In his blog, science fiction writer Rahul Kanakia says that he’s “become unsure of whether or not writing is an intellectual process.” His concern specifically relates to “process-related stuff,” partly related to a becoming modesty (“75% of the awful writing advice on the internet is perpetrated by people who are not (yet) very successful writers”), but also about the process by which an author refines their craft.
“For years, it didn’t feel to me as if writing involved any thought: all you did was write and then evaluate the results,” he says. “If they were bad, you did a rewrite. And so on, through ten or twelve drafts, until it finally came together.”
This hit-or-miss trial-and-error approach along the way from “unconscious incompetence” to “unconscious competence” via conscious evaluation of both stages, Kanakia also believes, goes something like this: “You do it badly for awhile without knowing you’re doing it badly, and then at some point you realize you’re doing it badly, and eventually you internalize the skills you need and start doing it well without quite knowing how.” However, he warns, it could be doomed to repeat itself: “Eventually, the weight of your crutches and tics and weird writerly mannerisms overpowers whatever interesting thing you had to say and you tumble all the way back to stage 1.”
I do wonder if that’s the inevitable outcome of refining your style and finding your voice. It sounds to me more like the intermediate stages from conscious incompetence to conscious competence might have involved internalizing other people’s models of how things should be done, to such an extent that they eventually become unconscious. They may produce good writing, because after all, they’re clear examples of how some good writing gets written, but they may not be the best thing for any particular writer who all along has a totally different approach.
There is also a very definite danger of becoming trapped in your own style, and becoming a caricature of yourself. Arguably, Ernst Hemingway spent most of his later career in that self-imposed prison. And it may be more of a risk when you consciously, as an intellectual decision, adopt certain ideas of how to write, based on aesthetic or even other maxims. That can mean an end to artistic growth.
So is writing, and above all, progress and development in writing, something that you do by getting your ideas together or simply playing it by ear? Or both? Opinions welcome.