How Do You Get There From Here?

Practice makes perfect.

Whatever you choose to call it—aphorism, adage, maxim, idiom, cliché—that saying is largely accepted as truth. But it’s not particularly true. I will certainly concede that practice will make you better at what you are trying to do, but to say it will get you to perfection assumes that you know what to do to achieve perfection.

A quick example might better demonstrate what I mean. Right now, I have achieved a certain level of skill as a writer. Let’s call that level, X. So I write. And I keep writing. Sometimes I don’t do as well as I could, and the story I produce is, oh maybe, X-2. Some days I’m really on my game and I might produce a story that as good as X+2. But most of the time, the stories I write are an X. If I continue to practice, practice, practice, at some point in the future I’ll be a better writer—maybe X+1. But as a writer, my goal is to be a much better writer…let’s call that level Y.

Is practice enough to get me there? I could explain and equivocate, but the answer is, NO. Because at some point you need to acquire the knowledge to know what your weaknesses are AND the knowledge to fix them.

So think back to your childhood. I’ll use the example of learning to throw a football. When I was three or four years old, I started watching football with my dad. When I wanted to learn to play, he bought me a shiny, blue Nerf football. So how did I start? I walked outside and gave a mighty heave. The ball probably flew a foot or so. Now, if I’d relied solely on practice to get better, I’m sure I would have discovered how to hold the ball—eventually. I might even have been able to get some distance on a throw. But I never would have been any good. But that’s not what happened. After that first toss left me frustrated, my father picked up the football and started to show me the basics.

That is to say… he taught me.

While practice is the most fundamental tool we have to get better, it will only get us so far. We have to work to improve our skills by learning. We must learn what we do right, what we do wrong, what we do inconsistently. But more importantly we must learn what other people do, whether it works for them, whether we think it will work for us.

I won’t even try to count the ways to do this. There are classes, workshops, books, magazines, websites, critique groups (where there are writers better than you), forums discussion groups, honest friends…

I need to decide what I will do this year to get closer to Y.

What about you? What are your plans, in the next year, to get better at your craft?

It’s not always easy to be funny

Live cat is funny. Dead cat is not. Unless it’s the other way around.

One of the perennial frustrations of my writing life is that I have an uncomfortably close connection with Schrodinger’s cat, or at least my sense of humor does.See, when I’m not trying to be funny, I can hum right along and say funny things, or at least say things that seem funny to ME. I can talk and talk, cracking wise and being silly to marvelous effect. The people I talk to and that read my stuff generally seem to agree. However, when I’m actively trying to write something funny… I get nothing. I can feel myself trying too hard, feel the phrases locking up as I try to get them down on the page, feel the kludge and clumsiness of them as they fall flat.

I’ve tried to trick myself into being funny “unintentionally” when I have something funny to write. There I’ll be, hammering out something that’s dry instead of wry, shitty instead of witty, and boring instead of something that rhymes with clever. Then, from out of nowhere, BANG! I try to surprise myself into being funny. I think of something utterly unrelated, like that part of a cow where the milk comes out. With luck, the shock of the non-sequiteur shakes loose some bit of mental gravel that will go banging about in the mental machinery, there to get ground into the magic pixie dust of humor. With LOTS of luck, this happens before the grit in the gears derails my thought process entirely.

The method is a bit like sneaking up behind Bruce Banner and pouring a glass of ice water down his shirt in hopes of getting the Hulk to come out and play. Come to think of it, the results are usually about as chaotic.

While there are some standard forms and methods to being funny, they’re only helpful when using them (and breaking them) is done in a natural way. This might be innate or it might be internalized, ritualized and habitualized through long practice. If you’ve been making people laugh for years and years, your sense of comic timing and comic word choice can appear effortless. In reality, this is no different than someone who is “effortlessly” charismatic, charming, masterful, or regal. Do it long enough, strive for excellence and expertise, use practice and focus to build on native talent, and you’ll look effortless, too. I promise.

What does it mean to have something be “naturally” funny? I don’t mean that it’s funny to everyone, since everyone’s sense of humor is different. For some people it’s nonexistent, but that’s another blog post. No, by “natural”, I mean “anything but forced-seeming”. I’m not quite there yet with respect to my comic writing. It remains, alas, far too heavily tinged with the patina of “please tell me this is funny”, and as yet possesses too little of the firm, confident brushwork that says, “this is funny, let me share it with you”. This is something I continue to strive for and to work on.

If Schrodinger had used a dog in his gedankenexperiment, I’m sure this wouldn’t be an issue. Dogs will laugh at anything.