Chapter II Submit to Reality: The Ideal Apprenticeship
Though writing is not provided as an apprenticeship, still there can be lots learned from reading and analysing the works of great writers, which in turn is a kind of passive apprenticeship.
The Apprenticeship Phase has 3 stages:
1) Deep Observation - The Passive Mode
In this stage, we see how things work here, the rules of the land, the power relationships, and communications flow. For a would-be author, this could mean the way publishing works, the major players, the way to approach publishers, queries, formats, etc.
2) Skills Acquisition - The Practice Mode
Apprentices usually learn the trade by watching the masters and imitating them as closely as possible. They learn through endless repetition and hands-on work. They need to focus deeply and not make mistakes, as the materials they worked on were expensive in the Middle Ages. Our brain is most suited to this kind of learning.
The cycle of accelerated returns occurs when practice becomes easier and more interesting, leading to the ability to practice for longer hours which increases skill level and makes practice even more interesting. Reaching this stage should be our goal and this is how we can do it:
a) Begin with one skill that you can master and that serves as foundation for acquiring others. Develop concentration and avoid multi-tasking. For an author, this could mean concentrating on character development before moving on to dialogue, point of view, voice, plot, structure, description and so on.
b) The initial stages of learning a skill involve tedium. We need to accept and embrace this pain and boredom. Greene says researchers have found out that it takes around 10,000 hours (around 7-10 years of solid practice) to attain this level of expertise and this applies to not only composers, chess players and athletes but writers too.
3) Experimentation – The Active Mode
This is the stage wherein we expose our work to public, get criticism and work on it. We invent our own style, move past fears and develop a detachment to the work – looking at it through the eyes of others.
Strategies for completing the Ideal Apprenticeship
1) Value learning over money
When Benjamin Franklin turned down the proposal to get into his father’s lucrative candle making business and entered his brother’s fickle printing business, no one knew that he did it because he was determined to become a writer. The new books all around him gave him a chance to study the texts in detail and teach himself how to imitate their style in his own work. Martha Graham says, ‘train yourself to get by with little money and make the most of your youthful energy.’ Your thoughts will tend to revolve around what you value most and you must value learning above everything else.
2) Keep expanding your horizons
Zora Neale Hurston lost her mother when she was 13 and was abandoned by her father. She wandered among her various relatives and supported herself doing housekeeping. In spite of it all, the mind is free and it can wander across time and space. She did not let go of her dream to become a writer. She chose the homes of the wealthiest white people who had plenty of books for her housecleaning jobs. She memorised portions on the sly and went over it in her head whenever she had free time. She got a strange sort of literary education. As the years passed by, she advanced her knowledge, gained formal knowledge and became the first black female writer ever to make a living from her work. Her story tells us that
Ø No one will give you direction
Ø You have to do it yourself, and
Ø With great energy
Ø Reading books and materials that go beyond what is required is always a good starting point.
Ø Mingle with different types of people
Ø Outside schooling helps
Ø Be relentless in your pursuit for expansion.
3) Revert to a feeling of inferiority
Learning disabilities tend to fester and grow in our minds as we grow older. This includes smugness and superiority as well as rigid ideas about what is real or true. Revert to a feeling of dependence.
4) Trust the process
What separates Masters from others is often something surprisingly simple. Whenever we learn a skill, we frequently reach a point of frustration – what we are learning seems beyond our capabilities. It is not just a matter of determination but also trust and faith. We need to overcome this frustration and enter the cycle of accelerated returns.
When it comes to mastering a skill, time is the magic ingredient. Impatience, boredom, panic, frustration and insecurity are the real impediments.
5) Move toward resistance and pain
When John Keats was 8, his father passed away and his mother died 7 years later. Being the eldest child, he was taken out of school and enrolled as an apprentice to a surgeon. However, he had developed a love for literature in the last few terms at school and he returned to school during off-hours and read as many book as he could in the library. He wanted to try his hand at writing poetry. So, he read the works of all the greatest poets of the 17th and 18th centuries. He then wrote his own poems, using the poetic form and style of the particular writer he was trying to model himself after. He had a knack for imitation and soon he was creating verses in dozens of different styles, always tweaking them a little with his own voice.
Several years into this process, Keats decided to devote his life to writing poetry. He needed to make a living at it. To complete the rigorous apprenticeship he had already put himself through, he decided that what he needed was to write a very long poem about 4000 lines in seven months. He will write 50 lines a day, until he had a first draft. After some 3000 lines, he hated the poem he was writing but still he willed his way through and met the deadline he had set.
In the aftermath of writing what he considered to be a mediocre poem, Keats learned some valuable lessons:
a) He would never ever suffer from writer’s block again – he had trained himself to write past any obstacle
b) He had acquired now the habit of writing quickly, with intensity and focus – concentrating his work in a few hours.
c) He could revise with equal speed
d) He had learned how to criticize himself and his overly romantic tendencies.
e) He could look at his own work with a cold eye.
f) He had learned that it was in the actual writing of the poem that the best ideas would often come to him, and that he had to boldly keep writing or he would miss such discoveries.
g) He had also hit upon the style that suited him – language as compact and dense with imagery as possible, with not a single wasted line.
By nature, we humans shrink from anything that seems possibly painful or overtly difficult. Knowing that in our practice we can let down our guard, since we are not being watched or under pressure to perform, we bring to this a kind of dispersed attention. We tend to get conventional in our practice routines and follow what others have done. To attain mastery, you must adopt RESISTANCE PRACTICE:
1) You resist the temptation to be nice to yourself. You become your own worst critic. You recognise your weaknesses and you work on it. You find a kind of perverse pleasure in moving past the pain this might bring.
2) You resist the lure of easing up on your focus. Concentrate in practice with double the intensity. You give yourself arbitrary deadlines to meet certain standards, constantly pushing yourself past perceived limits. In this way you develop your own standards for excellence, generally higher than those of others.
6) Apprentice yourself in failure
There are two kinds of failure-
1) Failure from never trying out ideas since you are afraid or because you are waiting for the perfect time. This timidity will destroy you as you can never learn from this kind of failure.
2) Failure from a bold and venturesome spirit. The hit to your reputation in this case will be far outweighed by what you learn. So, act on your ideas as early as possible, expose them to public and have a part of you hope they will fail.
7) Combine the “how” and the “what”
We live in two worlds - the world of appearances, the forms of things that captivate our eye and the world of “how”, how things function, their anatomy, the parts that work together to form the whole. Some five hundred years ago, art and science split. Renaissance combined these two forms of knowledge and this is why the works of Leonardo da Vinci still fascinates us. A more rounded knowledge is the way of the future as so much information is now available to us. This should be a part of our apprenticeship.
8) Advance through trial and error
You must learn as many skills as possible. You should avoid the trap of following one set career path. Though you don’t know where it will lead, you should take full advantage of the openness of information. You see what kind of work suits you and what you want to avoid at all costs. You move by trial and error.
There are no shortcuts or ways to bypass the apprenticeship phase. Mozart and Einstein seem to appear like creative geniuses out of nowhere. Mozart started when he was four. He wrote his original and substantial piece of music after 10 years of composing. Einstein began his serious thought experiments when he was 16 and came up with his first revolutionary theory of relativity after 10 years.
“It is like chopping down a huge tree of immense girth. You won’t accomplish it with one swing of your axe. If you keep chopping away at it, though, and do not let up, eventually, whether it wants to or not, it will suddenly topple down. When that time comes, you round up everyone you could find and pay them to hold the tree up, but they wouldn’t be able to do it. It would still come crushing to the ground… But if the woodcutter stopped after one or two strokes of his axe to ask the third son of Mr. Chang, “Why doesn’t this tree fall?” And after three or four more strokes stopped again to ask the fourth son of Mr. Li, “Why doesn’t this tree fall?” he would never succeed in felling the tree. It is no different for someone who is practicing the Way.”
- Zen Master Hakun