Monday, April 13, 2009

The Beauty of Regular Writing Practice--Watching Your Book Grow

Writing practice is like walking a path and not knowing exactly where you're going, but enjoying the journey. To paraphrase my yoga teacher, writing practice is not writing perfect.

Perfect means you have it all under control. Practice means you're willing to make mistakes to get to a goal. Practice is about sitting in the chair, putting words on the page, letting mistakes happen. Letting miracles happen too.

In Thunder and Lightning, Natalie Goldberg wrote of a time when she and a friend were in the dumps. They first tried a long hike to cure it. That didn’t work. They sat zazen (meditating), but both women still felt bad. Finally, Natalie suggested writing practice. “We wrote for half an hour, read to each other, wrote another half hour, read aloud,” she said. “By the end we were both beaming. Writing practice had done it again—digested our sorrows, dissolved and integrated our inner rigidity, and let us move on.”

Goldberg adds “Writing practice lets out all your wild horses. Everything you never dared to utter—didn’t even know you thought—comes galloping and whinnying across the page. This is good. You become connected with a much larger force field, one where you’re not in control.”

Not being in control: that's what practice is all about.

In my writing class today, we practiced practice. We did three 10-minute freewriting exercises. I asked the writers to pick a line from their homework that stood out in some way, write it at the top of their page, then write for 10 minutes--nondirected practice. They tried it again. The third 10-minute freewriting session, writing got looser, more interesting. Discoveries were made.

Writing practice has worked for me more times than I can count—and I certainly often can’t remember what I wrote about during these freewriting sessions. Although they have produced many books, stories, and articles, that wasn’t the point of the practice. The practice itself was the point, the rhythm it gave to my writing life.

This non-directed practice is called automatic writing by Peter Elbow (author of Writing without Teachers) and Lynn Lauber (author of Listen to Me), freewriting by Natalie Goldberg and others. Try it yourself this week. Pick a "prompt" (starting phrase or sentence) from your favorite piece of writing. Set a kitchen timer for 10 minutes, and go for it.