One of the things that came up with the Fourth Street writers’ seminar is that some people have taken it multiple times. It’s intended to be a beginners’ seminar, but it covers different things each year, and also people “begin” at different rates, so there’s no rule against doing so. And I think that in general this is a good thing, that people are themselves the best judges of what continues to be useful for them, possibly with some nudges from friends and family who know them well.
But it actually highlighted something for me: that one of the important things about trying to get better at writing–and this is definitely a place where writing is like everything else–is distinguishing when you’re doing something that is forming a practice or forming a rut. “Practice” is key for most skills–this is where the truisms about “you have to write a million words of crap” come in, or the idea of ten thousand hours of practice before you get good at something. But some things are better repeated than others. Professional musicians will play scales or chord progressions all their careers–you’ll hear scales in warmups if you go to the symphony before the concert starts. But what you won’t hear is “Hot Cross Buns” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb” repeated over and over. Not every repetition is useful repetition.
So…how do we tell the difference between cumulative knowledge/skills and pointless repetition? I think one of the ways to figure it out is to be very specific when we ask ourselves, “How am I improving because of this practice? What skills/knowledge will it bring or sharpen?” Young musicians play scales because their instructors tell them to; more mature musicians play scales because they know that being able to run with quick control through those sequences of notes will be useful in a variety of pieces. (And this is why you don’t see, for example, guitarists who are mostly “rhythm”/chord guitarists playing a lot of scales: because it’s not nearly as valuable for the kinds of chord progressions they’re playing as it would be if they were playing melodies on the guitar.) Be specific and precise. “It will be good for my writing” can easily be cover for “I’m in this habit, and I’m not sure what else to do.”
The other important question, of course, is, “Is this practice getting me the improvement I want to see?” Say that you’ve been attending a particular seminar or discussion with the same set of other writers for years. Is your writing improving as you discuss things with them? Can you point to insights and skills that they’ve helped you with? If so, great! If not, perhaps what you’re getting from them is not “write better descriptions” or “improve pacing” but rather “hang out with friends in atmosphere of camaraderie” or “pass on ideas and skills to people newer than self.” Which are great things to get!–as long as you recognize that you need to do something additional to get the boost you want in description, pacing, etc. Different people learn and improve from all sorts of different input–it’s good to keep tabs on what you’re actually managing to accomplish vs. what you’re trying to do–in writing as in all things.