So I was flipping through a notebook, looking for something else, and I came across a scribble. Learning, as a writer, to get out of your own way/light was all it said. I can't remember what prompted me to say that, nor decide what exactly I must have meant. And then I was talking to an aspiring writer who's hit the ugly duckling stage, where their knowledge and skill in writing have gone up a step, but they have yet integrate that into their writing, so everything's awkward and self conscious, and in lots of ways the new writing seems worse than the old. And I suddenly remembered the story of the Wooden Duck Making Kit. Inside the box are a knife, some paints, a block of wood, and an instruction leaflet. The leaflet says, "Cut away everything which is not a duck".
Quite. In Just for the sake of it I was talking about Richard Sennett and the 10,000 hour rule for learning a craft. But this time I remembered Grayson Perry and Ian Bostridge, in the same conversation, talking about how self-consciousness creates physical tension, and how, whether you're a potter or a singer, that tension in your body affects how you work the clay, or the music. I often find myself thinking about learning to write in terms of learning to work wood. What the instruction to cut away everything which is not a duck embodies is the idea that in your mind the duck exists, and all it needs - all, hah! - is for that idea to guide your hand.
Yes, if you're trying to build a wardrobe you may need to learn some technical stuff about joints and glues and different woods, and practice combining them, and that's what we think of as craft: something to learn. But sometimes its helps to reverse that notion of craft as something we acquire. Instead, you could say that how ducky that duck turns out is conditioned by how much your hands can get out of the way. There's a mind's-eye view of the duck you want, and turning that into something physically real is as much about what your hands don't do: about relaxation, flexibility, responsiveness. In An Actor Prepares Stanislavski talks a good deal about how an actor must be physically fit in body and voice in the true sense: not so much strong to do spectacular things on stage, as fit - ready - for whatever the inner life part demands, so that every scrap of that inner life can show, without the body's tensions getting in the way.
We can train ourselves as other artists do, though it's news to many aspiring writers that they might write a story purely as an exercise. We do indeed have our equivalents of pliés, five-finger exercises, sketchbooks, yoga, arpeggios, the maaah-maaah-maaah, moo-moo-moo that drifts from the open dressing room windows of every theatre in the West End. But in the end you can only learn to carve a duck by carving a duck. You find out the basic moves of knife on wood, and you carve another one. And another one. And they won't be good, as the world sees it. But as your hands work, they learn: mind, eye, hand, eye, hand, mind. And the result of that learning-by-doing, that parade of wonky ducks on your window-sill, is that the gap, the separation, between mind and hand gets less and less: you get out of your own way. As Grayson Perry says "I am the tip of the knife".