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May 3, 2011

The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle

The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle is a book which examines the question “how do you get good at something?”. The core revelation is that the brain uses a substance called Myelin to insulate neurons (well, axons, but…), the consequence of which is that the brain can send faster messages. Which implies that if you produce myelin for a certain action you’ll get better at it.

After the core biology the book then examines how you can produce more myelin, and the suggestion is “Deep Practice”. The sort of practice that makes your brain ache, the practice with errors and corrections, the sort of practice that is not just by the numbers.

Daniel also examines how people are motivated to practice, and visits a selection of talent hotspots. The common themes were Ignition and Mentoring. Something needs to ignite the passion and then someone needs to help that passion along.

Although none of these ideas sound revolutionary the book is a good read, interesting and inspiring, and made me reassess my thoughts on getting good at something. I’ve always believed that it’s practice, I don’t believe in genetic talent, and this books seems to confirm my view, but it also suggests that there are different types of practice and that the motivation to practice is just as important.

I read this book, in part, because I’m trying to become a better writer, but the easiest comparison for me is playing guitar. When I was fourteen my passion in guitar was ignited by a host of rock music that me and my brother and friends were listening too I could pick Van Halen, Live Without A Net as the defining moment, but actually it was more all-encompassing as that. Mentor-wise I had to watch videos, go to gigs and read guitar magazines, but I also had Jonathan to wonder at and learn things from. And then there was the practice, hours and hours of it. I used to get home from school and play at least an hour a day. In holidays I’d play all day. It wasn’t a chore, I love playing and I wanted to get better. I still love the feeling of learning to play something new, slowly, slowly syncing my brain and fingers, struggling to get the music. I can almost feel my brain ache. That must be deep practice.

And so my question is, “how do you deep practice writing?”. It feels less structured, more vague. That’s what I keep telling myself. And yet I’m sure other people would say the same about improvising a guitar solo. I can play a solo that’s me now, purely because I spent so many hours copying other players, ripping off technique here and there, failing to play something properly and learning it wrong. All very odd and random yet sourced from strict practice.

So is this what I need to do with my writing? Copy a hundred writers for five years? Learn more technique? Write more? Should I take my example of learning to play guitar and translate it directly to writing?

Not sure. But I’m thinking about it.

3 Comments

As for myself, when I'm writing in first person, I tend to do "Method Writing," where I'm very much in character while I'm writing it down. I don't do it that much because it takes a lot of effort to get into and out of character, particularly in stories where the character is a bit off. (And all the interesting ones are)

My third-person stories tend to be more free-associative. I have an idea for the story, but I trust my instincts to let it go where it needs to, and I trust my subconscious to fill it with as many or as few details and asides as it requires. These are generally written really quickly, too. They have to be for the trick to work. "Fire Down Below," for instance, was written in about 9 hours, and totaled about 11.000 words.

In both cases, I deliberately resist over-thinking things too much. I try to filter myself as little as possible. That's what editing is for, after the fact. Trying to do it while writing would kill the inspiration.

So that's how I do it. How do you do it?

As for myself, when I'm writing in first person, I tend to do "Method Writing," where I'm very much in character while I'm writing it down. I don't do it that much because it takes a lot of effort to get into and out of character, particularly in stories where the character is a bit off. (And all the interesting ones are)

My third-person stories tend to be more free-associative. I have an idea for the story, but I trust my instincts to let it go where it needs to, and I trust my subconscious to fill it with as many or as few details and asides as it requires. These are generally written really quickly, too. They have to be for the trick to work. "Fire Down Below," for instance, was written in about 9 hours, and totaled about 11.000 words.

In both cases, I deliberately resist over-thinking things too much. I try to filter myself as little as possible. That's what editing is for, after the fact. Trying to do it while writing would kill the inspiration.

So that's how I do it. How do you do it?

I believe that talent is innate. Only realized by a deep desire to accomplish a particular goal. Deep practice is the repetitive drive to perfect the goal. If the goal isn't high enough the accomplishment could be a disappointment. I can attest to this,I rewrite rough drafts, over and over. The realization...that if knew better, I do better. The secret is to know what I don't know. Deep practice is a deep awareness of knowing and manifesting it.