfect place to learn because there was a clearly defined track worn in the gravel with a ridge running down the center. If I let the Olds get too far from a straight track, I’d hear the gravel from that ridge hitting the underside. When my father thought I was ready, he let me solo. Just like that, I was driving. Now, all these years later, I don’t even think about what I’m doing with the steering wheel to keep my car on track. Over time, I internalized the process, and now I steer without giving it much thought.

So it is for writing. We practice the techniques of our craft until we internalize them and employ them by instinct. Write enough passages of description, or enough scenes of dialogue, and we teach ourselves how to do these things. Shift from action to the interior of a character, and we practice the art of the third-person limited point of view. Write until a character surprises us enough times, and we understand the importance of creating characters made up of contradictory layers. I could go on with other examples, but I imagine you get the idea; a piece of writing is a made thing. We practice its techniques to master them.

I remember how impatient I was to reach that magical age of sixteen when I could get my driver’s license. Later, when I began writing in earnest, I had a similar lack of patience for some sort of validation. I wondered whether I’d ever be good enough to publish something. Finally, that day came, but I had to write a lot of words—words that would never see the light of day—before an editor said, “Yes.”

No writing is wasted. It’s all necessary to our development as writers. My father would let me drive from the end of our lane to the first crossroads—then a bit farther, and then a bit farther still. I had a hard time imagining ever driving on a highway or on city streets, but, of course, that’s eventually what happened.

We writers can expand our journeys by first practicing the techniques of our craft. We can imitate passages from our favorite pieces of writing, figuring out how a writer used a specific technique to achieve a certain effect. We can also pick up a good craft book such as Rust Hills’s Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, along with countless others, to see what successful writers, editors, and teachers have to say about the craft. Some of these books will even include exercises and prompts to lead us to further practice. Above all, we can be patient. We can be satisfied with the early steps, the ones necessary to taking us where we want to go.

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