How do people get good at things? Especially, those people who are astoundingly good — how on earth do they get that way?
No matter who your favorite musicians are (or writers, athletes, actors, artists, cooks), , you can bet they do three things. These are things that anyone, who is good at anything, does, regardless of what degree of natural gift they may have started out with. And the magic of these three things supersedes natural talent every time.
Here are the three things people who are good at what they do, do without fail: Practice. Rehearse. Perform.
This turns out to be obvious, but even those who do these things don’t always know they do them.
Practice (as I define it) is fooling around on a daily basis in the area one is drawn to and aspires toward, without intended outcome or evaluation of results. It’s the intentional absence of these absence of these two factors — results and evaluation — that give Practice its power. Counterintuitively, and often discovered accidentally by those who do it , such Practice turns out to be the ultimate fertilizer for creation and excellence in almost any field.
Practice is not an early version of something else, it is not a draft. It is play. You show up, noodle a bit, hang out, experiment. Have fun, even if on a particular day it’s not all that much fun. On a good day, maybe you surprise yourself or discover something in the area your fooling around with, but you’re not trying to do that.
Except, it’s not correct to say, “on a good day.” Because every day you do Practice is a good day. This is true no matter how it feels, whether it’s easy or boring, insightful or bleh.
Because it’s done for its own sake, Practice is a process, not an action taken to produce a product. Since there is no desired outcome, there’s no way to Practice wrong. Since there is also no evaluation of whatever you might be practicing and the material you might produce doing it, it doesn’t matter in the least whether whether what you did during Practice was, (if you analyzed it objectively, brilliant or mediocre.
Imagine the freedom! (It’s yours for the taking. The doing. The practicing and the Practice. Though I think the magic only kicks in fully when you do it every day, for awhile.)
What does Practice give us freedom from? Two otherwise universal tyrannies: anxiety about results and harsh self-judgement.
This means that Practice also offers us a freedom to.
To experiment, mess around, try stuff that makes no sense, make what might have been mistakes if you were judging or if you had a specific outcome in mind, but since you’re not doing either, well, maybe that was a mistake or maybe that was a wow or maybe something that you thought was a mistake became a wow, or maybe you figured out how not to do something.
Practice gets you comfortable and friendly with your instrument, whether it’s your voice (for a singer or writer), the dobro or flute (for a musician), your body (for an athlete, dancer, yogi). Practice is the development of an unconditional relationship: it’s how we say to our instruments, “You matter to me. I love you, I want to spend time with you, even when it doesn’t go that well. I’m always curious about you. You interest me deeply. Every time we’re together, even and especially when I think I don’t want to hang out, you never, ever fail to show me something.”
I said this relationship was unconditional, but the truth is, this relationship has one condition, and only one: you show up every day and do Practice.
Practice, as I understand it, doesn’t “make perfect.” Perfect is an end-point in itself, a goal achieved. But if practice is intentionally goal-free, it doesn’t have an end. It is ongoing, a marriage between a person and his or her instrument (or, if you prefer — we all find our own terms for this mysterious force — her or his muse, or ingredients, or craft).
Understood thus, practice makes practice.
And it’s forever.
Rehearsing is almost the same as practice, but with three gigantic differences.
1: Rehearsal does have a specific intended outcome.
While there’s still an element of fooling around and experimentation once you’re Rehearsing, it’s no longer the whole enchilada, as it is with Practice. Once you reach Rehearsal, it’s for something. If you have to decide which songs will be in the second set, you are no longer doing Practice (as I define it) any more: you’re rehearsing.
2: Rehearsal is always, at a certain point, repetitive and possibly boring.
Once the second set songs are decided, you do ’em over and over again, until you decide on the way that sounds best to you. Then you do it that way, over and over, until it’s as perfect as you can get it.
That’s Rehearsal, not Practice.
For writers, Rehearsal is a first draft of an intended novel, or article, or poem (a first draft which is usually famously crappy, according to, among others, Ernest Hemingway and Annie Lamott; necessarily, for as Julia Cameron puts it, “We have to be willing to be bad artists if we want to be good artists.”).
Then editing, rewriting, editing again, rewriting. All Rehearsal.
Again and again, until it’s as close to perfect as we can get it. Then we perform it (for writers, that’s the day the manuscript goes to the printer or appears in the bookstores, or the moment we allow our hovering forefinger to hit ‘publish.’)
Thus, 3: because Rehearsal has an intended outcome, it always has an element of pressure and anxiety.
Practice does not.
Performance, as I define it, is where we show the world what we’ve done. (Thus publishing, as I see it, is Performance. “Publish”, after all, means “to make public.”)
Rarely will everyone be wowed by our Performance, but some may be and others probably will be, or at least will like it. And even if not, in any case, we’ve given it
our best shot, and no doubt grown through doing so.
And the backstory of our Performance? The effort and showing up we did, the Practice, the Rehearsal?
If we did these enough, when we perform, that work won’t show. It’ll look effortless.
And, too, if we did these enough, the anxieties which inhere in Rehearsal (including the just-before stage-fright), fall away at the moment of Performance.
Because at that moment, the performer as such is absent. Because he, or she, as an individual, as that person who worked, got bored, got anxious, got tired, didn’t know if it was any good, questioned whether it was worth it, but kept on slogging away — that person is gone.
There is just the music. Or the ballet, or the game, or the play. Both performer and audience leave the concert hall or stadium transported, intoxicated.
“That,” we say, when we finally have words again, “was a great show.”
MY OWN WRITING PRACTICE
I practice writing every day. This is aside from my “real writing.”
I have 50 published books of “real writing.” But I can show you the cupboard of Practice notebooks, way more than 50, which I’ve kept on and off since I was sixteen (I’m in my sixties now, and these days there is no “off”; I practice every single day). I can show you the files of Rehearsals, too: unpublished novels, a biography, memoiristic pieces, drafts of poems. Plenty of those, as well.
But all the material generated in all that Practice I did and do? I almost never read over what I’ve written. It’s not for that. It’s not a journal; it’s not a rough draft. Though I suspect occasionally it contains good writing, surely just as often it does not. How good a practice is or isn’t is incidental: it’s not intended to be evaluated. The whole point of practice is that it has no point as such, beyond showing up and doing it.
I keep saying this because it is the bedrock truth of Practice, and is what makes its effect over time revolutionary.
Mostly when practicing I write in longhand, though occasionally I Practice on the laptop. Or if circumstance has conspired so I have neither
notebook or laptop, I’ll do it on a paper napkin, or the scratch-pad in a hotel room, or a piece of paper borrowed from the receptionist.
Sometimes I do my practice at home; sometimes I take my notebook and pens to a cafe or library and work/play there.
Sometimes I free-write, or do an acrostic (Google either of these terms if you’re unfamiliar with them). Sometimes I do haiku, or limericks, or work on a sonnet. Sometimes I do a form called Sacred List (mentioned in a story about the artist Hawa Diallo, which appeared in the February 2016 Oprah Magazine, and in which my workshop, Fearless Writing™, is also mentioned).
Sometimes I collage or decorate or otherwise fancy up a Practice notebook; sometimes I use a plain old cheap un-decorative spiral notebook from the nearest CVS.
Although I have done Practice at varying times of day over the years, it became far more consistent once I started doing it at the same time every day. And the steadiness of this consistency was so satisfying that I have stuck with it for years now. For me, that time is within an hour or so of getting up. Practice takes me anywhere from ten minutes to half an hour, most days.
But you might want to do it at midnight, or at different moments as you find them throughout the day (this is often the case for those whose lives revolve around mothering young or disabled children, or caregiving for elders).
But the point is this: I do Practice every day. No exceptions. No days off (I wouldn’t want them). And the even more important point is this: if you want to be good at something, Practice it.
No matter what other challenges are going on in your life. I can promise you this: Practice, over time, contains innumerable gifts, including those that will give you the chops to meet the very challenges which at one point or another made the doing of Practice appear impossible. I xcant say
Now, at any given time, I may or may not be at work on what most might call “real writing” — that is, writing with an outcome in mind; I have a deadline, I’m under contract, I’m finishing a novel. In my paradigm, as you know by now, this is Rehearsal, which is why I put quotes around “real writing.”
But Practice? I do it every day.
I love it. And It loves me.
I’ll say it again: true Practice is intentionless, evaluation-free, done for itself, an unconditional act of relationship.
In true practice, nobody is judging you… not even you.
FROM PERFORMANCE BACK TO PRACTICE
Writing well, like doing anything well, is a lot of work. Why do we do it?
While it’s true that sometimes a reader closes a book and sighs with pleasure, I can’t, in my heart of hearts, say that I write to cause this reaction. As a reader, I love having this reaction… but if I as a writer set out consciously to try to create it for others, with the conscious intent of astonishing readers, well, I just block myself right into a non-writing corner.
That words which I’ve written do, sometimes, satisfy readers — this delights, humbles, and pleases me.
But in my heart’s core, each and every time I receive praise, 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 in Practice, whether I feel like it or not, taking refuge in something bigger than I can understand, but in which I trust, perhaps more completely than any other force in the world.
Something that’s also bigger than my fears.
And so I return to practice.
Because every time I do, even and especially when I think I don’t want to, Practice never, ever fails to teach me something.
Because the act of writing is itself a generous teacher.
Because nothing is wasted on the writer. And to be a writer, you have only to do one thing: write. And that begins, and ends, with Practice.
This blog post is part of Crescent’s Nothing is Wasted on the Writer series.
The banner illustration on this post is a photograph of a 2012 painting by Sam Messer, called The Maker of Things. It hangs in the lobby of one of my favorite hotels, The Study at Yale.