When my daughter Ruby was ten, I bought her a copy of Raina Telgemeier’s book Smile. She was on the verge of getting braces to correct an underbite. She was scared, and I thought Telgemeier’s graphic novel about her own experience with braces might help.
It did. Ruby’s one of those kids who would rather be outside riding her bike or playing soccer than sitting down with a book — but Smile struck a chord. She even took her copy with her when she had her braces put on.
So, Ruby got her braces. But something else happened. Inspired by Smile, she started drawing. After a couple of months, she spent hours on her eleventh birthday looking at herself in a mirror and working on a self-portrait.
Everyone was impressed. I remember being a little stunned, even. But the most important thing was that Ruby impressed herself. After she finished this drawing, she decided that she really wanted to learn to be a better artist.
It reminded me a little of the shift I felt when I finished my first novel. Once I knew I could do it, I knew that I could learn to be a better writer.
I like to think that she learned from what I’m constantly teaching other writers: Work a little bit every day and put in the effort to make each effort better than the last.
She definitely knows that Ray Bradbury’s quote is a driving force for me: Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens.
Whether she picked it up from me or just came to it naturally — she has drawn every day for the last three years.
And she constantly pushes herself to learn how to draw better. She’ll Google “how to draw noses” or “how to shade with pencil” and spend weeks perfecting that one thing.
In December, Ruby turned fourteen. Almost exactly three years after she drew the self-portrait above, she drew another one in preparation for an audition she hopes will get her a spot at an arts-based high school in the fall.
Daily practice and continued learning work. When you combine them and you are diligent, they always work.
I like the example of drawing, because obviously it’s so visual. Anyone can see that Ruby started with some natural talent, put in three years of daily practice, and became a better artist.
Writing is more subjective. It’s more dependent on the reader’s taste. But the principle applies. Get into the habit of writing everyday. And make a commitment to continue learning how to write better.
For writers, that continued learning looks like a lot of reading. Fiction, especially. Reading like a writer involves being aware, as you read, of the technique behind the work. Read craft books, too. And apply what you learn to your daily practice.
It doesn’t matter what your art is. If you want to be a better painter, sculptor, banjo player, roller skater, poet, playwright, or cupcake baker, the method for getting there remains the same. Consistent practice and a commitment to constant learning are the only path.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation and the upcoming novel The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.