Sunday, May 16, 2010

Does Practice Make Perfect--Or Even Contribute Significantly to Your Writing Goals?

It's gardening time in New England--despite the 20 degree weather we had last week that left my kale seedlings gasping--and I'm spending a lot of time out there. Soon my weekly teaching schedule will pick up again, leaving me little time to sit in the sun, so I'm getting my fingernails filthy now.

Gardening for me is a lot like writing. Both take tons of practice, trial and error, failure and misery. Both have some magnificent moments. If you're not into gardening, forgive this analogy, but for me plants and soil have taught me a lot about the practice of writing. The patience I need, the forgiveness of my own big bloopers, the times when I want to chuck it all and go work at McDonalds (not really).

I began gardening because three of my grandparents had the bug. My grandfather lived in Nyack, NY, right on the Hudson and he grew raspberry bushes and roses in a boxwood maze and flowers I could never hope to identify. We were both early risers. When I would visit, I could peer out my dormer window from bed and see him walking in the garden, so I'd get dressed fast and go out to join him. The raspberries were his precious spot. He pondered them like I ponder a chapter, scene, character.

My grandfather taught me to go slow with creating. It worked well to put in time, both fingernail filthy time (digging into the soil, feeling it, working it with your hands) and pondering time.

So that leads us to this week's topic: practice. Does it really make writing perfect? How does it contribute to real writing goals?

Practice--Becoming an Outlier
I went to my local library last week to catch up on reading. So many books on my list--and I sometimes find one on CD so I can listen in the car. I got a copy of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, a book that's been on the list for a while.

I admire Gladwell's ability with potentially dry subjects. He took the evolution of Hush Puppies and made it fascinating in his well-known book, The Tipping Point.  Outliers is about the phenomenon of success. What makes it works for some people, not for others.Even though they are equally brilliant, innovative, and determined.

Since I teach writers, and I see some succeed with their writing projects, while others do not, I'm interested in this. Gladwell's research is pretty thorough. So far, the book has listed two aspects of success.

One is coming from an environment that allows it--with time, resources, and mentors. A person who succeeds in their art, craft, sport, business, academic endeavors, has certain support systems naturally. A writer like J.K. Rowlings (Harry Potter books) is an exception (the folklore is that Rowlings crammed her writing between childcare, without any private writing space to speak of). So the first question is whether you have the system in place to support your writing project.

The second important aspect is practice. Gladwell cites 10,000 hours as the time it takes someone to get good at something. He gave a study of violinists who all started out as child prodigies; some became virtuosos and others didn't. Why? The researchers divided the violinists into three groups. The top group all had practiced a LOT more than the others. That was the only documentable difference.

So the second question is to ask yourself how much you practice your craft. How much do you allow yourself to just write.

Figure Out Where You Already Practice A Lot
Your passions will lead you naturally toward practice of the things you really love. And it'll also create space and support for these things you love. I know a woman who grows delphiniums. They aren't an easy plant in the north. She spends about fifty times more practice on her delphiniums than her writing. For her, it's a no-brainer. She really loves those plants, and it shows. By midsummer, she's created an awesome garden that gives a lift to everyone who drives or walks past.

Putting any small additional time, space, support into her creative life is much harder for her. Why? She hasn't gotten the love back from it in a long time. Those spiky purple flowers really give her back plenty of love, so it's easy to pour more of herself toward them. It isn't happening with the writing yet. So practicing her writing isn't as natural or easy. The passion isn't quite there.

When the passion leaves, the practice will be drudgery. So getting the love back means reconfiguring your approach. What is fun about the writing--do you even remember? I work with lots of writers who have lost the fun, and I recommend silly stuff. Freewrites. Writing without any Purpose. Get a copy of Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg or What If? by Pamela Painter and Anne Bernays. Do an exercise a day (short, 10 minute ones).

Get back the love. It'll help you get back to the routine of your writing practice, mostly because you'll remember again why you're doing it in the first place.

The goal is to get the routine of practice to be second-nature, just like the second-nature of caring for plants in spring, if you're a passionate gardener.
Eventually, if you're lucky, the practice will become so ingrained, it gives the love to keep itself going.

Several days this week, the birds were louder than the characters' voices in my head. I let myself drift toward peas and peonies instead of words on a page. It was like a freewrite, easier than my writing practice. I recharged with that easier love. I emailed a writing friend, my support system. I read a few poems for inspiration. I made some tea.

When I came back to the computer and tried the scene again, it was less of a battle.

Consider your practice this week. Consider your support systems. The exercise below lets you explore both. And hopefully increase the pay-off.

This Week's Writing Exercise
1. Read Outliers, if you want. It'll both excite and challenge you.

2. Find someone who is really good at their craft. Ask this person how much time they spend on it. Compare it to how much time you spend on your writing. Write down some thoughts about what you might commit, if you could, to increase your time each week.

3. Analyze your support systems. Do you have a mentor? Do you have space and privacy to write? Do you have the proper equipment (laptop, good writing materials, books about writing)? Do you have classes and ways to get better? Write some thoughts about what might make your writing support systems stronger.


  1. That is so true about the need to find the love of writing again. So many of our writing students want to write, but consider it drudgery. So often it's only after that first difficult half hour of immersion that I begin to remember, aha, this is what I love about this. It's like how hard it is for me to get into the cold swimming pool in the mornings, and only a few laps later remind myself what feels so wonderful about swimming.

  2. Thank you so very much for writing this! I have been grid locked for a while now on my Novel and actually started blogging silly stuff just to get the creative juices flowing again. THis post has inspired me to get back on track and write that Novel that I have afforded myself a year off to write.
    I am now following you and am looking forward to more posts from you! Thank you for inspiring me to get back in the game.

  3. So glad this can help unlock the grid! Thanks so much for your comment. And best wishes!

  4. MCM,

    I have followed your "blog" now for over six months and you have always been very helpful and "affirming" to this "neophyte". Having just retired from "consulting" I am now putting in 4-6 hours per day on my "reading and writing". I start each session either reading or re-reading something you've shared with me - I'm a member now of the "Loft" here in MN and can't wait to get into one of your classes. Thank you!
    Steve (

  5. Thanks, Stephen. It's great that you've gotten so much out of these posts. I'm really glad to hear that! Hope to see you in a Loft class sometime. All the best with your writing.

  6. >>A writer like J.K. Rowlings (Harry Potter books) is an exception (the folklore is that Rowlings crammed her writing between childcare, without any private writing space to speak of). So the first question is whether you have the system in place to support your writing project.<<

    I found that very telling. That's how I did it for 30 years--a full time job, off-hours raising 2 kids and 1 husband (all of whom turned out quite well. Just had our 50th anniversary). I wrote when everyone else was asleep. I wrote a lot. A lot of very bad crap, which I thought was good. Unlike Rowling, who was still fairly young when she hit success, I didn't get anything good written or published until my mid-50s when health problems made me retire.

    I have the time, and the space, and the opportunity. But I have no mentor, and my support system is all online. My family pretends the writing doesn't exist. I'd say it doesn't matter, but it does.

    I find myself, now, loving the writing I DID. But I don't have the joy anymore of creating something new. and I want to feel it again. Part of that is because Life, as it often does, has thrown a few roadblocks. But that's not the only reason. One of my past efforts is in print, and the other will be published in July. I honestly fear that none of my works in progress will ever be finished.

    I'm going to explore your suggestions. I hope they help. Thank you for having this blog.

  7. Thanks for your comment, Ruth! Busy lives--I think there are quite a few writers who sandwich our writing between kids, family, work. Congratulations on 50 years! Here's to the joy of creating something new--definitely worth pursuing.

  8. Eunice ColletteMonday, May 24, 2010

    I took your memoir class last month at The Loft and just got together with two classmates. I'm so excited to have the support of a writer's group. I read something that I wrote and got so much encouragement, I can't wait until we meet again! I love your ideas. I'm thinking I need to set aside time everyday just for writing, so it doesn't all get swallowed up by revision.