A system capable of handling a wide range of inputs, in a wide array of conditions, is said to be robust. This is to say, it won't break when faced with an unexpected input. Your Swiss Army knife is superficially robust; it can perform a wide range of tasks badly. Talented children appear to be robust citizens of the world but almost invariably are not; our mechanisms for evaluating their abilities are impoverished, based as they are in the language of American public education, with its idiotic insistence on multiple-choice tests and two-paragraph book reports. For instance: a student who surpasses her mates in the high school band may be unable to improvise, to play songs by ear, to adapt to styles outside the narrow range with which the average high school band member is comfortable. A student might easily achieve test scores of 95% or greater in every grade school subject, yet fall flat in the self-motivated arena of a top college. (The admissions programs at the best colleges are robust; they're built on systems that quite effectively filter out the students who can't actually succeed at that level despite high school success.)
I would like to talk about being a writer, and writing.
Why is Firefox the best web browser in existence? Because it's an extremely simple rendering engine with a straightforward plugin architecture, allowing a very wide array of problems (how to render complex graphics or movies, for instance) to be dealt with simply - Firefox's main task, in this paradigm, is to keep the simple solutions out of one another's way. Achieving simplicity in its core system was a monumental task. Writing plugins is not.
Say you're interested in becoming a technical writer; your professional tasks will likely be tightly circumscribed, so it's not necessary that you (for instance) develop a knack for writing thematically rich lyric poetry. You also won't need much of an ear for dialogue, as technical writing tends to be formalizable to a large degree. (Not absolutely so, of course. But substantially so.)
Here is a premise: writing many different things makes you a better writer. It is in fact the primary mechanism by which you become a better writer. If you stop reading now, but take that maxim to heart, you will have gained something. But in a moment we will extend this simple premise and in doing so introduce a productive complexity, and you'll be missing out.
Your Swiss Army knife isn't robust in any meaningful sense. Your computer is, if you know how to program it - that is to say, if you become a robust computer user. A computer's theoretical complexity is masked by mechanisms (user interfaces, software that creates or bundles essential user functions) that make it accessible. A river is complex; a glass of water is simple. Which would a thirsty man rather have?
It is said that 'visions come to prepared spirits.' This is a metaphysical gloss on the more practical maxim, 'Practice makes perfect.' My high school baseball coach would disagree, saying rather, 'Perfect practice makes perfect. But this emendation is disciplinary in function; it narrows the claim but does not deepen it. 'Don't fuck around' might have served just as well, or might not. As for visions: if you write all the time you will become a better writer, as long as you're able to keep yourself from writing the same thing over and over. An external institution serves nicely to motivate such discipline. School is one. A job is another. My high school baseball coach was another. (I have no movement or speed on my fastball but can throw a curveball with snap, or could once.) As iteration starts from a point of departure, you will have a hard time teaching yourself to be a great writer by starting from scratch, writing purely for yourself; on the other hand you might be born with a communicative populist impulse, in which case small variations over time might be enough to grow your writing into something communitarian.
If you wish to become a writer then you must write all the time, as much as possible, as regularly as possible. Strictness about time will force you to be flexible about place, and vice versa. As your schedule regularizes the time and place of your work will do so as well, and with any luck you'll come to find satisfaction in that repetition. That is part of what it feels like to grow up, but not all.
We can imagine many of the poems of e.e. cummings coming from improvisation, but we can not imagine Paradise Lost without its deep structure. Yet the blind poet Milton could not go back to review his work without amanuenses, so revision was difficult for him. We can learn to improvise order but it is unlikely that such a skill could be taught. (Coltrane, Evans, Bird, Miles: all addicts, obsessives.) Absent that multileveled improvisatory thinking, we have (seemingly) two parts to a writing project: planning and writing. There is confusion around this split: observers often mistake planning for idleness. It is part of a writing project, but we give the name 'writing' to the act of setting a story down on paper. We laugh when writers say the actual writing is just taking dictation from their past selves (or some variant on that image), but the dissonance (signaled by the laughter) is vocabulary, conceptual: for the writer, the writing began long before the pen and paper, or computer, or tape recorder, or notes in a notebook. 'Writing' is an inadequate word. But tell someone you're a professional storyteller and they'll picture something else. Still the term is truer.
Writing is design, which is in a way to say, writing is planning. John Gardner said that writing is revising, and that's true as well: revising is the execution of a notion of order, a plan. It may be a new notion but it is surely meant to bring the first draft in line with a requirement, with our desire for order. More pressingly, here: writers are design. You can systematize becoming-a-writer straightforwardly enough. One requirement: write all the time. Another: vary your writing. Another: judge your writing, afterward. Another: revise, afterward. An analytical expression of a bundle of requirements: become robust. As a writer your job is to develop tools that will enable you to respond to creative impulses. You are to make yourself into a system for creative expression, which is to say, you must make the path between your impulses and your expression as uncomplicated as possible. This is not to say 'uncomplex,' however. Simplicity is the opposite not of complexity but of complication. So another requirement: know what you need to do in order to write well.
They say you can't teach writing, which is incorrect. Or rather, correct but untrue. What can be taught is the right way to approach and recognize and accept one's creative impulses; there's no one writing methodology but it's reasonable to believe in a right methodology for developing one's own methodology. (We call this second-level methodology 'style,' but we should know better.) One can be taught how to learn, or in any case to learn better. That old saw gets broken out in discussions of college's 'true purpose,' and it suggests an understanding that is intellectual in the best sense of that freighted word.
If what you seek isn't to become a technical writer, but rather to become a 'writer' in some more abstract sense, then what you must do is develop your creative robustness. This doesn't mean 'learn to write while listening to loud music,' it means: learn to respond to your impulses creatively regardless of their tone or content. Trust in the rightness of change, and the necessity of loss. In a spiritual vein, this might translate to something like 'Learn to listen to your characters,' but this formulation is itself nothing more than a fictionalization of a straightforward observation about mental states: when you're accustomed to thinking in a certain constrained way, the constraints will yield new thoughts, new approaches to thought, that consciously you might not be capable of producing. You may believe these thoughts come from some other self or selves, the voices of characters you're creating. Whatever the cognitive analogue to this narrative, you must recognize that this process of imaginative projection and constraint is productive. A corollary to this imperative: you should learn to write quickly. You may not end up working quickly through your drafts, but you should develop a mechanism for immediately unburdening yourself of ideas. This might mean letter-writing, or touch-typing, or carrying around a notebook or tape recorder. You need not unburden yourself of all ideas right away, of course; the most fertile ways of thinking come from reflection and not impulse (but usually reflection on impulse). But you should learn to trust the value of writing, and the importance of even your incidental thoughts.
There is a construct called a neural network. The notion is that a collection of (simulated) neurons fire, and if they do so in a certain pattern or sufficient number then some second-level neurons fire too, and the process repeats in space and short time until a final output is yielded. (For instance: a network could be built to answer the question, 'Is the shape I see a face?' based on the subquestions 'Are those eyes?' and 'Are those nostrils?' They would be answered by the output of sensors, which would feed into calculators, and so forth.) There are algorithms by which these networks can be trained. The goal of these training algorithms is robustness. The essential fact of such networks are these: a single example input is nearly valueless, and a single example repeated multiple times is wholly so. The ideal input is a wide variety of samples - there's no perfect input, only an ever-better collection of imperfect ones.
A writer writes. Seriousness will discover itself - for the method is fulfilling - and craft is its own reward. (Mathematics has a poetry to it, and we might well wonder if the reverse is true.)
To write is to address the question in a single given instance - 'Is this a face?' - and simultaneously to grow in one's ability to address the next such instance. To be a writer is to grow our internal networks to address a wide variety of questions, and in so doing to combine them into a meta-network, able to match the form or implication of a given question to what is already known or supposed. To write seriously, to tune our individual responses, is to grow in our intelligence. That is craft. Commitment to the craft of writing is commitment to a new kind of growth, generative, self-sustaining. As with any craft, any creative pursuit, its goal is the acquisition and embrace of wisdom, to aid in which we have as yet no mathematics, and yet for which we continue to hope that a method might be found and trusted and perfected. We hope in other words to live robustly, and may you work that way as well, when you work. May you work for wisdom.