Archive for October 4th, 2011
The physician and journalist Atul Gawande has a nice piece in this week’s New Yorker about coaching—what it is, why it works, and whether it’s useful in fields aside from professional sports. He concludes that, yes, it can be helpful even for those operating at a high level of expertise to get guidance from another expert, with the aim of sustaining and improving performance over time. Gawande draws on examples from a wide range of professions, including teaching, music (with some thoughts on the subject from Itzhak Perlman), and his own field, surgery, where he says that a single session with his chosen coach, a retired general surgeon, “gave me more to consider and work on than I’d had in the past five years.”
He also talks briefly about writing, a field in which most professional practitioners work constantly with coaches, of sorts, in the forms of editors and agents. Maxwell Perkins, the legendary editor at Scribner’s, served as a coach for such authors as Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Wolfe, while in science fiction, John W. Campbell played an important coaching role for Isaac Asimov. The agent Scott Meredith performed a similar function for many of his clients. And many writers have had less formal, but equally important, mentors throughout their careers: Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. And like coaches in other professions, their function is less to teach the basics of the craft than to shape and guide the work of others once a certain level of expertise has been reached.
I’ve certainly benefited from coaches of all kinds. I’ve had two literary agents, and while my first such partnership didn’t end particularly well, the process of taking a huge novel and stripping it down to its constituent parts was one of the most valuable, if painful, educations I’ve ever received. My current agent also put me through the paces for the early drafts of The Icon Thief, which was taken apart and reassembled in ways that allowed me to write the sequel, City of Exiles, in record time. I’ve also learned a lot from my editor, and from the many readers, formal and informal, who have offered me advice over the years. Some, like Stanley Schmidt at Analog, have done so in a professional capacity, while others have simply served as what Gawande calls “outside ears,” giving me valuable perspectives on work that I can no longer evaluate on my own.
Even relatively experienced authors, then, are constantly being coached, which may be why the best writers continue to make progress well into their forties and fifties, after professionals in most other fields have begun to peak. The hard part, it seems, isn’t so much finding a coach as knowing which ones to trust, and listening to tough advice even after you’ve grown confident in your own abilities. I’ve always said that if there’s one thing I know about writing, it’s structure—which didn’t prevent my first novel from being radically restructured, to its great benefit, on its way to publication. Writing is such a weird, absurd profession that you take help whenever you can get it. As Ed Macauley said, in reference to a different kind of game: “When you are not practicing, remember, someone somewhere is practicing, and when you meet him, he will win.”