kowalski_013015My writing mentor, W.S. “Jack” Kuniczak, used to tell me that in order to write a book, the writer has to become immersed in that world. This doesn’t happen overnight, and it can’t be faked. It’s a world of your own creation, but even so, this doesn’t make you the owner of it. You are only one more resident. In fact, you may understand it less than the characters who populate it–because you, after all, are a visitor from the outside, while they live there all the time. And you cannot become immersed in your story if you visit it only occasionally. You must become familiar. You should be known well enough to the characters in your book that they don’t even bother to look up any longer when you enter the room. What does all this mean? Simply put, it means the novelist needs to write on a regular basis, preferably every day, if he ever expects to finish the thing.

Of course, you don’t have to be sitting at your desk to go to that world. When I’m writing a book, I’m thinking about it all the time–sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. Sometimes leaving my desk is the best thing to force new ideas to the surface. They will occur to me as I’m in the middle of something completely unrelated, like taking a shower, stacking firewood, working in the garden, or going for a long walk. These are all mindless activities, but because they engage a certain portion of my brain, they allow another part of it to go to work and send up ideas, like balloons from the bottom of the sea.

But the words don’t make it on to the page unless I am planted at my desk, and sometimes this means showing up whether I feel like it or not. If my creative batteries aren’t charged, if I have nothing to give that day, then I don’t try to force it. This is a good way to get burned out. But I still show up anyway, just in case I’m wrong, just in case there’s something worthwhile lurking beneath the laziness that seems to be my natural state.

A routine is important for other reasons, too: because of something musicians call “chops”. Chops is a kind of all-encompassing term given to a professional musician’s particular playing style. It’s the reason you can tell a Carlos Santana guitar solo from a Mark Knopfler guitar solo in an instant. You develop chops only after years of dedication and practice. This applies to other disciplines as well. And like a razor blade that grows dull from disuse, your chops degrade quickly. Concert pianists say that if they skip even a day of practice, they can sense the effects for days afterward. Skipping a week can set them back six months. Craftsmen such as painters or sculptors know they must constantly hone their technique if they are to keep their edge. Writing is every bit the same blend between technical skill and art as these pursuits. You need to keep at it on a regular basis if you are to stay at a constant level of skill, let alone improve.

A word here about the difference between skill and art. The ancient Greeks made a distinction between the two. Skill, by which we might mean manual dexterity or mastery of a set of principles, was called techne (τέχνη). This is the source of words like technique, technician, and technical. We still use this word in the same way today. The Greeks used another word, poiesis (from ποιέω), to describe what we mean when we talk about the higher meaning of the word art. This is the source of our word poetry. It carries something of the meaning of ‘to make’, but in a more metaphysical sense than simply fabricating or assembling something in a technical way. It has to do with bringing together thought and matter in an artistic manner that will strike some people as beautiful. Perhaps it actually means giving it a soul. That’s the best interpretation of poiesis my limited twenty-first century mind can come up with.

When someone becomes very good at the techne of something, even if it’s not something we typically think of as an art, we say of that person, “He’s raised it to an art form.” In fact, we especially say this of someone who has gotten good at something we don’t think of as an art. We never say of someone, “He’s raised painting to an art form.” Painting already was an art form. But we might say of someone who’s very good at carpentry, which can be practiced unartistically and still be perfectly useful, “He’s gotten so good at carpentry he’s raised it to an art form.” The ancient Greek interpretation of art is alive and well in our modern consciousness. So, writing involves both techne and poiesis–both technical skill and poetic vision. You must work at developing both aspects of this craft if you want to become a master.