Thursday, February 21, 2013

Specializing is OK

Specializing is OK
A Friday morning Freefall experience

At my weekly Freefall writer’s group, to use a ‘sixties phrase, I “had my mind blown.” I’ve learned a direct hands-on lesson about “specializing” that I would not have learned any other way.

A common story of youth back in the Sixties was we didn’t want to Specialize, to Settle, or to Sell out. Rather than Select a narrowing-of-our-lives, we would rather be “finding ourselves.” And why not? Youth means ideals, and we had the best support ideals can have: an expanding economy.

Members of “the older generation” didn’t get it. My father was decidedly angry. “What does it mean,” he demanded, “when people say they ‘have to do their own thing?’ What’s a “thing?”
Others had a sense of humor. A father of a longhaired unemployed son quipped “I’ll be glad when my son learns a specialty. Then at least, when he’s out of a job, he’ll know what job he’s out of!”

Actually, I suppose that joke is still current today, although today’s youth in these harder times are more practical... perhaps “practical to a fault.” I’ve often read on the Web of fools getting not just ‘higher education,’ but “higher than higher” as in advanced postgraduate degrees, but not because they have an advanced love for extra learning. No, in panic they crave more hope of having a better chance at getting their first ever entry-level job. I can understand their panic; I suspect their fear is misplaced. But of course, how could they ever know they are mistaken, unless they try some real world reality testing?

My personal testing ground has been in the overgrazed field of writing, my avocation. On that wide common it is important to specialize in order to gain mastery of the craft, according to a writer-in-residence at my university. He is right, of course. Just as I was right when I told a published comic book writer, an English professor, how I was specializing in prose, not comic book scripts, because then with fewer man-hours I could become publishable. My listener, Richard Harrison, nodded in agreement.

For these past few years I’ve been specializing in writing essays. And yes, to many people, essays can be dry, dull and left-brain. What if all this time I have been making myself into a dullard?

Well, at least I can say that since attending When Words Collide at the end of summer I’ve been among a weekly group of artist-writers. None of them do essays, of course, not when they could be composing right-brain fiction and poetry. They write their memoirs of rainy childhood, and portraits of warm marriages, all in sensuous techni-color. And in the time between our weekly Freefall practice exercises they go home and do some more rousing stuff. This while I am plodding along assembling essays, in stable black-and-white.

At our Friday morning Freefall we seldom do nonfiction things like my essay description of Blair’s Apartment. (Archived Dec 2012) As I explained for my Blair piece, we simply have a prompt, and then write madly for ten or so minutes, without editing, and then we read aloud. To me, the main value is in the doing. As a bonus, if we’re lucky, our writing can be used “as is,” to start a new book, or expanded on for a new story.

This morning someone came in who was down from a dry camp (no alcohol) in the oil patch, and someone else came in after feeding the animals. It must be nice for them to mingle with others who write, after they have been scribbling alone in the barn or on the seat of a caterpillar (waiting for work to start). Probably at home they do pretty poetry and humour.

As for me, writing alone: Except once at Freefall, and for a little homework for a college poetry class in the early 1990’s, I have written zero poetry, while it was about two decades ago that I wrote my sole humor short story. Well. Today we all received a card from a fairy deck and I found myself spontaneously writing a poem. I know my peers thought it was a good one, as they had me read it again. Then came a prompt of “and besides that?” which seemed to cry out for a humor piece. I know my peers thought it was good, as they laughed... Light bulb: I’m surely not a dullard, even though I’ve Settled on essays.

I’m so flummoxed: As I told the others, “that poem just popped right in.” As did the humor story. Therefore I can tell any young idealist: Go ahead and specialize, for specializing can be more help than hindrance, provided you are serious about being productive.

It was my favorite web essayist, Paul Graham, in essays like How to Do what You Love, who pointed out that “non-productive pleasures,” such as reading books, eventually palls, but not a productive one such as writing books. To him, “productive” means “problem solving.” In his life he had wrestled with problems in making art and software and small businesses. For him, a “hard enough” problem, a “real” one, is one where there is suspense about failure.

To me, this explains why unemployment is so hurtful to most of us, but not to an aspiring Olympian or novelist. The majority of the unemployed are deflated balloons, the latter are full ones: They have purpose. Those full balloons remind me of a computer cliché: “Good stuff in, good stuff out.” A nerd who productively tries hard at making good computers will find that his "unrelated" efforts, such as making a hand held telephone, somehow equally good.

Referring again to Paul Graham, it's as if my working hard activated a second self for watching and learning. From his piece on how to get ideas for a software startup company:
Since what you need to do here is loosen up your own mind, it may be best not to make too much of a direct frontal attack on the problem—i.e. to sit down and try to think of ideas. The best plan may be just to keep a background process running, looking for things that seem to be missing. Work on hard problems, driven mainly by curiousity, but have a second self watching over your shoulder, taking note of gaps and anomalies. 

Here’s a theory: By trying to do “hard enough” work on “real” essays I was somehow forced to “take in” good stuff, far removed from my specialty, stuff like written humor and poetry. By “effort” I mean the opposite of being what youth call a “slacker.”

So many slackers among us! Sometimes I despair that focused effort is so rare, like the seldom-heard sound of a distant woodpecker... although focus is so effective, like the cadence of photons from a laser. I think if I had been writing with only minimal effort then the “poetry stuff” simply wouldn’t have “registered.” It was the effort that allowed “good stuff out.”

I’m so delighted: Suddenly I realize my toolbox has more stuff. Me, a poet? I’m pleased, really pleased.

Sean Crawford
Writing in freefall
Early in 2013
Footnote: No, I won’t inflict on you my freefall first draft poem and humor story. Not even for a mere footnote. But you may find both in the Freefall (first draft) website, featuring my fellow writers and me:

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