Writer’s Log, May 2nd: Practice

Today I want to talk about practice because it is just so unbelievably, tooth-pullingly, maddeningly hard. We’re designed to grow, right? We all want to get better at the things that are important to us, right? And we all know that only through genuine practice – showing up and putting in face time with those parts of us that could benefit from a little improvement – will we get any better at anything worthwhile. It should be a no brainer, something we come to eagerly, knowing how it can get us through over the worst humps or blocks. And yet most days, convincing yourself to practice – whether that be honing some shaky job skills, or starting that new novel, or trying to run just a few feet further than you could the day before – is like trying to convince yourself that it’s a really great idea to run out into a freezing January morning in the nude and jumping into a polluted, piranha-infested lake. (Am I exaggerating a bit? Maybe. But mutant piranhas sound just about right.)

Practice has never been my strong suit. When I was a kid, I was pretty talented at the piano, but my piano teacher scared the socks off of me. She was an octogenarian patient of my dad’s who bartered medical care for music lessons. Every Thursday afternoon I’d be dropped off at her apartment for my hour of supervised practice, and almost every Thursday afternoon I’d walk very, very slowly down the very, very long hallway in her apartment building until I arrived at the elevator to graciously allow several people to take it before I did. When I could no longer convince anyone I was lurking with purpose, I’d step in it, press the button for her apartment on the fourth floor (and depending on my level of desperation, sometimes buttons one through three, too), then tiptoe down the hall to her apartment and knock ever so softly on her door. Then “knock” again. After a minute or two, I’d attempt my most innocently baffled expression and make my snail-like way back down to the lobby where I’d inform the doorman that she wasn’t answering her door. At this point, I’d have used up a good fifteen minutes of my hour long lesson, which was totally worth the painful deception because it felt like the only way I could possibly reduce my sentence. (And something told me that the doorman sort of understood what it might mean to someone to have to do twenty-five percent less time.)

But it was inexcusable. Even though my piano teacher sometimes came to the door without her wig on, frequently slapped my hands when I made a mistake, and clicked her lipstick-stained dentures before she spoke, she was skilled at what she did, and she adored me. When I quit at the ripe old age of twelve, she told my mother that she’d left her grand piano to me in her will. (Needless to say, I was quickly relieved of this generous gift, which was everything I didn’t deserve.)

I loved the piano. I loved music. I still love both. But I think that what I really dreaded about those music lessons is what they might reveal about me. Because as much as I loved music and the piano, I never practiced. And as strict and frightening as my teacher could be, the worst thing she could do was ask, directly, if I’d practiced. And because she really wasn’t born yesterday, I’d have to acknowledge that I hadn’t.

The thing is, no one in my life had ever shown me what practicing really looked like. I grew up around people who glorified raw talent and disdained poseurs. And I’m not just talking about my family. I’m talking about the education I was privileged to have, the stories I encountered about writers and great artists, the legends swirling throughout our culture about writers who seemed to look nothing like haphazardly practicing, insecure, lying-to-her-piano-teacher me.

But now I know that acknowledging my faults was what I needed to bridge the gap between frustration and fulfillment. Instead of hiding from the fact that I sometimes spend more time daydreaming about how I’ve missed my calling than I do daydreaming about my book (because obviously I need to go back to vet school in my mid-forties or learn to teach aerial yoga), or the fact that I dread encountering the half-baked writing that comprises 93% of my drafts, or the fact that I sometimes adopt a martyred attitude around the toils of laundry and proceed to sigh and blame everyone else for my failure to write – I bite the bullet and acknowledge them. Because with that acknowledgment comes softness and humor around my obvious foibles and missteps. The willingness to return to the work anyway. The awareness that practice will never, ever make perfect. And thank god for that. When it comes to art and its ability to speak from the heart about the human condition, who wants perfection, anyway?

Art: Kazimir Malevich, “The Lady at the Piano, 1913”

Writer’s Log, April 4th: Cartography

One of the biggest problems I have with the language around creativity is how frequently it refers to that which is beyond our control. Writers “wait for their muse,” or “suffer writer’s block,” or aren’t “picked up” by an agent, or editor, or publisher. This language isn’t just inaccurate; it’s prohibitive. In fact, I think that if we wish to encourage creative potential in ourselves and others, we must insist on an intentional reversal of such language. Instead of falling back on mystical, murky references to an overly romanticized (read: unrealistic) view of the creative process, we must ask ourselves: How can I take the power of my creativity back into my own hands, where it belongs?

Recently, I’ve realized that a lot of the work I’ve done to try to rewrite my own narrative on the creative process has to do with remapping the terrain itself. This has involved a close and vigilant reexamination of what gets me into my writing practice, as opposed to a passive reinforcement of what takes me out of it.

So, for instance, rather than even speak to the idea of a muse, I try to ask myself how I can work without waiting for inspiration. On any given day, then, how might I find a path into my writing without feeling I need to follow some shiny, ethereal guide? How can I carve out a modest ramble through my creative spaces even if the light is dim and the ground is parched? How can I find a way to make that magical in its own right?

Similarly, I find myself needing to reshape the topography of writing practice. As much as I’d love to be climbing magnificent mountains in the recesses of a writer’s colony that allows me to work without access to a phone for several months (or at least as much as I like to tell myself I would), the truth is, I’m lucky if I get 90 minutes. And let me tell you: it is SO easy to spend the lion’s share of that 90 minutes moaning about the hours I wish I had. So I’ve had to teach myself to stay vigilant about intentionally lowering my expectations. Drastically. And on several levels. I remind myself that I get nothing done by moaning and groaning about what I wish I could get done, and that sometimes, just five minutes a day is all I need to maintain that crucial, regular connection to my work.

And surprisingly, this often works. If I spend five minutes jotting down notes before I have to get in the car to go pick someone up from school, chances are my mind will be wandering through those notes as I’m driving, and that I’ll arrive at drop off waving a kid in with one hand while I’m scrabbling around in the glove box for a receipt to scribble on. And even on the days when I don’t get anything actually written, keeping my mind open and my curiosity front and center goes much further toward fertilizing the next day of work than would grumbling furiously as I head out to the car and experiencing 57 varieties of road rage along the way to pick up my poor, unassuming seventh grader. Winning!

So what kind of remapping can you do? What kind of messages are you reinforcing about your writing that are just not helping, or are only helping to keep you contained? How might you erase the high-walled maze you’ve been trapped within and see what else you can sketch on that newly blank page? Even if it’s just a rough, uneven dotted line you can walk on unsteady feet, isn’t possibility infinitely more liberating than certainty?

Art: “St. Brendan’s Isle,” Bernardo Buil, 1621

Writer’s Log, March 1: Intentional Wonder

As many of you already know, I have not found popular writing advice particularly helpful. I find word counts and keeping my butt in the chair and strict writing struggles to be overly rigid techniques that make incorporating a writing practice into my daily life even harder than it should be. As a result, I’m always playing around with ideas around what does work for me, and why. And while I do know that regular attention to my writing practice is vital to its health, it can be difficult to describe what that attention looks like, when it doesn’t look like typing on a keyboard. This is an interesting problem to have, because approximately 88% of my writing practice does not involve typing on a keyboard.  

Yet, because I’m convinced I cannot be the only one for whom traditional writing advice falls flat, I still feel compelled to try to describe the kind of practice that resonates with me. Recently, I’ve found it helpful to take some of the focus away from trying to describe what the practice looks like, and consider instead the mental landscape I’m seeking to cultivate. And I’m certain that one key feature of that mental landscape is intentional wonder. This is the kind of wondering I do when I have a general idea of what I want to say, but sharpening and clarifying that idea feels as appropriate as trying to sharpen and clarify a cloud. This is one of the main reasons why I don’t force words down on the paper when I’m entertaining something that refuses, as of yet, to materialize; I might get a few sentences written, but if I try to milk an idea too early, I risk getting much less out of it than I might if I wait until it’s ready.

I suppose cultivating such intentional wonder might be usefully understood as a pre-drafting state, but so much of my work happens within this space of intentional wonder, I’m not sure “pre” belongs anywhere in a conception of it. Four years into my current work, for example, I’ve spent the past few months trying to decide how I want to get my primary character through a particularly critical and sticky transition point. Much of this time has been spent stopping and starting and hemming and hawing and reading and walking and staring into the middle distance, which is another way of saying that it’s been progressing beautifully, despite the agony that always accompanies this nebulous state of being. But even though I am finally beginning to emerge from this lengthy period of slogging through, even though I have finally determined what scenes I will be writing and how they will generally unfurl, I’m not yet ready to go slashing through the underbrush.

Because despite this rare and delicious road map that I’ve fought tooth and nail to develop, despite the clarity and satisfying plan it offers, something even more powerful still calls, asking me to stay still just a moment longer, to listen for the possibility of just one more strange visitor, even though everyone else appears to have arrived. And it’s not doubt – in fact, it’s quite the opposite of doubt. It’s a conviction that arises out of the feeling that if I can resist definition just a moment longer, if I can just lightly set my characters into the time and space I’ve carved out for them while still giving them plenty of freedom to wander around however they might wish, something strange and curious and wonderful is likely to emerge from the shadows. Sure, I’d love to just forge ahead, writing scenes and chapters and swallowing pages whole, but I know that nothing is more important than listening when intentional wonder tugs at my sleeve. I might have finally caught sight of the mythical creature I’ve been stalking that no one else believes can exist, but I know that trapping it in a net is going to be far less rewarding than seeing how it might move freely, on its own. Perhaps there will be less proof of its existence, but in the end, I’ll have a much better story to tell.  

Art: Jerusalem Window, Sketch, Marc Chagall

Writer’s Log, February 1st: The Shelf Life of Social Media

It seems that if you show even a glimmer of potential these days, you will be immediately encouraged to devote your energies toward getting on the internets and doing everything you can to get the popular people to notice you. And if you grumble about the constant interruption and inanity that creates in your life, someone is always there to remind you that this is simply the way it is. But after years of consideration, I have to confess I’m just not sold. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who wonders: Is social media really all that sustainable?

Let’s take creative work as an example. There we are, making our art or sketching our designs or cooking up our inventions, and the moment we produce anything saleable, we are pressed to devote as much time as possible to getting attention for them. We must milk Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and SnapChat and TikTok and Whatevs – because the more platforms you can hit the better – for all we’re worth, and in so doing we must also make ourselves as adept as possible at creating content that keeps up with the attention span of gnats, because if we don’t generate something daily, or at least weekly, we’re sunk. And if you choose to bow out, well, good luck decorating your hobbit hole of obsolescence.

But let’s just take a step back and look at the logic behind this behavior, shall we? If we must devote our time to scurrying around and waving our hands anywhere they can possibly be seen, then what happens to the deep reservoirs of attention required to create anything of substance and meaning? What happens to forging the kinds of lasting connections that inspire us in the first place? Do we really want to forego the benefits of pondering, contemplation, slow builds, and gradual learning curves? More importantly: Can we even hope to survive without them?

I honestly don’t think we can. Not because social media is the problem, but because the human condition cannot be sustained nor captured through Twitter alone. Superficial communication has its place – not least because it’s expedient, fun, and easy – but our collective mistake lies in failing to consider and choose its place in our lives. Because while it may feel like social media has plenty to chew on, at the end of the day, most of it is mental junk food – thrilling and entertaining in the moment, empty and depleting in the long run. And while we might complain that we don’t have the time or attention to read a book or get on the phone or make a meal from scratch, isn’t it important to ask why that is?

After all, no matter how conditioned we are to jump when our devices tell us to, we are, in fact, free to choose other options. And every time we choose to step away and power down, our brains awaken to new possibilities. Every time one of us sees another reading a book, or sketching, or taking a walk without clutching a phone, we offer a subtle reminder that this is a viable option.

I know this perspective is not new, but sometimes we need to stop worrying about how clever or inventive we are, and simply show up for what matters. Especially when we’re at a tipping point, when what we choose to shine a light on can mean the difference between yet another flash in the pan and true illumination.

Art: “Gallery of the Old Library, Trinity College,” Bruno Barbier

Writer’s Log, January 1: Point of View

Now that we are facing a new year, it seems like the perfect time to talk about point of view. Like any perspective, when we needlessly reduce it, it becomes that much harder to understand. I used to think there was something wrong with me when I found it so difficult to choose between first or third person (G-d forbid I should even begin to entertain second). After months of agonizing, I would eventually just pick one out of sheer exhaustion. It never felt like much of a victory. More like walking down the aisle of a rained-out wedding. And being forced to choose between Mr. Bill and Mr. Bean for a life partner.

But after years of watching other writers trying to navigate the rusty-nailed seesaw that is making this choice, I started to develop a little perspective on perspective. And the first thing that dawned on me was that, given the variety of narrative voices that are out there, how can it be that we are meant to understand point of view as a matter of only two, or if we’re really ballsy, three choices? Why is it that after we’ve finally summoned up the tremendous courage it takes to capture our unique voices on paper, instead of taking a clearing breath and wandering off on the wild path into our imaginative landscape, we feel we must choose between Door #1 or Door #3?

As with most writing instruction in our culture, I believe the problem lies in a stalled – and frequently stale — conversation on the subject. An assumption that as long as writers know what point of view is, they should have no trouble putting it to good use. Because the truth is, that while it is indeed useful to choose whether your narrative voice will refer to itself in the first person or default to the third, these pronouns are really nothing more than blank canvasses to work from. And like any brush strokes we make, the point is not to get the perfect perspective on paper; it’s to capture the one that speaks to us.

What’s more, as all good readers know, no point of view is really the same as any other. Orson Wells’ third person is literally worlds away from Tolstoy’s. And Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert and Zusak’s Death might both represent ultimate darkness, but boy does some distinctive light get into those stories.  

But what if you get it wrong? Well, you can’t. Yes, it’s true that by making a choice about point of view, you must leave several, possibly excellent choices behind. But that’s EXACTLY what artists are supposed to do. We are not meant to capture an objective, indefensible voice. We are meant to seek one true voice, and know that it stands among millions of others.

The point is, writer’s make choices. And the most spectacular results of this lie not in the bigger picture – the perfect point of view or astonishing subject matter or gorgeously stylized prose – but in the thousands of careful, thoughtful choices we make along the way. Maybe this is true for our lives, too. But for now, I just hope it helps you fling wide whatever door stands before you and have faith in the extraordinary act that is putting one foot in front of the other.