Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Practice Man, Practice

There's an old joke about a tourist who stopped a musician on the street.

"How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" The tourist asked.
Photo by Princess Ruto

The musician's reply?

"Practice, man. Practice."

Success at any skill REQUIRES practice. I emphasized the word requires because there are many things in writing that are not fixed. How one plans a novel, whether one writes in the morning or evening, editing techniques, when to use passive voice, and the list goes on. However, some things are not a matter of individual style. This is one of them.

I have been a teacher for more than 30 years. I've studied the art of learning, the research behind creative thinking and the development of creative skills. The one consistency in the whole study is that to become better at something, like our musician said, you have to "practice, man, practice."

Musicians understand this. Just try and get a practice room in a college or university music department. A professional musician plays every day. They don't make excuses about "family time," "needing" to watch the game, their day job or anything else. They find that time to practice. The ones who don't quite simply are not professionals or even very skilled.

The same is true of athletes. I lived close to the University of Oregon in the 1980s. World class runners attended U of O at the time and I would see them every day, rain or shine, running past my apartment. If they were not consistent, they would not be world class athletes.

So, why do we believe that we can become world class writers if we don't practice our craft EVERY DAY?

You can't.

Alexander Pope put it this way:

True ease in writing comes through art not chance
Those move best who first learned how to dance
Can you imagine learning to dance by only doing it whenever nothing else is happening in your life?

The problem is we don't want to accept that there are trade-offs in life. We want to believe that somehow we can fit writing in around the rest of our lives. Consequently, whether we say it or not, everything else takes priority over writing. The family says, come watch this movie with us, we shut the computer and go. We'll get back to it later. The cell phone rings and instead of letting it go to voice mail and calling back at the end of your writing session, you pick it up and suddenly you are in a conversation and no more writing gets done that day. There's a sale on at the mall, the Dodgers are playing, there's a great video on YouTube, and writing keeps getting pushed further and further back.

Nothing is worth much to you, if you are not willing to give up something for it. Yet, when I suggest giving something up for one's writing, I get responses that range from profound sadness to anger. It's as if I have asked them to do something impossible. But it's quite simple. If you have 13 eggs and an egg carton with 12 spaces, something has got to be left outside.

I guess most of us never quite think in terms of relative importance. Even when we talk about priorities was say things like, "Is that a priority for you?" That's the wrong question. Everything on your list is a priority. The question is how high on your list of priorities is it? Even high priority items must sometimes compete for attention. It's not whether writing is a priority, but whether writing 30 minutes a day is a high enough priority to let something else in your busy life go.

It's okay, if writing is not a high priority. There may be higher priorities right now. Just like some promising musicians discovered that there were other priorities that were more important for them and put away their instrument and their music. That doesn't mean it wasn't important to them. Just not as important as the other things they wanted in their lives.

However, if you do that, then you can't expect to improve your writing or get published. If you don't practice, you'll never get to Carnegie Hall.

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