CONTINUAL IMPROVEMENT – A MODE OF TRAVEL, NOT A DESTINATION
Wow, now there’s an arrogant headline. Or at least it would be if I thought I’d arrived at the destination rather than saw myself as a fellow traveller on the path. This article is my own take on the mindset and character traits necessary to improve as an audio drama scriptwriter.
THE IMPORTANCE OF LEARNING
I have always been a student. I love to learn. And I love to share knowledge. This love of learning, and this love of sharing knowledge, led me into teaching as a profession. It also helped me to develop a healthy understanding of how people become experts in their various fields.
One of the easiest ways to identify an amateur in any endeavour is to ask the question “what books do you recommend for learning how to do this?” and wait for an answer along the lines of “Oh, I’m self-taught, I don’t pollute my creativity with the ideas of others”.
I don’t know why some people choose to wear their ignorance as a badge of honour, or why they value independent discovery over learning from the folks who have been there before them, but I do know that it is the mark of an amateur.
Reinventing the wheel is not without value as a learning technique. And sometimes we simply don’t know what we don’t know until we try. But, it is incredibly inefficient.
For this reason, incidentally, I am always surprised by those in the Audio Drama community who have little or no time for Old Time Radio.
While all insights are only ever guidelines (to be observed or rejected according to need), it is only ever a sign of our own myopia that we would reject the lessons to be learned from a period in which more audio drama was being produced at a higher rate than at any other time in history.
THE CHARACTER OF THE WRITER
Digressions aside, there are two key traits that assist us in becoming good at something; ambition to learn and the humility to be teachable. There are a corresponding pair of traits that will destroy any chance of improvement we may have; pride (a satisfaction with where we are at and a belief that we have arrived, or, at least, that we have little to learn from others) and fear (of looking stupid, of appearing ignorant, and of needing help). One additional character trait I want to mention that helps us develop as writers is generosity.
Ambition to learn is not the same as pride. It is a permanent lack of satisfaction with the degree of our own expertise. It is a hunger for improvement that never leaves us. It is a recognition that the ability we have today is only a shadow of the ability we might have tomorrow if we can just learn a little more, master another skill, and/or push through our current limits.
My favourite authors are all openly dissatisfied with their current abilities – Stephen King, Jim Butcher, Alastair Reynolds, and many more – and all of them look back on their early work with a certain amount of embarrassment. But all of them share an equal recognition that the early work that causes them some embarrassment now, was an essential stepping-stone towards their more mature writing. They all see themselves as perpetual students, always learning, and always in search of more learning and expertise.
Humility is not the same as fearfulness. My favourite authors are also very humble. They are willing to learn from any source. They learn from their peers, from books, from extended study (formal and informal). They learn, even, from those who are well below their ability because they recognize that nobody knows it all and that anyone can have an original insight that could help them become better.
Generosity is a also a key characteristic for improving as a writer. Some folk see other writers as competition to be destroyed and guarded against. I’ve never understood this since writers are unique in that they have a monopoly on their own stories. The fact that I am the sole worldwide source for my stories gives me the freedom to share freely with others. And in sharing what I have learned, in particular, I have been able to clarify and hone my own thoughts on technique and writing skill.
As a teacher, I have seen this many times. Every teacher will tell you that the act of teaching others is an act of self-education. Good teachers see themselves as co-learners with their students. Each new investigation and exploration of even the most familiar subject provides new opportunities to learn, often from the students themselves, but also from the act of re-examining the subject matter with fresh eyes.
Of course it’s hard to give well-known examples of those who demonstrate the flaws mentioned above. And the reason should be obvious. Those flaws have kept them from becoming experts (and so becoming well known).
Pride really does come before a fall, or, at least, before stagnation. The person who believes they have somehow become the paragon of all knowledge NEVER improves. They have no reason to. Such a person stagnates at their current level of ability and will NEVER get any better. If that level of ability is particularly amateurish then it is little wonder that no-one will ever hear of them.
Fear is equally crippling. The person who is afraid of showing weakness, of seeking help from others (in case it bursts their bubble of fragile ego) is also doomed to NEVER improve. It takes deliberate courage to acknowledge the need to learn and to accept instruction from others. It takes courage to rewrite that passage we are happy with in order to try and achieve something better (especially in light of the risk that we might make it worse).
A KEY INSIGHT
In Ted Orland and David Bayles magnificent book, Art and Fear, the following passage appears and proved to be one of the greatest insights into producing art that I have ever been given.
“The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.
His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.
Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”
Perfectionism, whether motivated by an internal fear of failure, or by an external fear of appearing foolish, is the enemy of learning and, therefore, of improvement. When I am afraid or self-satisfied, the motivation to improve is removed.
A PERSONAL ANECDOTE (OR TWO)
One of the things which brought this home to me most strongly was my participation in a writers group a few years back. It was pretty straight forward, really. Each month we would submit one piece of writing. We were required to comment on each piece that was submitted that month BUT the following rule was to be observed. We could criticise whatever we thought was appropriate in the piece, but we had to identify a minimum of one thing in the piece that we thought was genuinely good. This struck me as a good way for us all to remember that we were sharing our work both for encouragement and critique and it worked to take the sting out of a largely negative critique when it came our way.
I also added a rule for myself. I would implement every piece of advice I was given regardless of how valid I thought it was or wasn’t. I reasoned that the piece in its original form would continue to exist no matter what changes I made, so, at the very least, it couldn’t hurt to implement the recommended changes.
The time I spent in this group had the most powerful impact on my writing of anything I have ever done – largely because of that second rule. Of course it meant that I had to be willing to risk, over and over again, producing bad work – and I produced plenty of bad work in that forum. But I learned more than I could possibly have anticipated through treating ALL feedback as an opportunity to experiment and try ideas I might never have thought of (or might otherwise have vehemently opposed). Through a deliberate choice to check my ego at the door and submit my writing to the critique of others for the sake of learning, I benefited in ways I have never had cause to regret.
We had plenty of folks come through who couldn’t handle critique and left after their first submission. I had, and still have a certain amount of sympathy for this.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a writer VERY badly. We had a family friend who was a professional writer and I gave him a story of mine to read. I waited in terror and hope for his opinion. When he’d finished reading, he looked down at me and said “you’re just not cut out for this, kid. Put your pen away and find something else to do with your life”.
I was eleven years old at the time and so devastated that I didn’t pick up a pen and try to write anything again for another thirty years. Of course I came to realise later that he was, family friend or not, a mean spirited individual that never missed an opportunity to crush those around him and, unsurprisingly, never achieved more than a mediocre level of success as a writer.
The arrival of my kids (and their special need for stories due to their austism) got me writing again – a fact for which I will be eternally grateful. I have regretted nothing in my life so much as the years wasted not writing. Given how much I have improved since picking up a pen again, three and a half decades of consistent extra practice and learning would have put me well ahead of my current position.
But that isn’t my point. My point is that I never want to discourage anyone from writing, ever. I always look for as much encouragement as I can possibly give while looking at other people’s work without being dishonest about the work’s weaknesses. And I never miss an opportunity to read and think about the work others are doing. It is fundamental to my own learning that I read anything I can get my hands on that others are writing in order to see what I can learn from it (and there is always something to learn).
We all need encouragement from time to time (though these days my skin is thick enough that I actually don’t care if all I get is criticism) and I’ve certainly lost any need to feel validated by other people with regard to my identity as a writer.
Maybe that is what professionalism amounts to, a realization and coming to terms with the fact that I am not, today, the writer I will be tomorrow, so long as I continue to seek opportunities to learn and so long as when they arise I do not allow myself to be dissuaded by fear and pride from taking them.
The path to improvement, regardless of whether the end of that path is reached, is the same for me as it is for anyone else. We keep the goal in mind, put one foot in front of the other, and walk forward consistently, with humility and courage, and with a recognition that there are others on the path with us with whom we can share and from whom we can learn and draw encouragement and instruction. The key is not to stop or turn back (in either discouragement or out of a false sense of having arrived).
So, what specific things do you look to, or recommend, as a means of improving your craft? Add your comments below.
This article is © 2017 by Philip Craig Robotham – all rights reserved.