Quick, think of your favorite musician.
Bonnie Raitt? Yo-Yo Ma? Doesn’t matter. John Coltrane? Lady Gaga? Eric Clapton? Youssou N’Dour? Doesn’t matter.
Dolly Parton, Mirian McPartland, Howlin’ Wolf, Luciano Pavarotti? Still doesn’t matter.
Because whoever he or she is, he or she did (and, if alive, still does) three things that anyone, who is good at anything, does.
Those three things: Practice. Rehearse. Perform.
Practice is playing around.
Practice doesn’t have a specific intended or desired outcome. It is goal-free. It’s just fooling around.
Practice is getting familiar, loosey-goosey. Comfortable with your instrument. That instrument could be your voice or the dobro. If you’re a dancer or a yogi or an athlete, your body. If you’re a writer, words on paper or screen, flowing through your fingertips. Because it’s practice, it’s process — not outcome — and there’s no way to do it wrong. You’re just showing up. Hanging out. Having fun, even if on a particular day it’s not all that much fun. It’s experimenting.
Let me repeat: practice doesn’t have a specific intended or desired outcome.
Practice is how a musician says to his or her instrument — or, if you like, to his or her muse — “You matter to me. I want to hang out with you. I want to do that just because. Because I love you. Like you. Am curious about you. Because you interest me deeply. Because every time I do, even and especially when I think I don’t want to, you never, ever fail to show me something.”
Rehearsing is almost the same as practice, but with two gigantic differences.
The first is, rehearsal does have a specific intended outcome.
Yeah, there’s still an element of fooling around, experimentation, and learning, always, but hey — we’re here to decide which songs are going to be in the second set or in the next recording. And once we do, we’re here to do them over and over again, in different ways. Rehearse until we decide on the way that sounds best to us. Then rehearse that way. Over and over.
Thus the second difference: rehearsal is always, at a certain point, repetitive. When we’ve decided what sounds best, we’re gonna play songs that way until it’s as perfect as we can get it. All while knowing that perfect is an illusion.
For writers, rehearsal starts with writing a first draft of an intended novel, or article, or poem (a first draft which is usually famously crappy, according to Ernest Hemingway and Annie Lamott).
Then editing, rewriting, editing again, rewriting.
Again and again, until it’s as close to perfect as we can get it. Again, all while knowing that perfect is an illusion.
And performance? That’s where we show the world what we’ve done. Everyone won’t like it, of course, but we know we’ve given it our best shot. And those who do like it will really, really like it. And the odds are good that the backstory of our efforts — the practice, the rehearsals — won’t show a bit. It’ll look effortless.
(If the effort shows, the musician or writer or athlete didn’t practice and/or rehearse enough).
And — here’s the most amazing part — all that work and effort and anxiety will fall away at the moment of performance.
Because the performer, too, will be absent. Because he, or she, as an individual, as that person who worked, got bored, got anxious, got tired, didn’t know if it would work out, questioned whether it was worth it — that person is gone.
There is just the music. Both the musician and the audience leave the concert hall or stadium transported, intoxicated. “That,” we say, when we finally have words again, “was a great show.”
I practice writing every day. Yes, absolutely pointlessly. This is aside from my “real writing.” I have 50 published books of “real writing.” But I can show you the cupboard of notebooks, way more than 50, kept on and off since I was sixteen (I’m in my sixth decade now, and these days there is no “off”; I practice every single day).
Sometimes I write in longhand, sometimes on the laptop. Sometimes I “freewrite.” Sometimes I do an acrostic (never with just a single word per line, however). Sometimes I make lists (views I remember from various windows; interactions with birds; things I have lost; beliefs I used to have). I design weekly prompts and flukey assignments for Fearless Writing alumni on a secret page which they get when they graduate; often I do these right along with them.
Sometimes I write haiku. Sometimes I do my practice at home; sometimes I take my notebook and little bag of pens to a cafe and work/play there. Sometimes I use a lot of jazzy colors, or doodle and sketch or Zentangle along with or in and out of the words, or on a notebook’s cover.
And I almost never read over what I’ve done. It’s not for that. The whole point of practice is that it has no point as such. It’s intentionless.
It’s for the doing. It’s practice in the way people mean when they say, “I have a meditation practice” or “I have a yga practice.” It’s the way I prostrate, daily, resting my head on the sacred feet of creation, taking refuge in something much bigger than I can understand but in which I trust, perhaps more completely than any other force in the world.
That something is also bigger than all my fears.
Most days I also “rehearse.” To me, a first draft of anything intentional is rehearsal. Ditto, second draft. And third. And fourth. And more. (The best piece of non-fiction I ever wrote required eighteen major rewrites. It went from 27 pages to four.
But, published, it doesn’t read that way. It doesn’t sound labored, though much effort was needed to write, finally, effortlessly.
Rehearsal’s also all the drafts in response to others’ responses to prior rehearsals. These others might be editors, people in one’s critique group, a trusted friend or lover.
I usually don’t show others what I’m working on until I’ve been over it quite a few times myself. When I do show work in progress, especially at the beginning, I am very selective about whom I show it to. I want to know where whatever it is works and where it doesn’t, but not much more. I don’t want anyone to tell me exactly how to fix it. I’m aware that it, and I, may still be pretty tender. If I and the piece I am writing were a garden of enthusiastic seedlings, I don’t want to be stomped on. I want to be thinned, weeded maybe. And perhaps fertilized just a little, watered.
The writer’s cast of producer/directors
Usually my partner is the first to hear or read what I’ve been rehearsing.
In the old days, I used to often show these tender, just barely rehearsed starts to my late mother, the writer/editor Charlotte Zolotow. But by the time she reached 90, she was far past this role, and now she has left this world altogether. (Though, like many of the authors she edited, such as Bob Lipsyte and Patricia Maclachlan, I do hear her soft, persistent voice from time to time as I work, pointing out with gentle but deadly accuracy where I have been less than authentic).
But Charlotte was the kind of editor publishing just doesn’t offer much any more. She used to say, “I publish writers, not books.” A point of view almost as extinct as is her very first profession: stenographer.
Sometimes, my “others” are the Second Saturday works-in-progress writing group I facilitate six months of the year. (“Facilitate” as a verb makes me break out in a rash, but I don’t have a better one. Yet.).
Somewhere in here, my beloved agent takes a look. Though she is tough — I have to be sure the work I show her, and my relationship to it, is sturdy enough to bounce back should it get a stomp or two from her. But she, my agent, is good. I don’t always like what she says, but I usually wind up agreeing with it, and I never doubt that she wants what’s best for the piece of writing.
In recent years, as publishing has transformed with the advent of the internet and the countless opportunities and horrors self-publishing offers, with almost no more attentive, line by line editors around, I have, on request from some former students, morphed into a mentor/coach for a few individual writers, becoming the (I hope) wise and helpful steward of their work, helping them discover what they want to say and finding places where they can say it and pointing out where they’re dancing around it, not saying it. Or not saying it yet. “That moment when he’s alone with the strange horse, after he parks the car by the pasture and the horse wanders up,” I might say. “This is the moment, in his interaction with the horse, where you have a chance to reveal what his character is like when no one’s looking. ” (If you are interested in being mentored by me… there you go. )
Rehearsal for publication
If and when a particular piece of writing has been accepted for publication, a whole new round of rehearsal begins. This is the kind of writing called “revisions.”
Some writers love this part. Some hate it. Me, at times, both.
Revisions-as-rehearsals are not as scary as those private first draft rehearsals, where one is usually making stuff up out of the most vaguely felt and pieced-together mash-up of ideas, hopes, experiences, and imagined material. Revisions are not as scary, but not as exhilarating.
The quality of revisions-as-rehearsals depends greatly on the editor.
A good editor pulls from you that which you have not quite said. She or he finds the soft punky spots, where the reader’s foot would go right through the floor: where the writer has written inaccurately, or lazily, or without specificity, or untruthfully.
A good editor may make you wince, but his or her comments will also make you think. Spade over what you’ve done. Aerate your ideas. You read the editor’s comments, he or she takes you out to lunch, and suddenly you get excited again. You say, “Yeah, unh-hunh, now I get it. I think. Sort of. Maybe! Let me get in there and see…”
A good editor gets you wanting to go back to work. Your same-old piece, that you’ve been hanging out with so long, is suddenly fresh and eager, and calling to you, yelling to you, standing by the door stamping its feet, saying, “Let’s go, let’s go!” But because publishing is changing, as I’ve noted, there are very few good editors still around.
A bad editor? A bad editor, in traditional publishing, used to be a necessary evil: necessary only because every book got assigned an editor, who was gatekeeper to publication.If you wanted to get published, you had an editor, sometimes a bad editor.
Some bad editors were just plain dumb. They made you do extra work that didn’t make sense to you; that was unreasonable, that didn’t serve the book, that went against what you were trying to say.
Whether benignly dumb or on an ego trip, here’s what interactions with bad editors were not, and what they should have been, and were with a good editor: a conjoining of two diverse minds and sensibilities (writer and editor), working together, with discernment and respect, co-creating the best possible book/performance.
If you got saddled with a bad editor and you want to get published, you went along with as much as you could stomach. You picked your battles; some things, you realized, you could not “go along to get along” on. And if you don’t do it too often, sometimes you, the writer, could just say, “No,” to the editor (and oh how you wished they had been the kind of editor to whom a “Yes!” could have been uttered truthfully and with enthusiasm).
And you could also say the largest “No” and buy back your contract, and look for and hopefully find another publisher, with an editor who, though she or he may make you work your ass off, makes every rehearsal of the book, every rewrite, count. For a hard editor is not a bad editor. Unless she, or he, is.
I’ve had a few superb editors, a lot of so-so, somewhat competent ones (they improved the books in some ways, but in others did not, and wasted a lot of my time). And I’ve had a couple who sucked. And I’ve bought back contracts a couple of times. And/or, when it came time for the next book, “divorced” publishers who saddled me with bad editors.
But now, as I say, self-publishing and the Internet have created an entirely new set of options. There are huge opportunities and equally chasm-like pitfalls. Hence, to my own astonishment and delight, I have become an editor/coach/mentor. I try to remember and channel the good editors, starting with my mother.
Performance… and practice
Writing well, like playing music well, is a lot of work. Why do we — writers, musicians — do it?
Because sometimes a reader closes a book and sighs with pleasure. Says, in effect, “That was a really great show.”
But you know what? I can’t, in my heart of hearts, say I write to cause this reaction. I love having this reaction as a reader… but if I set out consciously to try to create it as a writer, if I wrote because I wanted to astonish readers, I would freak myself right out of writing a word.
That words which I’ve written do, sometimes, give something big to my readers: that’s extra. That’s gravy. I’m delighted. I’m humbled. I’m pleased. And in my heart’s core, each and every time I get this reaction, even as I may be saying politely and truthfully, “Thank you so much,” I swear to you that inside myself I am prostrating, resting my forehead on the sweet, beloved feet of creation itself, mysterious, strange and compelling, just as I do every morning when I practice.
Unlike a musician’s transcendent “great show” moment, we writers have our instances where we are emptied out (in the best possible way), transported, intoxicated in the act of writing itself, not performing as such. Not every day, not every time. But sometimes while practicing and sometimes while rehearsing, it comes.
And so I return to practice. I say to my writing, “”You matter to me. I want to hang out with you. I want to do that just because. Because I love you. Like you. Am curious about you. Because you interest me deeply. Because every time I do, even and especially when I think I don’t want to, you never, ever fail to show me something.”
Because nothing is wasted on the writer.