Jack of All Trades
Updated: Oct 14, 2019
Sometimes specializing is the best way forward.
Back when I was in high school, there was always that one kid who could play multiple instruments. He would ask to "see" his friend's instrument, get a couple pointers on how to hold it, and just by fiddling around with a few buttons, he would play a familiar pop song. As you can imagine, I gawked at this. I thought it was incredible and wished for the same ability. Instead, I just struggled along on my school-rental saxophone which seemed to have lost another screw every time I looked at it.
Our band director, a stocky percussionist, wasn't so impressed. He lectured us saying that playing multiple instruments wasn't impressive, playing one instrument extremely well to the point of virtuosity was impressive. Similar speeches he gave included: "You play the same music, over and over, for the whole warm-up time every day—you would be so much better if you focused on something you weren't good at." And "Oh, you're just having fun? Do you know what else is fun? Winning is fun. Being good is fun."
His tendency to these impassioned speeches and colorful insults gave him a larger than life personality—one which the other kids picked up on, with titles such as Intergalactic Supreme Ruler. I'm not sure if it was self-bestowed or if the kids just came up with it on their own—either way, I wouldn't be surprised.
Do you know what else is fun? Winning is fun. Being good is fun.
In a Writer's World
I've tried to pass on this story to other writers before, particularly when it comes to writing, but it's met with the same incredulous counter-examples.
Are you saying that Neil Gaiman is a bad writer? Did you really just say that short story writers can't write novels or that YA writers can't write children's stories?
It doesn't quite help either that every university has at least a few writers that write in multiple genres—we call these unicorns and not in a pejorative manner. You get the impression when you compare yourself to these people that if you aren't doing everything—a blog, a podcast, short-fiction, a YA fantasy novel, and a screenplay—you're limiting yourself.
To further complicate matters, shorter forms can be crucial in practicing for longer forms. Just like how visual artists use studies as groundwork for paintings, the writer uses the short story as a means of practicing for novels. In the short story, you practice all the aspects of the novel: the characterization, the descriptions, the dialogue, the setting, and beginnings and endings. Additionally, the traditional basis for publishing novels rests in first publishing successful short stories, as it builds confidence in your work.
Practicing 10,000 Kicks
But let's assume first that you're not a prolific writer. Let's assume that you don't sit at the computer for three hours a day to write, and you don't put out a book every year. Chances are, the amount of output, which adds up to the amount of practice you get, is going to be substantially less. Let's assume that some arbitrary number of hours is required for mastery of a form and not just reading a craft book, like 10,000 hours. From a practical standpoint, if you don't stay in one field long enough become good at it, then you will dwell considerably longer in mediocrity. It brings to mind the Bruce Lee quote:"I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times."
Now, just like there is some crossover between drawing and painting, there's certainly some crossover between poetry and fiction, and practicing more than one form will not make you worse. If anything, working in between disciplines can lead you to some new insight for your primary discipline. But if all you do is poke at and jump across genres, then not only will you struggle to develop mastery in a single form, you will struggle to develop a reader-base or accrue name recognition.
One of my professors in college lamented about the very same dilemma. Having written about knights in fantasy, having written military fiction, having written for video games and screenplays, and now jumping into science fiction, he didn't quite have the same name recognition or the same reader base had he just stuck with one, perhaps compared to writers who wrote similar amounts. It had built him up to work well in teaching multiple forms, like in a university setting, but it didn't quite lend itself to him being read by many people. Even if you can write it all and do a pretty darn good job at it, it will be much harder to draw attention to yourself.
I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times." — Bruce Lee
Don't get me wrong, it's fun to practice a lot of different kicks, but it’s a gimmick. It’s not really impressive to people who take the field seriously. Once you have mastery over one kick, or in my old case, a single instrument, it’s highly impressive. The director will pick out pieces to give you solos. Nobody will ever wait around for you to learn your part. Nobody will ever suggest you’re out of tune, because you will always be in tune. You will have first chair because you know all of your scales. It’s fun to mess around and just play pop tunes. But do you know what’s even more fun? Winning is fun. Putting hard work forward and it actually showing something is fun. And even better. It’s fulfilling.
About the Author:
I'm a short fiction writer currently working on publishing all the short fiction from grad school that I still very much like. In addition to reading and writing, I love playing games, cooking with my wife, and hanging out with our two cats—D'mitri and Ophelia. If you got something out of my article or if you just flat-out disagree with it, feel free to leave me a comment below. Peace!