Developmental Experience

(This article was first published on on December 28, 2014. It has been revised with only minor editorial changes.)

I almost began this essay with the phrase, “when I was a younger writer.” The moment I saw those words on the screen, I knew they were not quite genuine. I was not setting out to describe myself at sixteen. More like three years ago. My development as a writer during that time has been extraordinary. And yet there is still so much more to explore and learn.

When I was a three years younger writer, I naïvely bought into two implicit assumptions about writing. The first was that there exists a single spectrum of skill from novice writer up through master. The second was that I could acquire developmental experiences such as writers’ groups, classes, and workshops, and that those experiences would bestow development upon me.

It’s funny to me now that I still held on to the second misperception. My experiences with graduate school should have already instructed me in the folly of that particular ideology.

But let me start at the beginning. During my first year of attending my local science fiction writing group, I simultaneously watched the Amazon self-publishing hysteria dissolve into the dismal realization that very few people were ever going to see any fair compensation for their work from self-publishing, and the very few who did would not receive modest pay, but wealth beyond their wildest dreams. The individuals visible to me went right on to abuse the status and popularity afforded by their “good” luck. There’s a story that’s as old as humankind.

At the same time that my starry-eyed delusions of a new kind of marketplace for writing were evaporating, my first writing group was also changing my conception of quality in writing. The more I attended, the more I realized that my goals as a writer and my conception of what it meant to “write well” were completely different from that of many other group members. Neither of us was wrong or right. We merely wanted different things from writing.

That was an incredibly freeing realization, because I would later extend it to market systems that govern publishing—it’s perfectly okay to not want to achieve the kind of quality that leads to bestseller status, as long as you’re aware of that and accept all the consequences thereof.

Quality exists along multiple vectors. There are as many different kinds of writing as there are different kinds of human ideologies and worldviews. That diversity is a good thing. It’s what keeps literature rich and vibrant.

But that means that a writer can’t carry around the idea that he needs to follow the straight road that leads to perfection. It’s not a single road, and the multitudinous paths weave and warp, and are littered with dangers and dead ends.

As for the second implicit assumption, that increased skill was something bestowed upon me by my experiences, that took longer. I have a feeling that our materialistic culture encourages us to think this way. Experience is something we “get.” Even our educational systems encourage it too—degrees are bestowed upon us when we graduate.

But there’s a different way to think about personal development. Rather than viewing experience as the pouring of knowledge and skill into us, it is far more accurate to say that growth and development is something we draw out of our experiences.

A friend and I were having a discussion about literary depth recently, and something he said struck me as remarkably resonant. To paraphrase him: depth is not something contained within a work, but rather, it is a way of approaching a work in which the reader searches for meaning.

Gaining skill and ability is something you draw out of your experiences with hard work and effort, not something your experiences confer upon you.

Here’s a concrete example. Early on in my critique group experiences, I took home the written feedback others gave me, and I immediately incorporated all of their corrections and suggestions into my writing.

At a certain point, I began to notice that certain changes were completely incongruous with what I had intended to express. I started asking critiquers to tell me why they had made changes alongside the changes themselves.

This made me an infinitely better writer than just accepting changes from others. Only with this new, crucial information was I able to gain an awareness of the dissonance between what I had intended to communicate and what others were experiencing when they read my work. This should be a fairly universal goal for any kind of writer: that your message, with all its nuances, is reaching your audience as intended.

Large parts of this post arose from a a discussion I participated in at the Speculative Fiction Writers Google+ Community. A big thank you to everyone who participated in that discussion for supplying me with your insights and for giving me the opportunity to explore my ideas on this subject.