“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.

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15 Responses to ““Apprenticeship” by Louise DeSalvo”

  1. xxnettie09xx Says:

    I agree when what you say “ 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”. I say this because all forms of art; writing, dancing, painting, and drawing, all take time to perfect, and find your own way of making it yours. It takes years to perfect all forms of craft, with practice and dedication to give a good performance.

    When you speak of the great writers such as Virginia Woolf, who started writing when she was young. She worked on her craft by writing in her journal, and when she traveled she would write about people, conversations she had, and the place she traveled to. She did this to harness her craft, and to become a great writer. When it comes to writing it takes dedication and practice, just like all other crafts. As writers we cannot just think, we can come up with a great piece of work on the spot on the first try, but to work on it for hours, and maybe days.
    Another writer Henry Miller, created charts, outlines, graphs, and lists so that his work can be prepared. He even wrote two apprentice novels before he started to write in his own words. He wanted to learn how to do this, and he was dedicated to learning how it was done.
    The main point is that publishing a book is like a performances, and that it will take time and dedication before it is perfect. A person does not want to perform their craft on stage for the first time, as soon as they learn it, but to practice it. Writing will take time to harness, until the writer thinks it is perfect. Writing just doesn’t happen, it something that is worked on for hours, days, and years.

  2. Marianne Says:

    I have only begun my memoir writing experience. Although I have been keeping journals for most of my life, inconsistantly, I never felt I could write about my life. At least something interesting to someone else. I love your blogs, they give me so much to look forward to. You are correct, most people think that writing a memoir is an easy task. “all you have to do is keep track of your experiences and write them down”. I for one know differently, it is time consuming, tedious and sometimes daunting. But if you really want to write you keep at it. I hope in ten years I can put together my memoir. I know I have a lot of work ahead of me, but what a pleasure it is.

  3. Theodora Venizelos Says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog, and I think I read it at the perfect time. I hate to admit this, but it takes alot of willpower for me to actually take the time to write. Most of the writing I’ve done in my life has been on the spot, in other words, I have rarely revised. I have written my book of poetry, “Modern Musings on Mendacity,” in the same way, and although it is published, I honestly feel that I should have revised it and worked harder on the poems. I know that failing to revise is a bad habit, but I guess I need to remedy this. Then again, maybe this is another reason why I avoid writing, since I do little to no preparation, I always feel the end result is nothing special. However, after reading your post and your descriptions of the work ethic of writers such as Woolf and Miller, I am beginning to see that even the greats had to go to great lengths to prepare. Sometimes when I read an amazing book, I think that the author was born with this amazing ability to put words together and provoke contemplation on the readers part, but reading about Miller, for instance, helps eradicate my former beliefs while replacing it with the assurance that all writers, even the greats, must prepare extensively in order to write. Although this requires more work, it is the best way to ensure that one conveys ones vision so that it is as close as possible to the idea as it is experienced in the mind of the author.


  4. With no professional writers in my family, I have always been uncertain with how to approach writing as a career. Writing as a leisurely activity was an area I knew very well, however, I yearned to take my writing past the point of “hobby.” Thus, I deeply connect to your statement, “…and so beginning writers think all they have to do is simply write.” As I entered college, I knew “simply writing” was not enough; I began to feel blind in many writing classes/workshops. While finishing a piece, I would say to myself, “This could be better.” I knew I loved writing, but could I actually become a writer?

    This post has really comforted me, so I must say thank you. Having just turned twenty in a society that never seems to slow down and having chosen a career path that many deem “unrealistic,” I feel pressured to obtain early success. The old saying “You either have it or you don’t” seems to scream louder at me every year. But, just as Luciano Pavarotti knew, I know that I, too, have a lot to learn. Your post helped me recognize that slowing down, despite what society may believe and practice, is actually a good thing, and I am ready to continue constructing and embarking on my apprenticeship.

  5. Lisa Roth-Gulvin Says:

    Great blog.
    When I started my carreer as a lingerie designer, I had a basic talent, and a passion. When revisit the designs of my first creations, I cringe at the clunky childish styling. By the time I reached the pinnacle of my career, almost twenty one years later, I had mastered my craft. Just like writing, I had develped “a voice” in my styling and design that was my own (although imitated by others) .
    In what I call the second alf of my life, I have chosen to express my creativity through writing, something I have always loved, yet nevered done seriously. Amazing I am so impatient with myself. Why do I expect so much, so soon, when I know craft and talent need nurturing and time. Thanks for the reminder!

  6. Joeline Sanders Says:

    This may very well be one of the most important things I will have ever read. I am guilty of thinking years of reading and a command of the English language has prepared me for the task of possibly writing a work of my own. I have taken several classes on writing and currently have the pleasure of learning Adv. Memoir under Professor Edvige Giunta. I have even done some writing and journal keeping but not an “apprenticeship”…right now I can’t believe I even considered writing without it. I have never done any writing of the works of others so that I could slow it down, dissect it and understand the craft behind it…what makes it work? How? Why? The fact that you copied over a thousand of pages of Virginia Woolf’s is astounding. I’ve read Woolf but I could only imagine how differently I would experience her work by rewriting, copying and typing her work….“learning how to write scenes, how to write landscape, how to move people in and out of rooms”. This is definitely something I need to look into and prepare for if I ever intend to write. I might just start with Woolf since she’s already among my favs!

  7. Aly B. Says:

    After reading this blog entry, I think the message being conveyed is quite simple. It goes back to the saying, “Practice makes perfect.” Another point that I found in this entry that goes along with the above saying, is not only practice, get educated, and become skilled in your trade but I found that you must also need to be patient. This also brings us back to another old saying, “Patience is a virtue.” I believe all of this applies to any talent, or trade as De Salvo states towards the end of this entry as well. I found this all to be true and can truly appreciate that now I know what I’ve got myself into as a “memoirist”.

  8. Marc Pollifrone Says:

    I think the importance of apprenticeship is most apparent in music, like Pavarotti performing vocalizations and scales for six years before performing. A guitarist practices scales and chords for years before combining his efforts into something larger. A drummer combines rudiments and other exercises. The author Malcolm Gladwell suggests putting in 10,000 hours of time before you’re at a point to produce a work in a new domain. If you work a full-time job, 40 hours per week, it would take about 5 years to master your job. Zach Hill, a virtuoso of a drummer, came along slowly in his career and peaked at approximately his 10,000th hour as a performer. Charles Bukowski published his first story when he was 24, but then was virtually unheard of for about 15-20 years. During those years though, he was said to have sat in front of his typewriter every night, drinking heavily and pounding away at his keyboard. Perhaps if he wasn’t drinking so heavily, he would’ve mastered writing a little quicker than in 15-20 years. Either way, the moral of the story is that mastery and comfort and ease within a domain takes time, and that timeframe is about 7-10,000 hours of refined effort.

  9. marc pollifrone Says:

    I think the importance of apprenticeship is most apparent in music, like Pavarotti performing vocalizations and scales for six years before performing. The author Malcolm Gladwell suggests putting in 10,000 hours of time before you’re at a point to produce a work in a new domain. If you work a full-time job, 40 hours per week, if would take about 5 years to master your job. Zach Hill, a virtuoso of a drummer, came along slowly in his career and peaked at approximately his 10,000th hour as a performer. Charles Bukowski published his first story when he was 24, but then was virtually unheard of for about 15-20 years. During those years though, he was said to have sat in front of his type writer every night, drinking heavily and pounding away at his keyboard. Perhaps if he wasn’t drinking so heavily, he would’ve mastered writing a little quicker than in 15-20 years. Either way, the moral of the story is that mastery and comfort and ease within a domain takes time, and that timeframe is about 7-10,000 hours of refined effort.

  10. Tamara Gonzalez Says:

    What a perfect post to read when, like me, your in a situation where you are a beginner writer and need some inspiration. I am a firm believer that practice makes perfect as well as a believer that you will never know everything about one specific topic. I have been working in the car industry for the past 3 years and although my vault of knowledge is very vast I still find that there a many questions I simply cannot answer because I just do not know that answer. The value of apprenticeship is priceless because it gives you the possibility of doing what you love with the help of someone who already knows the ins and outs. I am the type of person who does not proofread. For whatever the reason may be I was never a fan of writing and proofreading for fear that what I wrote would have to be completely re-written. I am slowly changing that mentality and this blog post reinforced my need to do so!


  11. Hello (again, as it were) Louise,

    Your posts never fail to hit some aspect of my soul in terms of my writing career and where I want it to go. I have started referring to myself even before reading this post as ‘the apprentice writer’ – someone who writes, has been writing for at least nine years now, will continue to write and to grow with every word on the page. Reading the words in a different light helps me to understand the concept even further. I never believed that reading would help my writing, but now it’s all that helps my writing – I read something that speaks to me, and I find myself itching for a pen or computer. I’m so desperate to be like those teen prodigies that write books when they’re fifteen that become international bestsellers, but it seems as though I’m nearly six years overdue for that.

    What I need instead is the apprenticeship – the writing, rewriting, workshopping things that are only slightly tedious but mostly rewarding.

  12. sabrinall Says:

    When I think about the completion of my first book, I get sad. I can’t even imagine how it will end let alone when. Writing is something I have always done and when it came to ending stories that I had written quickly, there was no issue. The endings were short, sweet and cliché. I agree that we all need nurse our writing/English skills and watch them grow.

  13. Melissa Sutaris Says:

    Louise,

    I can see, now, that most of us are not going to complete our first novel or work overnight, nor within a few months or years. I learned something different about writing every day last semester; whether it be through your creative process book, Writing As A Way of Healing, or through Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. There is always more to discover about writing, and I think that it what creates the everlasting bond between humans and writing. For those of us who pursue writing as a career, understanding that there is always something new to learn is important for our apprenticeship.

    I can concur that even Woolf, as an established writer, was learning new things every day pertaining to her own writing. The amount of discovery involved in the writing practice is so beautiful and original. Nothing can compare! This is the reason why some of us wouldn’t even mind if our first book takes years to complete. It is about the journey, and the longer the journey, the more we discover!

  14. Scott Moul Says:

    Ms. DeSalvo,

    “Gardner’s research indicates that it takes about . . . seven to ten years to produce one’s first work in a new domain.” I will wipe the tears from my keyboard and hope that I am some rare exception to that rule, but I expect not.
    Thank you for this entry; as I get excited by the idea of memoir writing via Dr. Giunta’s class (the only class in my college career where I have actually thought to myself “class is already over??” after three hours have flown by), I realize that I need to slow it down, and try to make steady progress rather than hope to “wow” anyone. I am, after, all, a neophyte.
    “Performing too soon, I think, is as risky for writers as Pavarotti believed it was for singers.” Are there any apprentices out there comfortable with mentoring an over-forty male just now attending college? I’ve had some very supportive professors, but my age, I think, makes me seem rather un-apprentice like. Or maybe I’m just a pain in the neck. All kidding aside, it’s probably mainly due to the fact that my English degree-in-progress is secondary—in terms of career trajectory—to my Elementary Special Education degree-in-progress. The funny thing is, while I am anxious to enter the teaching arena to see how I perform, writing is much more of a natural passion. Thanks for pointing out the hard work necessary to become a writer.

  15. Veronica Says:

    I think that is a really hard lesson to learn, to slow down and master your craft, in whatever genre you feel pulled to learn. I, myself have been guilty of trying to rush into early success only to be reminded by life that I really need to slow down and be present here and now. I think that taking initiative to become our own apprentices is a great idea as well as the reminder that as writers, we need to give ourselves time for our work to grow and expand. It is hard to accept that it will take years to do this (as I have a tendency to want to finish things quickly) but necessary.


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