You don’t do it simply because it’s hard. You do it because it’s meaningful. It requires persistence, the mastery of skill, and a capacity for ruthless self-criticism. It’s not for learning and the satisfaction of putting it into practice is something that’s got hold of you. At a certain point, you don’t do it because you can; you do it instead because it has become part of who you are.
The world of the martial artist is filled with traditions and ritual actions that are meant to symbolize obedience, fealty, submission, and humility. In kendo and many other arts, students bow in” and “bow out,” actions that embody the internal commitment each trainee has made to the art, its purpose and technical rules, as well as to the authority of the sensei, or teacher. In traditional martial arts, students apprentice themselves to a tradition and work hard to emulate their masters and to learn how to master the elements of their art. They do this by participation, by observation, and reflection.
Working at the writer’s craft requires this same type of apprenticeship and commitment. In the Way of the Pen, we need to master the technicalities of writing, engaging in an apprenticeship that began with learning our ABC’s and will continue through life. Developing our skill requires a willingness to learn and obey the conventions of written communication. We need humility and discipline to do this.
Growing as a writer requires observation as well–in this instance, seeing how other writers have tackled the issue of how best to create effective and elegant prose. Just as an aspiring kendo student can be instructed and inspired by the sight of kendo match between two masters, so too can writers find models and inspiration in the works of others. Good writers must be good (and voracious) readers.
Finally, aspiring to any type of excellence requires the willingness to engage in critical self-reflection. We must learn to know ourselves–our strengths and weaknesses–and be able to dispassionately assess what we write. Not particularly fun. But it’s an essential part of walking the path toward mastery.