“Apprenticeship” by Louise DeSalvo
February 1, 2010
While my husband and I were away, he read about Luciano Pavarotti, and about his apprenticeship. “Do you believe,” my husband asked, “that for six years at the beginning of Pavarotti’s career, he did nothing but vocalizations and scales? He didn’t learn roles; he didn’t perform.”
I’d never heard that about Pavarotti, though I’d witnessed, through study, the apprenticeship of Virginia Woolf. She started writing as a girl – a family newspaper with her siblings; dramatizations. A daily entry journal. Early works, such as “The Diary of Mistress Joan Martyn.” Another, a description of an idyllic world of women. Whenever she traveled, she wrote sketches of people, places, conversations. Often, she went back to these pages when she was a mature writer and used them in her work – notes on a trip to Greece she took with her siblings made their way into Jacob’s Room, her third novel, the one she believed marked a turning point in her writing, where she learned to write in her own voice. She sharpened her ability to write prose by setting herself reading programs – that is, she didn’t just read; she read “with pen in hand,” looking to learn how to write scenes, how to write landscape, how to move people in and out of rooms. And her first novel – The Voyage Out – went through many, many revisions. The earliest version is nothing like the final. And there is a complete earlier draft of the work, Melymbrosia, which I recovered, edited and published, but which Woolf changed substantially before she published it.
All told, that first book took Woolf seven years to write. But she’d been writing for years before. You can learn what her apprenticeship as a writer was like by looking at Mitchell A. Leaska’s A Passionate Apprenticeship, presenting transcriptions of much of Woolf’s early work. Others of her early works have been published as well.
A question I’m often asked by beginning writers when I start to work with them is “How long will it take me to write my first book?” This, of course, is a question I can’t answer. I sometimes reply, “How do you think it will take you?” And what I’ve learned is that many beginning writers expect miracles – they ask themselves to become skilled at their craft and produce their first completed work in a year or two.
I refer them to works on creativity, like that of Howard Gardner, which I’ve mentioned before in this blog. Gardner’s research indicates that it takes about seven (other researchers say ten) years to produce one’s first work in a new “domain.” That is, it takes seven years of serious apprenticeship from the moment we decide we want, say, to become a writer, a dancer, a composer.
One of the reasons is that it takes that long to learn the language of the domain we’re working in. And this is where writing gets tricky. Unlike, say, dance, or music, which very few of us engage in very, very young, many of us who want to be writers have written for years. I don’t think any one of us could imagine outselves stepping on to a stage to dance or to perform a sonata after working for, say, two years. We would know that it would take us far longer to learn our craft, to harness our skills, to develop our own particular form of expression.
Because we’ve used language forever, it seems, we might slip into the illusion that there’s no apprenticeship required before we write our first novel, memoir, book of poems. But nothing is further from the reality of learning the craft of writing.
Although I know many dancers, many musicians, many painters who know they have to practice at the barre, do their scales, learn how to mix color, I know of few beginning writers who go at their own apprenticeship in the same rigorous way. Maybe that’s because, unlike tutelage in dance, music, or painting, the teaching of writing doesn’t approach becoming a writer as if there were a skill set to learn and so beginning writers think all they have to do is simply write.
But look at the lives of many great writers and what you will find is a self-designed apprenticeship. These writers – and one of them is Henry Miller – knew what it was they had to learn, and they set out to learn it. Before Miller went to Paris, he’d written two apprentice novels. While he was in Paris, he realized that there was a great deal he needed to know before he could write in his own voice. So he took a notebook and walked Paris, writing sketches of what he experienced (including his sexual experiences) so that when he came to the writing of Tropic of Cancer, he had a wealth of material to draw upon. He had, too, been seriously reading for years. And he made outlines, charts, graphs, lists to prepare for his work.
Tropic of Cancer, which comes at the writer as if it were a lark, a joy, a quickly penned free-for-all, was in fact, meticulously planned, carefully prepared for. Hours and hours of work went into Miller’s preparation so that, when he sat down to work, he could write in what he called “the first person spectacular.” Miller, writing, was something like a Zen master sitting down to paint a Zen enso painting – a simple circle, which, it is thought, is the most revealing form of art. He’d worked and worked, prepared and prepared, meditated, thought, learned, took notes, and then let what happened on the page happen. Spontaneous, yes. But after years of apprenticeship.
And what about my own apprenticeship? I learned how to write by copying over a thousand pages of Virginia Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out, by hand. I was working on a book about how Woolf wrote her first novel and, at that time, xeroxes or photographs of the manuscript weren’t permitted. Copying these pages, then typing them, was the only way I could study the manuscript. But doing so also taught me to slow down and see how sentences, paragraphs, scenes are constructed by a writer at work. I learned, too, by reading everything that that she wrote. By studying her life. By learning what she did each day to make herself into a writer. And by imitating what she did — I had no model in my life for how writers work. I started a daily entry journal in imitation of hers. I wrote sketches. I made a reading plan (that I’d change, depending upon what I wanted to write). It took me seven years to publish my first book. And, when I switched genres, from literary history, to biography, to memoir, it took me years of apprenticeship to learn the new domain.
Luciano Pavarotti was the greatest tenor who ever lived. He had the voice of an angel, even before his six years’ work. Yet someone as uniquely talented as he was, was humble enough to know that he had a lot to learn. He didn’t want to ruin his voice by performing too soon. He wanted to build his career upon the firmest possible foundation. To do so, he eschewed early success. But what he got by postponing performance in favor of a long apprenticeship was far more important: a stellar career.
What we often don’t realize is that writing for publication is a kind of performance, too. Performing too soon, I think, is as risky for writers as Pavarotti believed it was for singers. And as much time needs to be devoted to a writer’s apprenticeship as to a tenor’s.
Nearing the end of his life, he searched for someone as gifted as himself to teach – he wanted a singer willing to enter into an apprenticeship with him so he could pass on everything he’d learned about learning his craft, his art, everything he learned about technique, and performance. But it never happened.
Although we as writers can find mentors, learning to write isn’t like learning to sing, learning to play the piano, learning to dance. There are no Pavarottis looking for us to their student. And though we might find writing communities, like Virginia Woolf, like Henry Miller, we writers must construct our apprenticeships on our own, and we must understand that a period of apprenticeship is necessary for us to hone our skills.