Skillful Means

I know that one of the key elements to success as a writer is simply to write a lot. I mean, that goes for any skill, creative or otherwise, though we seem more willing to do it when it’s an obviously technical skill, like mechanical engineering or something, and far less so when it’s a creative endeavor. But art, music, writing…they all take skill to do well too. We are so enamored of the notion of creative genius and pure raw talent that we tend to eschew the importance of skill. The contemporary “Art World” often touts concept over craft, as if one can successfully convey (even a brilliant) concept without skill; and most any skill can become an art, they are not mutually exclusive. It all depends on how you do it.

When I make soup, say, I often follow a recipe. Sort of. Truth is, I tend not to remember exact proportions, even if it’s something I’ve made a hundred times, so I refer to the originating recipe for guidance in that area. But then I inevitably make my own adjustments, using the recipe as the basic structure and then ornamenting it as I see fit. I replace herbs and spices, I alter quantities, I switch out ingredients. That is the art in my cooking, but the knowledge of what is reasonable and tasty to substitute, and how much I can alter the quantities without throwing off the consistency, texture, and integrity of the thing? That is a skill based on years and years of practice.

Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ gave a TED Talk about the nature of genius, and the origin of the term. She talks about how, to the ancient Greeks, the genius was a sort of house spirit that helped you with your work. If you were successful, well you couldn’t get too swelled a head about it because it was actually only half your work, and if you weren’t successful, you couldn’t get too crushed because it was only half your fault. It is a comforting thing to me and it removes the romance of genius just a bit. In our American culture we glorify the individual, the self-made man, the talented genius who gets discovered and makes it big, all the while dismissing the multitude of contributions we all make to each other’s lives and the amount of skill and hard work it takes to develop “genius.”

I propose that we choose to romanticize toiling together for the collective good and to build our skill level at participating in all aspects of life. I propose that we fall in love with reality and lived experience. I propose that we use our skill to glorify the pursuit of skill.

What do you say, are you in?

2 thoughts on “Skillful Means

  1. You bet I’m in! One of the best ways to get good at something is to do it, and keep doing it.

    I find that community helps me to stick with it. A walking partner helps me keep walking. (13 years so far.) I clean house on the phone with a friend who is cleaning her house. I sing in chorus, which provides both the reward of harmony and the incentive to practice a little. I do daily practice because I started doing it with CAYA Coven.

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