My friend Sean Craven recently wrote an essay about practice. (Has anyone not heard of Ericsson’s 10,000 hours of practice makes an expert theory?) The entire essay is interesting, but what particularly struck me was this section:
But I have noticed not just in myself, but in most of the serious beginning writers I know, a sense of stern duty, of feeling that we must steel ourselves for the rigors to come. Writing these days feels like a polar expedition, where we expect to lose a finger or nose to frostbite in the process of starving to death while surrounded by bears.
I laughed out loud in recognition, of both myself and many of my writer friends. In the last few months, I’ve lost contact with that touchstone of living an artistic life: remembering that I love what I do, and making sure I continue to love it.
It’s so easy to become concentrated on the duty aspects of learning a craft. I must practice this many hours per week, or I must meet this minimum daily word count. I must write x number of short stories, or add x number of songs to my repertoire. I must work diligently on mastering a, b, and c issues that I know are holding me back from being the artist I want to be. I need to submit or audition more, write better and faster, keep up with Writer K who seems to be achieving SO MUCH MORE than me in the same period of time. And maybe I should consider attending another workshop or masterclass.
It’s not that these goals are inherently wrong or bad (except possibly for keeping up with Writer K, which is a slippery slope filled with disappointment). But when your brain is filled with the ear-splitting chorus of duty, sometimes it becomes hard to remember why you started in the first place. In other words, once a beloved hobby transitions into being “work”, how do we keep the fire going?
I faced a similar transition when I moved from office work to teaching music. I worried that by making my living with music, I might lose my love for it. This fear proved to be unfounded because:
1. Teaching music was infinitely better than the office work I had previously been doing.
2. I really like teaching and working with kids and teens.
3. I really do love music and singing and particularly musical theater that much.
4. Finally, and I think this point is crucial, my job was to spread a passion for music, so I was constantly reminding myself of how cool and amazing music was and pointing out these elements to others.
I had to make some small adjustments to keep myself going: I transitioned away from teaching how to sing pop music, for example, because it began boring me to tears. And my job was certainly not free of duty, not by a long shot. But when I closed my studio this summer, I still loved music, singing, and musical theater just as much as when I started. Thinking about this now, I realize I achieved no small feat in keeping my passion alive.
It is my belief that I love writing, fiction, and narrative just as much as I love singing and musical theater. I’m just so weighed down by duty that I forget to think about the positive, and unlike at my studio, one of my principle duties isn’t to show how amazing writing can be. On the contrary, I sometimes feel a certain amount of grumbling is required just so people understand that I’m actually working at all.
So I’m going to be trying out a little experiment for the next few weeks. When I sit down to list my five happy things, I’m going to add something to the end: reminding myself of concrete reasons why I love to write. My hope is that this exercise will allow me to enjoy writing more thoroughly, not because it’s an item on my to-do list but for the sheer joy of it. When I stop and think, it doesn’t take me long to realize what a privilege it is for me to have artistic and challenging work. I’m officially giving myself the time to remember.