Practice, Practice, Practice: A Writer Joins the World



I’m writing 1000 words/ weekday on this second first draft of my novel. I’m constantly reminding myself that part of the purpose of early drafting is to write too much, to learn, discover, invent, to tell myself the story so that I can transform it into scene and figure out how to dole it out to my reader.

Yesterday, on my class call, I went on a bit of a rant. But I was pleased with the truth of it and thought I’d share some of it with you.

We have a horn player in a professional and well-respected symphony who is writing his first novel in our group. And he is often participating in calls on his way to rehearsals.

And it occurred to me that writing is the only art where people want not to have to practice. We not only want this, we expect it, and are disappointed when much of what we write is not good enough for public consumption. We want everything we do to be performance—to be consumed (and paid for) with delight by our customers.

Well, maybe we’d be okay with about a 90/ 10 ratio of performance to practice. If we had to cut 10%, we could deal with that. But as in any art and any sport, the ratio is something more like the reverse of that: 10/90. A runner doesn’t go a block or two here or there, saving up the real push for the Big Event Marathon. A pianist doesn’t insist that her seven-year-old lessons be included in her Carnegie Hall debut.

Why then do we writers feel that we are being “inefficient” if we write scenes several times before we nail it, or if we throw out 2/3rds of a draft?

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  1. This is a brilliant rant. I’m guilty of expecting the same for myself–and now I will view it all as “practice,” a much MUCH healthier perspective on writing early drafts. 🙂

  2. Thanks, Christine! I know you are a dedicated practitioner, which means, whether we like it or not, lots of practice on the road to making it perfect. Or perfect enough . . .

  3. Spot on!! Not only that, but practicing is fun! You get to play with words!

  4. Thanks for that really cogent observation, Elizabeth. No one is looking over your shoulder. And the Creative Writing Police won’t knock at the door.

    Would you say, though, that there are different points in the story? If it’s a short story, I can practice for the whole time until it sort of arranges itself. But in a novel, I reach a point where I know that I’m taking paths that aren’t detours back to the main road. Then I’ll get lost in a way that can feel overwhelming And of course I have to throw everything out.

  5. You are exactly right, Elizabeth! And thanks so much for the reminder. I think many writers expect instant perfection from themselves, and it can be crippling. I remember hearing Peter Cameron say that every great novel has a flaw, and how freeing that was. It’s not that one wants to write clumsily or badly. But that’s usually part of the process. Dani Shapiro touches on this in Devotion – she says, “In novels – as in life – there is no perfection. We do the best we can with the tools we have at our disposal . . . there is nobility in the effort, courage in the dailiness – the doggedness.” I try to remember that all I really have to do is practice.

  6. @Judith–Thanks. You have such a good attitude about writing. Always inspiring!

    @Thaisa–I have to think about this more. Of course, even if there are recipes, they’ll be different for each writer. Knowing your own process is a true gift. But throwing the whole thing out, often more than once, seems to be a part of the process for many great novels and novelists (Junot Diaz, Kiran Desai and–in memoir–Mary Karr).

    @Sylvia–I keep hearing about Dani Shapiro’s book. I’ll have to pick it up. But yes, if I can encourage *you* as you write, I’ll know I’ve done my job. If we wait to write perfectly–or, sometimes, even well–we may miss what would come after the bad practice writing with which we could otherwise begin.


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