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Posts Tagged ‘practice’

I read some writing advice recently that I think is useful both for writers, and for the people who would like to understand what our lives are like a bit more clearly:

“Don’t quit. It’s very easy to quit during the first 10 years. Nobody cares whether you write or not, and it’s very hard to write when nobody cares one way or the other. You can’t get fired if you don’t write, and most of the time you don’t get rewarded if you do. But don’t quit.”

–ANDRE DUBUS

This is so very true. Nobody cares deeply about my writing except me. Which is why I can be kind of a hard-ass when it comes to my schedule. And why I care so very much about my priorities and goals. Because if I don’t care, that’s it. They will never happen. End of story.

Becoming good at things takes a long time. Even if some of it comes easy to you, it takes a long time, just less of a long time. It took me twelve years to become as good at singing as I wanted to be, and really more like fifteen to get it completely secured. I took off maybe a year during that period of my life, and the rest of the time, I sang and sang and sang some more. Even when I knew I sucked. Particularly when I knew I sucked.

This is how Nala practices getting better at writing. Or maybe how she practices becoming even cuter? Unclear.

This is how Nala practices getting better at writing. Or maybe how she practices becoming even cuter? Unclear.

When I first started writing, I wasn’t in it for the long haul. I don’t know if you can be, really, right when you’re starting out. There’s an experimental phase, when you try something out. See if you like it. See if you’re at all good at it. See if it has any meaning to you. See if this is a thing to which you can devote yourself. Because not everything will be. And if it’s not for you, then it’s not only okay to quit but a good idea. This level of commitment is not for everyone.

I noticed the shift when this changed for me. When writing became a true calling. When I realized I’d be writing anyway, even if I couldn’t turn it into a career. When writing became less about the desperation of wanting a particular project to sell and more about doing the work. When the writing became more interesting and all-consuming than what would happen afterwards. When whether this novel sells or not became less important because I’m already thinking about the next several potential novels to write.

Mind you, I’m not saying that I don’t care about my career or that I don’t care about publishing my novels. I do care, and I take the necessary steps towards that goal. But I care about the writing itself more, and knowing this makes doing the business and career stuff much easier. I want to become better not so I will then become published (although that would be great) but because I’m interested in becoming better for its own sake. I no longer have to look for external validation to reinforce my commitment. I’m committed, full stop.

The early stages of becoming a writer are so very much about not quitting. And putting in time and practice, and finishing things. And finding a way to hang in there through the rejection and the failure and the process of becoming better. And falling in love with telling stories, over and over again.

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Sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking we can have it all, but we can’t.

That’s really what priorities are all about. If we could have it all, we wouldn’t have to set priorities because we could do all the things. We’d have infinite resources: enough money to pay for life’s necessities and that trip to Bali and five new outfits and front row seats on Broadway. Enough time for a demanding career and friends and a relationship and a second job and kids and pets and vacations and hobbies and volunteering. Enough energy and brain space to keep track of it all.

The media tells us stories about how we can have it all. But the media lies. Penelope Trunk has written a few essays recently about high-powered career women–using Marissa Meyer and Sheryl Sandberg as her examples–and how they don’t ever see their kids. Because in order to be that high-powered, it’s necessary to work something like 100-hour weeks. That’s more than fourteen hours every day of the week. So really, there’s very little time for anything else. My first instinct is to think, wow, those two women are among the most important in the Silicon Valley, and they have kids too, so they really do have it all. But they don’t. They’ve set priorities that have led them to where they are, and priorities always involve a trade-off.

  How many hours a day do you think she practices?                                                                                     Photo Credit: Melissa Maples via Compfight cc

It’s so much sexier to talk about priorities in terms of what you can accomplish with them, as opposed to what you have to give up. But the accomplishment and sacrifice come together. Do you remember that movie from the ‘80s, The Competition? It followed a group of professional pianists through a concerto competition, and it shows this idea so clearly. All of these pianists are so talented and accomplished, and in order to be excelling at such a high level, their lives consist almost entirely of practice and music and more practice and their coaches and travel and practice. One of the main plotlines is about how the two protagonists are reluctant to have a romantic affair together because it will take away from the necessary focus and drive to win the competition.

Priorities are set based on how much we want something, but they are also set based on what we’re willing to do without. You’re willing to not have much of a normal social life? Then you can be a concert pianist. You’re willing to not see your kids very often? Then you can be a high-powered CEO. Most of us don’t have choices that are quite as extreme, but the core principle remains the same.

We often forget the trade-offs other people are making. People used to think I was really lucky to be working only part-time at my music teaching business. And I felt very lucky. I was doing work I loved and felt made a difference, and I had time to spare for my personal creative projects. But I was also constantly worried about money and the sustainability of my business model as the price of living kept increasing. I didn’t have a company behind me that provided paid sick days and cheap health insurance and retirement matching. The worry and the skimping were worth it to me in order to have a life focused on artistic pursuits, but I was very aware of the choice I was making. And everyone has made similar compromises somewhere along the line.

We can’t have it all. Nobody can, and that’s okay, as long as we don’t buy into the myth. What’s fabulous is that we get to decide what is most important to us and make our life choices accordingly. We don’t need to have it all in order to lead happy and fulfilled lives. We just need to understand where our priorities lie.

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I spent a lot of time talking about writing last week, which meant it was an incredibly happy time for me. It also means I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about writing, and the process of becoming better at something, and what it really means to engage in and spend your time on the pursuit of mastery.

What I’ve found is this: There is the big picture, the goals/dreams we are pushing ourselves toward. In writing, this might be having a story bought by a certain magazine, or getting an agent, or getting a book deal, or getting into a certain program, or reaching a certain sales goal, or a hundred other goals. These goals can be a positive force in our development, keeping us motivated, focused, and business-minded, as long as we can stay resilient enough to weather the disappointments.

When we achieve one of our goals, we experience a spurt of joy. It is very exciting. If you are me, there might be clapping and bouncing and maniacal cackling. There is a time to savor the achievement.

Similarly, when we fail to achieve one of our goals, we experience a spurt of sadness and disappointment. If you are me, there might be sulking while playing solitaire or making loud “Hmmph!” noises. There is a time to lick wounds and regroup.

If everything in our process is basically working, then either way leads to the same result. The work. The practice. The study. The craft. The art.

Photo by Darwin Bell

The good news is wonderful; the bad news sucks. But what really matters is what happens in between these peaks and valleys. If you’re a writer, you write. If you’re a musician, you play. If you’re a painter, you paint. If you’re a chef, you cook. If you’re an entrepreneur, you come up with and implement ideas. And always, you are working, practicing, and striving to become better.

The bursts of joy and sorrow can be intense, but they don’t last. What does last is our relationship to our calling. The words. The story-telling. The breath. The process.

This is what it means to seek mastery.

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Elizabeth Bear recently wrote an essay in which she stated her intention to try not to self-denigrate herself out loud. You should go read it because it is thought-provoking and also because she references Sondheim in an awesome way, and who doesn’t love that?

That being said, it was a painful essay to read, at least for me. Yes, a great step would be for people to keep those tenacious feelings of self loathing to themselves so they don’t model them for others. Perhaps without the vocalization and implicit validation of those feelings, they will even lessen over time. But I can’t help but see the tragedy that those feelings of self-hatred and self belittlement are so prevalent in the first place.

In the comments section for the post, there is some mention of bragging, and how terrible it would be if one were to accidentally brag. (Okay, that’s not actually what is said, but that’s how it translated in my own head.) I mean, really, didn’t you know the world will END if you brag? Especially if you are a woman. Heaven forbid that you actually appreciate something awesome about yourself and want to share it with others. Heaven forbid that you give yourself a public pat on the back like I did last week. (And yes, I felt fairly uncomfortable about doing that, which was a signal to myself that it was important to do.) Humility is a great trait to embrace, but according to a recent Psychology Today blog post, “humble people are not self-deprecating but rather accurate in how they regard and present themselves.” And that is a big difference indeed.

I see this kind of unproductive behavior all the time. I talked to a friend this weekend who knows she is under charging for her valuable services. This is not the first friend I’ve talked to with this problem. I’ve talked to award-winning writers who are convinced they suck. On Twitter, a friend was talking about her husband, and how he gets a fabulous performance review every time at work, and then within a week or so he’s already back to worrying about how he’s doing. So many of us have so much trouble embracing our strengths and talents and believing in ourselves.

I recently read some blogging advice that said that in every post, you should be revealing all of your own weaknesses and mess-ups and personal disasters because that is what people like to read. And it’s true, there is a certain appealing rawness to that sort of writing, and certainly it’s not always the most helpful or communicative (or honest) to set oneself up as perfect. But aren’t success stories also instructive? Do I really have to focus only on the parts of me I don’t like in order to engage an audience? We as a culture seem to have this idea that we aren’t allowed to acknowledge our own awesomeness. Instead we wallow in insecurity and resentment, and at our low point, we try to tear other people down because we can’t raise ourselves up.

Photo by Kate McCarthy

Well, screw that! I love that Elizabeth Bear shows how this kind of behavior doesn’t just hurt ourselves, it hurts the people for whom we are role models–it is particularly brilliant because it tricks people into healthier behavior by playing on their concern for others. But can we take it a step further? Let’s have this concern for ourselves. Let’s acknowledge when we do something well, or when we come through in a difficult situation, or when we face our fears and do important work anyway. Let’s acknowledge that we are allowed to have something to say, that we are allowed to have opinions, that we are allowed to value our own expertise. Let’s acknowledge that we are worth it.

And let’s all take a moment to brag and celebrate our own awesomeness. (Oh, the horror!) Leave me a comment and tell me something amazing about you. It can be something small, like the way you rocked your To-Do list yesterday, or it can be something large, like how you raised millions of dollars for charity. Tell me how great you look in that outfit, or how many books you read last year, or the amazing high score you got on your GRE/SAT/whatever test you want. Tell me about the awards you’ve been nominated for (or won!), or the way you totally helped someone out, or how you met one of your goals. The sky is the limit, and the only rule is, you have to brag. About yourself.

I’ll start us off. I sold six stories in my first year of selling anything at all. I am super smart. I have a great smile. I spend most of my time doing things that I love and/or really care about. I read thirty books in the past three months. I am a passionate and dedicated blogger. I am an intellectual bad ass.

Yeesh, that was uncomfortable. And now it’s your turn. Guilt-free bragging! Who’s with me?

I can’t wait to read about how amazing you all are.

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Resistance against self publishing has been steadily crumbling. Last week a writer friend of mine who had been vehemently opposed to such ideas no more than a year ago even mentioned that she’d consider self publishing. I never expected to hear those words from her, and it’s a powerful illustration for me of the mainstream acceptance self-publishing has begun to receive.

However, it is still impossible to have a discussion about self publishing without bringing up the question of quality. How will readers find the good books in the mountains of soul-rending slush? How can a writer ensure she is releasing a quality book without a publisher’s stamp of approval?

Well, Kris Rusch hits the answer out of the park in her blog entry last week, so I’m not going to repeat everything she said. In a nutshell, there have been huge numbers of books published for a long time, so the needle in a haystack problem is nothing new and has solutions (or at least aides) firmly in place. Having something come out from a publisher is not a guaranteed mark of quality. And it is possible to hire outside help when self publishing, thereby ameliorating the quality problem.

But it occurs to me that the question we are really asking ourselves as writers is, “How will I know when I’m good enough?”

The answer is, you won’t. You might never be sure you’re good enough, even if you’re traditionally published. Especially if you’re a newer writer without the benefit of years of practice and experience. You just might not know.

I’ve known writers who think they’re seriously good, and I can barely read their prose. I’ve known writers who have won multiple awards and still aren’t convinced they’re any good at what they do. I’ve known writers who were doing all right but got complacent and their work suffered. And I’ve known writers who fall everywhere in the middle.

Have you ever heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect? It’s a cognitive bias wherein people who are less competent overestimate their own abilities. When in doubt, people tend to rate themselves as above average…way more people than could possibly actually be above average at a given skill. It turns out that when people aren’t competent at something, they also lack the knowledge to correctly assess their skill level. On the flip side, people who actually are above average suffer from false consensus effect: the false assumption that their peers are performing about the same as them, as long as they don’t have any evidence to the contrary. So they tend to underestimate their own abilities. This explains why sometimes in a conversation about a subject, the loudest person is someone who obviously doesn’t know what she’s talking about, while the quiet person listening in the corner might really know her stuff.

The problem with these phenomena is that you can’t necessarily tell if they’re happening to you (although if you’re worried about being good enough, that’s probably a positive sign). You can’t know for sure that you’re good enough. And you know what? You can’t know for sure if your novel gets picked up by a small press run by one editor either. And you can’t know for sure if your novel gets picked up by a big house…and then flops. And you can’t know if you sell a story to a big market like Asimov’s because after a few months, you might wonder if you’ll ever write another story that’s good enough.

And at some point in this cognitive tail chase, you have to decide if you are willing to stand behind your work. The answer might be no, and that’s fine. Then you wait and learn and practice and slowly become a better writer. Until the answer is yes, at which point you’re going to have to take the plunge, regardless of your method of publication, without knowing for sure if you are good enough.

And you know what I think? As long as you’re producing the best work you are able, that is good enough for right now.

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Sometimes when we are on the road to excellence, we get a little tired. We wish we were already there. We wish the road had a literal signpost saying “You have made it, and you can officially stop worrying and consider yourself to be awesome.” We wonder if we should have chosen something easier to do with our time. And we think that maybe there is a magic bullet, something we can do that will–Bibbidi bobbidi boo!–make us more amazing.

Let me make this part of the road simpler for you.

There are no short cuts. There are no magic bullets. There are no sure things. There are no easy paths. So if you want something quick and easy, excellence isn’t the end goal for you.

Photo by Trey Ratcliff

Sure, there are activities beyond diligent practice you can do that will help you progress. In writing, these include attending workshops, reading slush, seeking out critique experiences, reading craft books like The 10% Solution, etc. In singing, these include participating in master classes and workshops, auditioning, obtaining performance opportunities (however humble), studying with different teachers, etc. But none of these methods are foolproof, and not all of them will pan out.

Take the various Clarion workshops, for example. Working professional writers often cite their Clarion experience as being pivotal in their development as writers. These are the stories about Clarion that we hear most often. But then there are the writers like Alexandra MacKenzie, who took ten years after the workshop to be ready to learn from one of her instructors. Because you can’t always control the timing of these sorts of things. And there are also the Clarion attendees who stopped writing altogether; these are the ones we hear about the least, and yet they assuredly exist. Why? Because no way of leveling up is foolproof. No way of advancing works for every single person.

The path to excellence doesn’t often go flat like a plateau only to suddenly rocket steeply upwards into awesomeness. It is a gradual process, a long slow incline upwards. As Seth Godin says, it is a series of hills, one after another. Those who continue to improve keep choosing new hills to climb that are just on the edge of their abilities.

Sometimes the path feels like a flat-line that suddenly springs up, but this is an illusion. I saw it all the time with my students in voice lessons. They would work steadily and gradually improve, so gradually that they didn’t even notice it happening. They would struggle with a concept and it wouldn’t quite be clicking, and they’d get frustrated and discouraged. At this stage in the process, it was my job as the teacher to keep pushing them, keep encouraging them, keep them singing even if they were ready to throw in the towel. And then inevitably, they’d finally understand. Their bodies would finally coordinate correctly, the muscle memory would finally develop, the ideas we were talking about would finally make actual instead of theoretical sense. And they’d experience a leap in ability. A leap that was really a slow mounting of ability all along.

That leap in ability is just around the corner for all of us. If we practice diligently and intelligently (directed practice as opposed to blind repetition), we are pushing ourselves forward along the path. The leap may come next week or it may come next year. It may come after we take a month-long break or it may come after a few weeks of intense practice. We don’t know when it will come. Excellence requires us to have the faith to sustain us while we work.

We must believe the leap will come. But it won’t come because of magic. It will come because of our own hard work.

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I have devoted my life to the pursuit of excellence. The Greeks called this areté, striving for excellence, living up to the best of one’s potential, and facing challenges with courage and persistence. I wanted to be the best student. I wanted to become a skilled singer. I wanted to travel around the world. I wanted to be an effective teacher. And now I want to be a masterful writer.

Areté has been one of the driving forces of my life. I care about people and relationships, I care about my health (only because I can’t get away with being indifferent to it), and I care about excellence. That’s not to say I don’t have other interests, passions, and concerns, but these three things I think about every single day.

Here’s the thing about mastery: it tends to be all-consuming. It requires commitment to make your practice one of the highest priorities in your life. It requires patience and fortitude while you struggle to improve. It requires the willingness to be bad (especially when starting out) and the strength to fail.

J.S. Bach--an undisputed master of musical composition.

Mastery takes time. It’s not easy to achieve, and anyone who tells you otherwise doesn’t know what they’re talking about (or they’re looking for a snappy headline that will drive page views or book sales). I used to have voice students come in for lessons, expecting to become fabulous singers with a month or two of lessons (and barely any time outside of that devoted to practicing). Guess what? They never became fabulous singers. They learned some basics, and that’s as far as they went. (Strangely, parents understand this about their kids and usually (although not always) insist on more commitment. Adults were by far the most egregious in terms of thinking singing would be an easy skill to acquire.) Sure, some of my students could skate by on their natural skills for a while, only to eventually arrive at the realization that if they wanted serious chops, they’d have to put the effort in.

Mastery takes focus. I’ve always hated it when people ask me what my hobbies are. The question triggers me to think about how I spent my time. For years, the real answer was: I sing in different genres. I play the piano. I love to sight-read. I compose and write songs. I adore musical theater. I think about educational theories and new ways to help my students learn. I think about the psychology of singing.

Nowadays, I write and I read. I analyze and research and think and learn. I go to bookstores and conventions and signings. It’s not that I have no interests outside of writing, but I have to dig deeper to unearth them for casual conversation, and I have a tendency to relate my other interests to writing in one way or another. Have a bad experience? Well, it will be useful for my writing sometime down the line. Like RPGs or theater? Well, they let me study different ways to structure stories. Travel? Broadens my horizons and lets me envision worlds outside my daily one.

Mastery takes diligence. I love this example of Steve Martin. He devoted himself to learning how to perform live comedy and play the banjo. Then he changed over to making movies. Then he changed over to writing fiction. Then he began to focus some more on the banjo again (and won a Grammy for his efforts). The article (which you should go read because it is super interesting) posits that his success is due in no small part to his practice of diligence.

Commitment. Time. Focus. Diligence. And the dream of someday being able to accomplish what you can only imagine right now.

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