Flashing, slipping and mixing things up
How don't you do it?

The centipede, the shape-sorter and being Martina

My name is Emma, and I am a technique geek.

Not that that's any surprise to anyone who's been reading this blog for more than about five minutes. But every now and again, when I've been unpicking/listing/analysing something about how writing and writers work, someone says, "I dunno. I don't think like that, I just do it on gut instinct." Which of course we all do, much of the time, before, during and after that central process of moving from total beginner to adequately competent writer.

The thing is, although I find being geeky about creative work fascinating, I think the chief value of talking technical is actually to train your gut instinct so you don't have to think technical when you're writing. When a tennis player is waiting to serve in a match, and she wants to put the ball in say the extreme RH corner, she isn't thinking, "Now I must turn my wrist a bit this way and lift my shoulder a tad higher and toss the ball to the left a bit more..." She's thinking "I must put the ball over THERE", and her body obliges.

All the stuff about wrists and shoulders happened in practising: separating out the toss, the set of the shoulders, the racquet, the topspin, then putting it all together in serve after serve, long before there's anyone on the other side of the net. Over and over again the connection between the bit of the brain that says "ball over there", and the muscles, is re-fired until we're hardly aware it's happening. It's how we learn most things: a toddler first tries to put the cube in the shape-sorter by jamming it at every hole, then works out the right hole but tries the cube at random angles to the square hole till it happens to drop through, then learns to turn it to be square to the hole. And finally an older child just 'puts it in', with the mind-hand operating below conscious thought.

And when a coach (or writing teacher) says "Martina's naturally gifted" it means that there's already a very open connection between the thought of where the ball goes, and the bodily-arrangements that make it happen. Other players aren't so naturally gifted in some ways, but intelligence and perseverance make up for that, with lots of practice of the individual elements so that the mind-body learning all comes together.

I entirely sympathise with anyone for whom talking technique makes them feel like the centipede who walked perfectly well till someone asked him if he started with his right foot or his left, and he got in such a muddle he died of brain fever. And I always warn students that if they've always worked purely by gut, then they may have an ugly duckling phase before all this technique beds down into intuition. And of course you'd go nuts if you subjected every possible next word to conscious interrogation. Talking technique is about isolating individual things so that the intuition is trained.

And even in techie-talk, it's all about intuition - about sensing the whole not just the parts. Psychic distance sounds highly technical when I explain it, but it's also extremely intuitive. I don't need to explain the difference between "a large man stepped out into a snowstorm" and "Snow! Inside your collar, down inside your shoes": students can feel it. And when I ask them to write their own version they may do it well or less well, but it's intuition which controls things, and if they feel something's not right (or someone else says it could be better) their word-hoard is tilled over by their sentence-tractor until it turns up what they recognise (intuition again) are better words for what they're trying to do. And gradually you'll find that, just as once upon a time you slowly stopped having to worry about how each word should be spelled, and regained your capacity to tell stories, the right words for the most effective psychic distance for this moment tend to hit the page first strike. Not always, of course. But more often.

Geekery helps later, too. By developing your capacity to see particular aspects of how writing works on their own, you're not only better-placed to know what to do when something you've written just seems very un-engaging. You're also better-equiped to cope with feedback which says oh, so helpful things such as, "It seems very claustrophobic and confusing" and, "I just didn't believe in her grief". It seemed all right to you, so how do you set about curing it? Your intuition may answer, "I'll open it out," and "I'll go deeper in". Or you may think "Those might both be psychic distance things". But either way, it was the original bout of geek-think, and a bit of practice first in isolation and then in with everything else, which gave you the tools to know the answer.

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