Private Practice

‘We talkin’ ‘bout practice’ – Allen Iverson, 2002.

I’m not sure I’ve ever understood the grammar of the phrase ‘practice makes perfect’. Although I have said and heard the phrase so many times through my life that I feel I’ve gradually improved my understanding of it enough to perfect the phrasing. ‘Practice makes perfection’ is more sensical. And it’s something I wholeheartedly believe.
Unfortunately, practice itself is unglamorous. A skill is impressive only after it has been honed, once all of the imperfections and hints of incompetence have been buffed away in private, unspoken torment. If the destination is Disneyland, the journey is just a necessary evil of monotony and pained anticipation; a car ride where you clench your fists and shut your eyes until you’ve tolerated enough progress to arrive.
A magic trick, for example, can look cool to watch, but dreadfully uncool are the endless hours of fumbling and dropping playing cards trying to conceal a move that lasts less than a second. This was something that I tried my sleight of hand at as a pre-teen, even then realising how embarrassing it was. Luckily I would keep a set of my sister’s underwear nearby to rapidly change into as a less controversial past-time for me to be caught in the midst of if one of my parents walked in. At least that didn’t involve the indignity of trying to better myself. I’m joking of course, I don’t even have a sister. To be honest I don’t know whose underwear it was.
Similarly, we all like to see a heart shape poured into our cappuccino foam, but we certainly don’t want to see the mad coffee-drills that baristas of a certain coffee chain have to endure every morning to get those heart shapes so lovingly uniform, as part of the ‘Zero to Nero’ scheme. Apparently for every one that’s not up to code, they have to snort a coffee bean whole, as some sort of sick perversion of the idea of waking up to the smell of coffee. It’s barbaric frankly, and as far as I know, entirely true.
Actually, if you consider masturbation a sort of ‘practice’ for sex, and there’s really no reason why you should, then it makes more sense that when someone walks in on you having sex, they feel embarrassed, but if someone catches you masturbating, you’re the one who gets asked to take your sister’s underwear off. Or whoever’s it is.

But for whatever reason, there seems to be something deeply shameful about practice, about the idea of actually working on a skill that you plan to display or utilise in the future. Does it maybe seem almost narcissistic, in that you’re spending your time on yourself, putting man hours into your own betterment? The practice of certain skills can definitely be seen as more worthy of one’s time, such as improving your ability to play a musical instrument, or getting really good at life-saving surgery, or learning which of your friends would most appreciate incessantly being tagged in dog videos on Facebook. These things are fine to be good at, and to be seen to be trying hard at; practicing a musical instrument has a generally accepted artistic merit, proficiency in which is enviable, but the aforementioned boring hard work that needs to be put in to reach that level is something that a lot of people aren’t prepared to face. Or indeed, they see the end product of someone banging out some heart-rending Chopin on one of those random pianos that get scattered around cities (ostensibly as a way to bring art and expression into a more public forum, but mostly it’s toddlers running up and smushing the keys with their palms, like a chimpanzee who’s just discovered mashed potato), and feel inspired to take up a instrument themselves. But then they become daunted by the apparent chasm between the first dipping of the toe into the musical pool, and the submerged depths of even a semi-decent amateur pianist.

It’s this mythologisation of natural born talent that feeds wrong-headed ideas of child prodigies, overnight successes and savantism, which in turn discourages extended periods of hard-work and practice, unless met with an unreasonably quick manifestation of proficiency and success. Ask any leader in their field how hard they worked to become good at something, and they won’t hesitate to expound on the hours and years spent grinding away in obscurity. Steve Martin, considered one of the greatest comedians of all time, believes he was born with no natural comedic talent, but worked tirelessly to develop his skill. If he had the viewpoint of most people, that you’re born to do something, or your career chooses you, then he would have simply decided that it wasn’t going to happen, and there’d be no ‘Steve Martin’ as we know him now. If someone had shown him a video of some Chinese 5-year-old beating a computer at chess, which I assume exists, then maybe, and god forbid, the movie Cheaper By The Dozen simply wouldn’t exist. Or they would have just got Robert De Niro or some shit.

To use a more up front example, this is my thirty-fourth blog post, and I’ve been writing it on and off for almost two years. That is a tangible way in which I have continued to practice a particular skill, however useless. Feel free to go back and read my first blog, see whether it’s shit, see whether I’ve even got better. You could at least assume that by now I would have worked out how to consistently end a blog post in a satisfying way, perhaps with a summarising statement about the chosen topic. Maybe something like ‘the obscuring of effort behind displays of aptitude is something that continues to feed an expectation of quick results and short-term dedication, before losing interest and logging on to Facebook to share a meme about how the only time you felt really alive was when you demonstrated a card trick to some classmates in year 5, but for some reason, despite having never put any effort into anything since, nothing else has ever quite measured up to that feeling of pride and acceptance. Must be because you weren’t born special.’

Well, I could certainly try to summarise the topic in that way, but instead I’ll just say that more than perfection, practice makes realistic expectations of a life lived through a prism of hard work paying off. And Cheaper By The Dozen 2.

Next time on the bandwagon, I found a frog on the pavement outside my house, and instead of kissing it in the hopes of turning it into Prince Charming, should I play the song ‘Kiss’ to it, in the hopes of turning it into Prince?

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On the Originality of the Species

Brief disclaimer, in the following entry, I may well refer to myself as a ‘creative’ or ‘creative person’. If this comes across as pretentious, I apologise. It is merely intended to come across as fiercely accurate and self-aggrandising.

People who work in some sort of creative capacity are usually seeking one or more of the following; recognition, an increase in proficiency of their creativity/skill, the opportunity to explain their creativity/skill in a patronising manner to a non-creative lay-person (referred to in creative circles as ‘social furniture’), and of course, originality.

Some of these can be achieved by attempting another; a talent for originality can encourage the practise required to reach greater proficiency, which means it becomes a bigger part of your life and you talk about it to people, leading to recognition as an insufferable, self-absorbed bore.

But isn’t originality a myth? Hasn’t everything been done? I mean Christ, I’m only writing about originality because I just finished reading a book about it. If I were really being original, I’d write about a totally new subject, such as the aerodynamics of salad tongs when fired through crepe paper, or whether candles are basically chips if you’re a Madame Tussaud display. Not interesting topics, but original I’d wager. And is originality a worthy enough end alone? Would it be unoriginal to communicate a familiar feeling to an audience as a way to vindicate that feeling? Or is originality important only as the vessel?

What if I were to expound the well-worn subject of the inferiority of aeroplane food in a totally new and unrecognisable way? Perhaps by suggesting that we have no other high-altitude food to compare it to so maybe we should be grateful. If we found that things tasted amazing on a hang-glider, then we’ll talk. Is that necessarily parody, or is there always a new way of studying any subject in a way that makes it appear new? And is there any point if you end up reaching the same conclusion?

As an exercise for how difficult it is to be totally original, I thought I would try to come up with a brief idea for 5 stories that I don’t think have ever existed before. Here’s what I came up with:

  1. A giraffe is spontaneously transported to the centre of an alien planet and learns to control it from within via the use of Jenga.
  2. Time and Space realise their relationship is disintegrating and hope that having a child will rekindle things. The child is called Stephen and he becomes a groundskeeper for a golf course.
  3. The year is 1782, but everyone is convinced it is 1783 already. Hilarity ensues.
  4. A series of time lapse photographs of grazing cattle becomes sentient and runs for president.
  5. Sweden unveils a new national anthem that tacitly ostracises cheese-lovers. People who claim to be addicted to cheese have to face the reality that they simply have no personality.

I’d like to think that some of these seem pretty original, if unworkable as premises for stories. And certainly I can trace the lineage of some of these ideas to my own influences. In hindsight, number 3 is similar to a fake documentary short I wrote about an 8-year-old girl who thinks she’s 9 and subsequently requires surgery. And number 5 is probably just me thinking cheese is overrated.

A lot of stories we know owe at least something to a previous iteration, and I don’t just mean the idea of there being ‘only seven stories’ or as the ending to The Amazing Spider-Man posits, only one story: ‘who am I?’ which seems rather apt for a film that itself had trouble reconciling its own identity. I mean that I can’t get my head around the creativity of the first person, for example, to use time-travel as a story conceit, as it inevitably leads to the exploration of ideas of free will and determinism, as well as the idea that more people than you’d expect seem to be up for murdering their own grandfather just to prove a point.

It feels so familiar a device now, but the originality required to be able to describe something as weird as moving through time in the wrong direction astounds me. I thought a good analogy for that is a story I heard about how Native Americans were apparently unable to see Columbus’ huge ships approaching them due to having no precedent for structures of that size or shape. I liked how that seemed to illustrate the reticence with which people can react to new ideas. However, upon further reading, I discovered that story to be a load of horseshit popularised by a pseudo-science documentary, misinterpreted from a cherry-picking of John Banks’ journal of Cook’s expedition to Australia, in which the natives can very clearly see the ships. Maybe that’s the key then. Take an original idea, twist and misinterpret it beyond recognition from its source, and present it as something new.

I’ve always wondered if it’s possible still to come up with such an original and multi-purpose idea as time travel for use in fiction. I just don’t like the thought that we’ve reached a point where nothing new can exist. What about teleporting limbs as a sci-fi concept? Send your leg to Spain for some reason, or send your arm to draw cocks in moon dust? If artists borrow and geniuses steal, maybe it’s just for idiots to convince themselves they should bother trying anything new. But look me in the eye and tell me you wouldn’t want to see a movie of a giraffe controlling an entire planet with Jenga.

Next time on the bandwagon, something unoriginal, cliched and derivative. Or a story about turning all the faberge eggs in the world clockwise by two degrees and seeing if anyone notices.