Practice vs. Practice That Leads to Refinement

Herbert Lui writes:

As Ira Glass so famously put it, the best way to refine your craft is to create a huge volume of work. Not to create the most perfect piece you can, but to create many pieces of work.

To which the always-worth-reading Will Wilkinson responds (in a post that seems to have disappeared):

This strikes me as correct, incorrect, and boring. That practice makes perfect is not news. But perfect is unlikely to be made unless one practices toward it. It’s not possible to do or make something really well without a huge investment of time and energy, and most of that has to be spent on what amount to mundane excercises. Writing thousands of blog posts is good practice for writing generally, and I believe it has improved my prose. Yet this sort of thing is not good practice for refining one’s writing unless one tries to write with increasing refinement. Otherwise, one develops ingrained habits of shittiness. Perhaps the greatest hazard of journalism is that one accedes sooner or later to the norm of clarity, to the debased idea that the aim of style is efficient communication. The perfection of prose lies in the music, energy, and intelligence of expression, and one doesn’t approach it by hammering out volumes of airplane magazine writing.

That said, one can’t write oustanding stories or outstanding books  just by polishing sentences, or fixating on any other single element of the larger craft. One must write stories and books, and the more of them one writes, the better they’ll get. But, duh.

As he says, duh, but worth remembering. I was “practicing” my public speaking for several years, but until recently (!), wasn’t actually refining my skills in an intentional way. Probably the same with my writing — I’m ingraining whatever habits I’m ingraining. I’m not actively improving. I’d like to change that, as I’m doing with speaking.

Speaking of writing, here’s an interesting couple paragraphs on whether Updike was an artist or just an expert craftsman with words, on whether good writing is good enough:

One can open the Collected Stories to almost any page and find a surprising metaphor, a lovely description, or a wry morsel of irony without remembering much of anything about story that contains it. The stories that I’d already read and admired, the ones widely regarded as Updike’s best — “Pigeon Feathers,” “A Sense of Shelter,” “In Football Season,” “The Persistence of Desire,” “The Happiest I’ve Been,” and, of course, “A&P,” for decades a stalwart of high school curricula — now strike me as a largely comprehensive list, in little need of emendation in light of Updike’s larger corpus.

The curious paradox of Updike is that he made art into a craft, but only rarely did he transcend craft to achieve art. In a sense, then, the answer to [critic James] Wood’s question [“of whether beauty is enough”] is that beauty is not enough, at least not the beauty of finely tuned prose and vivid images that was Updike’s specialty. Art requires the wedding of aesthetics and morals, and the case might be made that the morals are more important; few people would call Dostoyevsky a beautiful writer, but even fewer would contest that he was a great artist.

2 comments on “Practice vs. Practice That Leads to Refinement
  • “As Ira Glass so famously put it, the best way to refine your craft is to create a huge volume of work. Not to create the most perfect piece you can, but to create many pieces of work.”

    I don’t think that’s a fair representation of Ira’s statements. He said you may have to create a large volume of work to close the gap between your vision/taste and what you’re actually producing. His intention was to always get better therefore closing the gap.

  • Anyone who thinks, like Herbert Lui, that “[Kanye} West’s skills and vision for music production were already on a much higher level than the majority of people are with anything”, is not to be taken seriously, at least when serving up tripe about refining your work.

    Spaceship is a garbage song from a garbage human being.

    Updike, the maestro mechanic, wrote beautifully, but as Gore Vidal said whens he pisised on Updike’s work from the accustomed great height, he “describes to no purpose”.

    That pretty well describes most new literature, unless its purpose be to make money like Kanye West or even your average Toastmaster.

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