My best friend Lisa and I started taking piano lessons when we were about six years old. We had the same teacher, and were quite competitive (well, at least she was). I recall Lisa was never able to come out and play between 6:00 and 6:30 because it was her set time to practice piano. There was a wind up kitchen timer always sitting on top of her piano, and her mother would set the timer for 30 minutes, during which Lisa was to practice her Hanon and scales, do the workbook exercises we were set each week, and then practice her pieces.
I have to confess, my practice techniqe was much more haphazard. I would sit down for 15 or 20 minutes in the morning before school, and usually play for a while as a way of relaxing after I came home. I often did the workbook pages in the car on the way to my lesson. As for Hanon and scales – well, let’s just say I didn’t get many gold stars on those pages in my lesson book. My parents never forced me to practice, or chided me if I didn’t. I loved playing, and since I seemed to be at the piano for a good portion of every day, they were never too careful about exactly what I was doing.
Here’s how Natalie Goldberg describes the practice of writing:
This is the practice shool of writing. Like running, the more you do it, the better you get at it. Some days you don’t want to run and you resist every step of the three miles, but you do it anyway. You practice whether you want to or not. You don’t wait around for inspiration and a deep desire to run. It’ll never happen, especially if you’re out of shape and avoiding it. But if you run regularly, you train your mind to cut through or ignore your resistance. You just do it. And in the middle of the run, you love it. When you come to the end, you never want it to stop.
That’s how writing is, too. Once you’re deep into it, you wonder what took you so long to finally settle down at the desk. Through practice you actually do get better. You learn to trust your deep self more and not give in to your voice that wants to avoid writing. It is odd that we never question the feasibilty of a footballe team practicing long hours for one game; yet in writing we rarely give ourselves the space for practice.
I have a long standing writing practice, and I admit it’s a bit like my piano practice. I write every day, with a cheap, ball point pen, in a brightly colored spiral notebook, three pages of anything. Sometimes it’s stream of consciousness garbage, sometimes it’s a list of everything I’m worried about, or happy about, or thinking about. More often than not, it starts out as one thing and becomes something else – today, what began as a simple memory about a conversation I overheard as a child turned into five pages about my neighborhood.
My favorite time for writing practice is first thing in the morning, after one cup of coffee and about 15 minutes of reading. Often, something in my reading will ignite an idea for writing -this morning, it was a passage in Richard Russo’s Bridge of Sighs that got me started.
I don’t hold myself to any time limit (no kitchen timers for me!), but I usually find myself spending about 20 or 30 minutes on these pages. I write loosely, and messily, on one side of the page. This writing is for me, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s grammatically correct. When I’m really “on,” the pen can barely keep up with my racing thoughts – sometimes, I feel as if my brain is running away with me, like flying down a steep hill on my bike.
“This writing practice is a warm-up for anything else you might want to write,” Goldberg continues. “It is the bottom line, the most primitive, essential beginning of writing.” Through the daily writing, we learn to listen to our own voice and trust it, we learn to free our thoughts and then corral them into words, to improvise like a jazz musician at the keyboard, experimenting with the tools of the trade.
So this week, I’m channeling my friend Lisa’s mother – if you don’t regularly practice writing, challenge yourself to do so. Get yourself some brightly colored spiral notebooks (they’re on sale everywhere just now!) and a package of pens. Find a time each day when you can sit down for a few minutes and just write. No need to pressure yourself – you’ll know when you’ve said all that need to be said.
By the way, lest you’re wondering how our musical career’s ended up – my friend Lisa stopped lessons in 10th grade, and hasn’t played since. Me, on the other hand – well, I’ve been playing the piano regularly for the last 42 years, working as an accompanist, a solist, and just playing for the pure love of music.
How about you? Do you have a writing practice? What’s it like? How has it helped you become a better writer? If you’re thinking about starting a writing practice, how do you envision it? What would work for you?