Vol. 97, Writing: Ancillary Skills Required

Posted on 29 August 2013

My friend and I were discussing dance and I was telling her how—although I used to be a dancer, I haven’t danced formally in years. Recently, I participated in a friend’s flash mob and could not for the life of me remember the choreography. We discussed the fact that the skill of remembering choreography is an ancillary skill necessary to the ability to be a dancer. We went from there to discuss how all disciplines require much more than the successful practice of the art form itself to succeed.

I find that my current writing productivity is totally reliant on those ancillary skills. Some of the ancillary skills that support my progress as a writer are:

• Editing: One of the central ancillary skills related to writing, editing involves being able to accept good critical advice when you hear it, *and* being able to apply said critical advice to your work. Over the years, I’ve also been developing the ability to look at my work and know when I am running in circles rather than diving down to the heart of the matter. Sometimes this means turning a story inside out and reordering events, sometimes it means letting go of the story concept because the backstory is more interesting than the front story, sometimes it means killing a character or birthing a new one. But it always means being able to surrender to the story in whichever way you it demands.

• Releasing: Knowing when you’ve done enough and when to let go is an art! It requires a fierce dedication to progress because there are many reasons (both valid and not-so-valid) why you might want to work and rework a piece. There is a point, however, where editing becomes a detraction to the spirit of the work and to your progress. Of course, craft is important, but so is productivity. The trick is learning the balance between the two.

• Emotional discipline: The ability to put the ego aside in favor of the work is one of the most difficult ancillary skills to practice. Emotional discipline requires that you trust: you must trust editors, trust your own efforts, and trust that your work is enough as it is, without you twisting and torturing it into something “better” or “deeper” (in other words, into something it’s not). The little voices in your mind are unceasing and profoundly creative. The persistence of doubt requires many Jedi mind tricks and ninja-like evasions. Emotional discipline means that you refuse to let anything hex you (not even your own fears and failures). Whatever difficulties, obstacles, or delays, you take them all in stride keeping the faith that, as long as you breathe through the impasses, your work will carry on.

• Dedication: No art form grows without engagement, without the artmaker putting in the practice time. Until I got this skill, I protested that I had no time. Embracing this skill means squeezing every second out of the day. It means knowing the parameters of hard work and knowing how to push those parameters to get ish done.

• Self-promotion: Self-promotion is something that makes almost all of us want to shove our heads under our pillows and hide. Until you hit your stride and find a way to do it in a way that makes sense for you, it can be a vulnerable, cringe-inducing activity. And even then, as you grow, you will see new and bigger opportunities to self-promote that will repeatedly require that you step outside of your comfort zone. Cold calls, pitches and unsolicited submissions can strip you of every shred of confidence you possess. But, when you persist in pushing your work to the forefront, you create the opportunity for a larger platform and create the momentum for you to do more work.

• Valuing my output: Listen, it’s easy to think the next person is a smarter, more interesting, and more evolved artist. It’s the great joke of the universe that it’s almost impossible to see our own value because we are living inside it. Take it on faith that you have a unique voice. Along with the emotional discipline of letting your work be what it is, the discipline to accept that your work is valuable is absolutely essential to continuing to produce work. For the record, you can value your output without being the one to codify its value. Your job is to simply present your work as something valuable and keep making art.

• Meeting deadlines: I have never really written fiction on deadlines, now that I’m doing it, it’s uber-stressful. I am someone who likes to edit my stories twenty times! With stories on deadline, I might have time for three or four edits. I could refuse these publishing opportunities on the basis that I’m not able to produce my “best work.” But that would mean counting myself out of some wonderful opportunities—and delaying my productivity. Instead, I approach my work as task fulfillment. I activate my emotional discipline, block out my time, and present the work under the faith that my work will flower as it should and my efforts will result in a unique and valuable story. I have come to understand that there’s a bigger future out there. Everything that you write becomes a platform that allows you to spring forward, jump higher, go further. So why not just let it go, let it grow?

• Structuring my writing times: I hate structure, but I learned there is much more to be gained by working through structure than using emotion or dreams as motivators. Structure is fixed, everything else is mutable. Do I feel like writing tonight will not get you as far as: I’m going to write 1,000 words tonight. If you fail to write and you only have an emotional pact, maybe you write the next day, maybe you don’t, but that time is lost. If you fail to write and you have a word count pact, you know exactly how many words you need to write to get back on track. A fixed structure gives you the objective tools to make consistent measurable progress. Will you deviate from that structure? Of course, you’re human. But you build in fixes for every deviation and track your progress. This year—now that I’m practicing this word count business—my productivity is astounding me.

I find it fascinating all the amazing tools and skills and perspectives required to produce work. I’ve come to understand that your writing tools and habits give your work a safe and consistent space in which to grow. We may have some idea of the work we want to create and we may be striving to create the objects of our imagination, but the fact is artists exist on an arc. Our creativity is always shifting, changing, growing. The ultimate goal is not to force a particular outcome, but to create the particular and specific circumstances that will most optimally and effectively allow your creativity to bubble up to the surface and flourish.

Be well. Be love[ed].

Kiini Ibura Salaam