As an editor, I do a lot of reminding clients of basic writing rules. Like, in fiction, make sure the main character has something at stake, and that readers can tell what it is. (Like pie! Pie could be at stake!) In nonfiction, make a clear argument, and document it. (Tell the origin of shoo-fly pie and cite your sources.) Etcetera. Hundreds of rules for good writing.
As an assistant Aikido instructor for several years, I demonstrated a lot of basic Aikido techniques, or waza. These techniques involve moving in relation to your training partner so that you experience powerful, peaceful, surprising movement and a gentle landing, if you are both performing your roles with precision. There are thousands of techniques.
And yet. You know and I know that a brilliant novel is not guaranteed by adherence to a set of rules. And if someone grabs you on a dark street, they are unlikely to do so in such a way that you can execute a perfect sayo nage even if you’ve passed your sayo nage test with flying colors.
The other day I was thinking about this and other puzzling truths, and I remembered the story my sister likes to tell about Aunt Emmy’s shoo-fly pie recipe.
Aunt Emmy was our Pennsylvania Dutch grandma’s favorite sister, and she was a great baker. So when my sister came for a visit, of course Aunt Emmy baked a pie. An incredible pie. A best-ever, O.M.G., unbelievable pie. My sister wanted to be able to bake a pie like that, so she asked Aunt Emmy for the recipe.
“Recipe? Oh, I don’t have anything written down, honey.” She waves a hand, her withered face rosy with pleasure at being asked.
“How about you just tell me how you made it, and I’ll write it down?”
“Well, I guess so …”
My sister produces writing implements and looks up expectantly. “Okay, so what do you do first?”
“Well, I get some flour—“
(Scribbling) “How much flour?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Ruthie, how much flour do I use?”
Daughter Ruthie guesses about two cups.
“And then I put in some baking soda.”
More scribbling. How much baking soda?
“Oh, I don’t know. A little bit.”
My sister looks up. “A little bit?”
“Ruthie, about how much baking powder do I put in?”
Ruth guesses a little less than a teaspoon.
And so it goes. Butter, molasses, sugar. Emmy puts in enough so it looks right.
Just a wild guess, but I’d say the first time my sister put Aunt Emmy’s “recipe” to the test, the resulting shoo-fly pie probably wasn’t “just like Aunt Emmy’s.” Just as training to do a perfect sayo nage throw in the dojo will not necessarily prepare you to lay an attacker gently on the asphalt. And studying the Chicago Manual of Style will not, alas, guarantee that you can pen a masterpiece. (I should know.)
This is not to say that recipes and rules and techniques are useless. Land, no, child. It’s just that they are not enough to assure you can make the best shoo-fly pie for a country mile.
No, you also have to learn what the batter looks like both before and after you add the dry ingredients, find out what happens when the water isn’t quite the right temperature, get the feel for your oven, and learn which baking pans work best, and on and on, until (like my sister today) you can bake a pie to rival Aunt Emmy’s.
You want to learn how to blend with an attacker, and transform conflict into collaboration and love? Great! But techniques won’t get you there. They’ll only get you started.
And if you want to write a masterpiece, you have to read a lot more than a stylebook. You have to read books that light your mind on fire, break your heart, and keep you up at night.
And then you have to write. A lot. Badly, at first, generally speaking. And gradually better and better. Knowing the rules will make the road shorter, and you can avoid some expensive and painful detours, but there’s no substitute for writing – and rewriting — to become the best writer you can be.
And the most important part, I think, whether baking, or learning a martial art, or writing, is to allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to make mistakes. To bake a really, really bad shoo-fly pie. To accidentally stub your own (or your partner’s) toe, to punch someone (or be punched) by mistake. To write a whole novel that only your loved ones can read to the end.
The good news is, practicing something you love is about the best thing ever. So, sure, start with the recipe. Just be prepared to make a mess of it.