Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Mastery Comes First, Not Last

Many many moons ago, when I was studying Art History, I learned what a "masterpiece" actually was.

It was not at all what I thought it was.

See, most of us think of a masterpiece as the crowning glory of a long career. The greatest work of an artist. That's how the press uses it, and frankly, that's how most academics use the word too.

But the original meaning of "masterpiece" was very different. It wasn't the crowning glory, but rather the first major professional work of a craftsman. It was the thing you produced to prove to the guild that you were worthy of entering the profession.

Of entering the profession. Like, you know, at the beginning of your career.

You started out as an apprentice, and then moved on to journeyman. When you were ready to start out on your own, you applied to the guild become a master. And reach that status, you didn't just prove you had talent, or could do some jobs, you had to prove that you had mastered ALL of the skills you might need in your chosen profession. Even the skills that didn't come naturally to you.

Publishing is not so persnickety -- even with traditional publishing, most writers start publishing when they're really at the journeyman stage, or maybe even a "talented apprentice." They haven't mastered everything yet, but they've mastered enough to work around their weaknesses and produce good work.

I'm not saying that you have to produce the crowning glory of your career before you get started -- remember I said a masterpiece is NOT the crowning glory -- what I'm saying is that the crowning glory of your career will only happen after you achieve mastery. Perhaps a long time after.

Mastery isn't brilliance or insight or maturity. Mastery means you actually bothered to learn your craft inside and out -- not just the fun bits. And certainly not just the easy ones.

Think about it this way:

An apprentice writer depends on "inborn" talents. She says "I'm a pantser...(or a plotter, or a novelist, or a poet)... that's just how I'm wired." She says this even though he or she has barely tried doing it any other way.

The journeyman writer may have gone further afield, but still clings to the idea of his or her natural inclinations. He says "I'm a pantser (or plotter, etc). I tried it the other way, but it just didn't work for me. I do better work this way, so that's what I should do."

The master, on the other hand says, "I can do a decent job any way I need to. I'm using this particular tool or method because it suits the job I am trying to do."

Now, it's possible to build a career without fully mastering every element of your craft -- but how do you know that the actual crowning glory of your career isn't hiding behind one of the techniques you didn't learn?

Here's the kicker: mastery may not be brilliance or insight or maturity, but it is required to unleash those things. Learning makes you mature. Learning gives you insight. And maturity and insight unleash your brilliance.

So next time you find yourself saying "oh, I just don't write that way," pause to consider whether that is really true, or whether it's just a difficult skill which you haven't had the motivation to master. Maybe it's not something you need to do now, but don't shut the door on it.

I'm just sayin'.

See you in the funny papers.


ModWitch said...

Sigh. And this is why I am actually using some basic outlining (a few chapters ahead to organize my thoughts) these days. My series begins to demand it. Perhaps I've found one of those journeyman rungs :-).

The Daring Novelist said...


The great thing is that mastery is not the end, either. You keep learning far beyond that, and the process remains interesting.