What’s the “practice” of writing?

I practice yoga, and I practice meditation. And I also “practice” writing. I like this concept, because it connects skill and inspiration. I’ll begin with skill.

One authority defines practice as “systematic training by multiple repetitions.” Other sources emphasize frequency, skill, instruction, discipline, and “artful management.” (Here is a thought-provoking collection of definitions.)

The BuddhaMy practice of insight meditation shapes my thinking about writing as a practice. In meditation, you train your mind to stay focused by systematically returning over and over to your breath. You need instruction to learn how to do this. There is an art to choosing the particular technique (out of many) that is appropriate to a given moment.

Natalie Goldberg in her classic book Writing Down the Bones talks about writing as a practice, but she’s referring to a specific exercise: you don’t censor yourself or make corrections but just keep your hand going across the page, in order to “burn down” to what she calls “first thoughts” or authentic feeling and experience. The goal is to break through the inner censor that often prevents people from accessing the truths of their experience. I had a writing teacher who taught another great exercise that had a similar effect.

But what I mean by practice is something different: the honing of skill, and the ability to meet the contingencies of professional writing, where you make your deadlines whatever the condition of your psyche.

I’ve been a freelancer since 1984, and people still say to me, “How do you have the discipline? I could never do what you do.” I always respond that when your livelihood depends on it, you develop the discipline.

But that’s just because I don’t feel like doing a lot of explaining. The fact is that the discipline comes from the practice. The practice is to do it even when you don’t feel like it, you’re too tired, you’re bored, you’re not really sure you know what you’re doing, you’re afraid that you can’t produce what the editor wants… and so on.

One friend had to publish a scholarly article as part of the requirements for his job contract renewal. He knew exactly what to say, but got sucked into a swamp of anxiety at the prospect of actual writing. He assumed this meant he couldn’t write, gave up for the day and started answering email. He had the wrong idea: you may be anxious, but you do it anyway.

Years of slogging through the trenches this way is what develops skill. Suddenly you’re a Jill of all trades: whatever it is, you can handle it.


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