Writing is like learning a foreign language: you have to practice to become fluent.
People think that learning a language is about vocabulary. Or that it’s about grammar, or having the correct/native accent. These are all desirable, but not the most crucial thing.
We’ve got to actually speak it.
It sounds overly simplistic, I know. How do you learn a language? You speak it! But it’s true. Ask anyone who has ever tried to learn another language–I’m not talking about folks who have grown up multi-lingual, which is a different experience–and they can assure you that reading grammar rules are of limited usefulness in actual human interaction.
It’s hard, too. We’re stuck speaking it before we’re any good at it. Especially in the beginning, we work arduously to put sentences together that bear almost no relationship to a grammatical construct, and may make absolutely no sense when taken literally. The other difficulty is that we have to learn what other people are saying to us! It doesn’t help to be able to ask for directions and then not understand the answer (I should know; this is my experience with French).
Writing is like that, I think. We start writing before we know whether we’re any good. We don’t have the vocabulary. We haven’t mastered the grammar. Our accent and style fluctuate and often resemble nothing like what we are trying to emulate.
Sometimes this is really nasty. We may know how bad we are, or we may believe that we’re terrible; either way, we’re prone to a serious attack of writer’s block, and I have suffered from both causes.
Then, we’ve got to engage in dialogue. We have to find other people to look at what we’ve written and tell us about it. It’s the only way to get better. Writing without readers is like talking to ourselves. It gets boring, and it makes us look crazy. But people often (usually?) read our stuff while it’s imperfect, frequently a draft. Egad! Does it make any sense?!
This is why I’ve begun to love writing exercises. Or writing practice, if you prefer the yoga approach.
I try to write every day. Sometimes this takes the form of a journal entry. Sometimes it’s just me whining to myself about my life. Sometimes it’s a thought that caught my fancy, and I’m not sure where it goes; or a beautiful-sounding phrase; or new knowledge I’ve come across; or a book that I’m currently reading that really, REALLY wants feedback. (It does!) Sometimes I go for structure, and pick an exercise I’ve found in a writing book, and write for twenty minutes. Most of what comes out is free association.
A lot of the time, I don’t feel inspired while this is going on. I feel like my prose is clumsy. I’ve re-read passages later that I was actually proud of at the time of composition, and wondered whether I was lucid while writing. Egad! It doesn’t make sense.
But here’s the thing. No matter how reluctant I might be to actually pick up my pen (I do these the old-fashioned way), by the time I’m finished, I’m in great form, and usually have stirred up at least another half a dozen ideas that I want to continue writing about. In fact, I WANT to continue writing! Something, anything–sometimes even the very thing I’ve been free associating about.
Writing exercises loosen my tongue–so to speak.
Writing begets writing. It’s easier to do once we’ve already been doing it–just like speaking a foreign language is easier to do once we’ve been talking for a while.
I speak to practice being a better speaker.
I write to practice being a better writer.
It’s the only way to become fluent.