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From the Front Lines: Why doing what you’re good at may be the way to get better at everything

Build on your strengths.

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I’m taking an art class. The instructor, Alfonso De Anda, is a guy who loves skateboard art and is truly beyond cool. (He wears a beanie and colors in highlighter.) Don’t get me wrong. I like his art, and I like what he’s teaching us, and I’m not the slightest bit intimidated by his cool factor.

We’re meant to be drawing an hour a day for 30 days straight. It’s not happening for me – I’m drawing at the most five days at a stretch for the hour – but he said something in the introduction to this onerous exercise that made me perk up. We’re to spend the first five minutes of each hour, he says, in free drawing. “OK,” I thought to myself. “I can do this. It’s like free-writing, right, where you just write stream of consciousness?” I readied my pen.

But it’s not like that at all. Just as I was about to doodle my way to something really wild and crazy, which is what happens when I free-write, De Anda said, “Just make the marks you like to make.”

Well. I wasted some of the five minutes staring mutely at the blank paper. What marks do I like to make? What am I good at? What marks do I like to make that inevitably make me pleased when I look back at them?

I like cross-hatches. I made some of those. I like animal-ear shapes; peaked ones and floppy ones equally. I scribbled some of those. I like swirly things that inevitably turn into eyeballs a little later on. I made some of those.

And then it occurred to me that, when we practice our writing, we are very infrequently told to make the marks we like to make. It is recommended that we drill and practice. We woodshed, which, I learned from musician and writer Fernando Gros, is a term used in music that means to practice a difficult passage over and over again until we can get it right. We work at things. We rarely, to extend the music metaphor a little more, noodle, like you get at an orchestra before the performance starts, as the musicians are tuning up and testing the range of their instruments.

Let me be clear – I believe that when we free-write, we are also practicing, to a degree. We are working our way toward something, a conclusion of some sort, an aha kind of moment that Elizabeth George describes in her recent book about novel writing, Mastering the Process: “All along,” she writes about the act of free-writing character analyses, “I’m not listening to the noise in my mind but rather I’m…waiting for the moment when my body shouts ‘Yes, yes, yes!’ because that’s the moment when I know I’m on the right track.”

But this “making the marks you like to make” is not that. This is indulging yourself in the things you already know you’re good at. The things that bring you joy.

Say you’re good at writing dialogue. Maybe you spend an hour or so studying that by watching a show you particularly enjoy that is good at dialogue. (Currently, I am watching Pushing Daisies, the dialogue of which is delightful.) Or maybe you are good at description, and so you challenge yourself to try and describe a painting or a landscape to someone who’s never seen the painting or landscape before.

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Or maybe you are just good at snappy comebacks, something you’ve picked up from having to fend off too many unwanted advances at a bar or something, and so you spend 15 minutes or so drafting those funny exchanges in which a smarmy guy or girl gets their comeuppance.

Over a workweek, I made the marks I liked to make for five minutes at the beginning of each drawing session, and while I’m not sure it did anything for my drawing skill directly, it did wonders for my mental state, which in turn helped my drawing skill.

So I put the theory to the test in my writing. I am good at thank-you notes. So I wrote a couple of those one day before I sat down to draft some harder work. I am good at dialogue. So I wrote some lines of dialogue for a character instead of struggling to work on a scene I’m fighting with. I am good at humor, so I spent some time penning a thing that I thought was hilarious and that will never see the light of day without some serious revision.

What did these exercises do for me? At the very base of it, they helped me to feel good about myself. Like the marks I made in my sketchbooks, they looked OK, even pretty, on the page. They also helped me to clear my brainspace a little, chucking out the lint and wooliness from thinking too hard about my work. I think that’s because I’m relatively competent at these things: They were a tiny bit of a no-brainer, automatic. (I don’t have to try too hard to be funny, for instance. And since I watch a lot of TV, I also don’t have to toil at putting myself in the brainspace of dreaming up snappy dialogue or comebacks.)

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Another thing this has done for me is to help me to exercise a growth mindset. This is the mindset in which you understand that skills are forever being improved upon. That no one is a master at dialogue, at wit, at plot. That you have to work at a thing in order to get to the point where you enjoy it – and that, as you are enjoying it, you are getting even better at it.

Woodshed that, friends.

 

 

About a decade ago, when my dad realized that this writing thing of mine wasn’t a lark, he bought me a book of writing exercises. It’s a big, colorful, neon-pink book. Each of its 392 pages is lavishly illustrated, printed on thick paper, meant for you to write on. I love this book – paging through it; looking at its illustrations. And yet, I’ve only ever done, in the decade I’ve had it, two or three exercises in it. That’s because I felt bad after I did each one of the two or three exercises. And I felt bad because I had flipped through it, looking for exercises that spoke to me, and guiltily avoiding the exercises that didn’t seem as fun to me at the time. I told myself I wasn’t really using it unless I worked through it page by page, methodically, making myself do every exercise in order, even the ones that didn’t quite speak to me.

But then…Make the marks you like to make.

I dug out that book of exercises just a minute ago. I’m flipping through it, looking at all the fun exercises that I wanted to do but didn’t out of some misplaced shame and all the ones that seem like they might not be all that interesting, and I’m thinking to myself, am I seriously judging myself for gravitating toward the things I like?

When was the last time I felt ashamed of admitting my predilection for, say, Cheez-Its? (Or, really, any nuclear-orange-colored crunchy cheese-flavored snack?) Or that I never really liked Seinfeld, or that I sometimes wear dresses hiking? (No lie, “Hiking in Dresses” was my first-ever essay for the Patagonia catalog.) It had been a long time since I felt shame over my preferences. Why should my writing preferences be any different?

 

 

The last thing making the marks I like to make has done for me may be the most important, and the most obvious: It does away with the fear of a blank page. Once you start writing, if you start with something you are good at, it is that much harder to stop.

Buoyed and bolstered by your momentum and your own feeling of success, you will turn the page or open a new document and make marks on the page with the confidence, the joy, of having already made some marks you like.

Onward, friends. Mark on.

—Yi Shun Lai is the author of Pin Ups, a memoir. She teaches in the MFA programs at Bay Path and Southern New Hampshire universities and is a founding editor of Undomesticated Magazine. Visit at undomesticatedmag.com.

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