Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Myth of Mastery, in Writing

At the Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fictionat Seton Hill University, we have at each of our on-campus Residencies a central theme, something to provide focus for the workshops and discussions. In the past, these topics have been issues like, “Why do you write?” (see blog #36 for that one), “On being an apprentice,” “What writers should read,” and “The emotional connection between genre fiction and its readers.”

For this summer’s residency, the topic decided was “The Myth of Mastery.” We wanted to show that there is no such thing as a mastery of writing, that standards, skills, and genres change too much and too quickly. And that writers change too. Interests, and even preferred genres and forms, can modify and adapt. So, to all beginning writers we wanted to say: You’re never done developing your craft; even after publishing many fine books, you’ll still be working for something better; and if you’ve written only one chapter, or a thousand of them, the next chapter should still be a challenge.

Being the Director of the program at that time (I stepped down recently), I introduced this theme on the first night. And then, at graduation on the last day, I reminded the students of it in the introduction to Commencement. (Which is another role the theme provides; it forms a set of book-ends for the Residency, used at the start and then coming again at the end.) And thus, at that last graduation, here’s what I said about this theme (and I hope it provides some inspiration and thought):

      If luck is with you, and if the Faculty and the Registrar agree, you graduates should receive soon your Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction. However, before you get too comfortable with that achievement, let me remind you that any so-called mastery is never complete, that your writing skills are never final, and that your learning curve never plateaus. You’ve worked hard to reach this point, writing, completing, and defending your book, and you deserve the reward of the degree. You are at a summit and you should enjoy it. But by the end of the day, and certainly by tomorrow morning, you should be asking: What now? What’s my next step? The last few years have allowed you to find much skill in yourself. But it also showed you what still can be developed and enhanced.
      Mastery is not an achievement, it’s a process. It never stops. What you’ve done today looks very good—it looks great—but, for your own sake, it should not look as good tomorrow. Soon you should ask yourself: How can the next novel be better? How can I reach, entertain, enlighten, and move my audience even more?
      So keep looking for goals. Keep tuning up and empowering those sentences. Stay hungry. You’re not done yet. You never will be. There’s a writing assignment next week; it’s just not us who’s requiring it.
      A writer is not someone who is. A writer is someone who does. A piece of writing might be completed, but a writer is never complete. So keep going, folks. We know about this novel. But now let us know about the next. And the next and the next and the next.