How does anyone get good at anything? Especially, those people who are astoundingly good — how on earth do they get that way?
No matter who your favorite musician is (or writer, athlete, actor, artist), he or she does three things.
The things that anyone, who is good at anything, does.
Those three things: Practice. Rehearse. Perform.
Practice (as I define it) is fooling around, without intended outcome or evaluation of results. It is in a sense play. You show up, noodle a bit, hang out. Have fun, even if on a particular day it’s not all that much fun. You experiment.
Because it’s done for its own sake, it’s process. Since there is no desired outcome, there’s no way to practice wrong. Imagine the freedom! (It’s yours for the taking. The doing. The practicing. Though I think the magic only kicks in fully when you do it every day, for awhile.)
Practice is getting comfortable in relationship to your instrument, whether it’s your voice (for a singer or writer), the dobro (for a musician), your body (for an athlete, dancer, yogi). Practice is how we say to our instruments, “You matter to me. I want to spend time with you. I’m curious about you. You interest me deeply. Every time we’re together, even and especially when I think I don’t want to, you never, ever fail to show me something.”
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 instead an ongoing relationship, between a person and his or her craft, or instrument, or, if you prefer, muse.
Understood thus, practice makes practice.
Rehearsing is almost the same as practice, but with three gigantic differences.
One: rehearsal does have a specific intended outcome.
While there’s still an element of fooling around and experiment, once you reach the rehearsal phase, it’s for something. If you have to decide which songs will be in the second set, you aren’t practicing (as I define it) any more: you’re rehearsing.
Two: rehearsal is always, at a certain point, repetitive. 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 rehearsing.
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 Ernest Hemingway and Annie Lamott; necessary, 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 the moment we allow our hovering forefinger to hit ‘publish.’)
Thus, three: because rehearsal has an intended outcome, it always has an element of pressure and anxiety. Practice does not.
Performance is where we show the world what we’ve done. (“Publish”, after all, means “to make public.”) Rarely will everyone be wowed by our performance, but some may be. At least some will probably 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 efforts? The practice, rehearsals? If we did these enough, when we perform, that work won’t show. It’ll look effortless.
And, too, if we did it 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 would work out, questioned whether it was worth it — that person is gone.
There is just the music. Both musician and 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. 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 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.
Sometimes when practicing I write in longhand, sometimes on the laptop. 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 freewrite, or do an acrostic (you can Google either of these terms if you’re unfamiliar with them). Sometimes I do haiku, or limericks. Sometimes I make lists (views I remember from various windows; interactions with birds; things I have lost; beliefs I used to have).
If you’d like to try writing practice in this manner — intentionless, outcome-free — and to do so with a few tools and techniques and some gentle direction to get you started, try my Fearless Writing™ Dailies: Practice Makes Practice… 21 free days of how-to: different practice forms and some encouragement, popping up in your in-box daily, along with a little booklet midway through listing these and many others form you can do. If you like the experience, you’ll know enough so you may well decide to go for self-guided practice after Day 21.
Or, if it turns out you like having that daily nudge and surprise from me, after the 21 days you can then sign up for a daily Fearless / PMP e-mail, for a monthly fee (about as much as three lattes a month). But I suggest you start with the free ones.
(I know a lot of people say “It’s my gift to you” as a sales come-on. But the 21 days really is my gift to you… I believe in the practice of power that much. You’ll know enough, if you do those 21 days every single day in the method I offer, to never ever stop, whether or not you continue to work with me.)
P.S. All those practices I do? I almost never read over what I’ve written. It’s not for that. Though I suspect occasionally it is good writing, surely just as often it’s 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’ll say it again: true practice is intentionless.
In true practice, nobody is judging you… not even you.
Writing: from practice to rehearsal
Most days I also “rehearse.” To me, a first draft of anything intentional is rehearsal, aka “real work.”. 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.)
How do you go from practice to rehearsal? Editing. Self-editing, editing by others… and that, dear colleague, dear fellow writer, filled with the desperate bullet-holes of eagerness and self-doubt as you probably are, is a topic which deserves its own post.
And you shall have it. Just not today (look for the post on editing in mid-May, when I will salute my mother, Charlotte Zolotow, a legendary editor).
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 when I 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 s also bigger than my fears.
We writers have our instances where we are emptied out (in the best possible way), transported, intoxicated by the act of writing itself. Not every day, not every time. Rarely during performance; more often on the way there: sometimes while practicing and sometimes while rehearsing, that transcendence just comes.
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.