Natalie Goldberg, author of the famous book, Writing Down the Bones, recently favored us writers with a new book entitled The True Secret of Writing. She admits that this is a bold title, then continues on to mention that her small treatises throughout the book are a culmination of what she’s learned after decades of putting pen to paper. A bold move on her part. I’m okay with her claiming to have discovered the true secret of writing, and I’m sure each reader will come away with a different set of insights. I’ll share a few of mine with you.
The idea that has stayed with me since I read the book is about a principle she calls “practice”. We understand more about practice with regard to playing sports, and we can remember the sounds of a beginner practicing some musical instrument. Squeak. Squawk. And it’s not a long jump to make the leap between practice and execution with sports and music. Go through the motions and sounds long enough and soon they become refined habit. Now, this is Goldberg’s new application that I liked: Whatever we want to be meaningful and give us some sense of success or expertise requires practice. A no-brainer? Not really, when put in the context of practicing.
Take writing. We writers may know, believe, and agree that writing daily is important, even essential. But, who of us had thought to call it “practice”. Practice is a way to keep our writing brains oiled and active, but again, I don’t think of it as “practice”. Instead of viewing daily writing as a maintenance item, calling it “practice” gives a bigger connotation, such as improving, getting better, sharpening the saw—as Stephen Covey has labeled one of his seven habits. Practice is different from going through the motions. It’s being intentional, refining the craft, paying attention to the results and wanting them to get better over time.
If this is a way to apply the concept of “practice” to writing, I'll take the idea a little further. Perhaps this notion of practice is what separates mundane outcomes from memorable, creative, outstanding results, almost regardless of the application. We see examples of this daily. For instance, I drive my car sixty-some miles for service, even for the simple stuff, like rotating tires. Why? Because that dealership shows evidence that their technicians are trained to practice daily, not simply change oil, fix leaks, get rid of squeaks and squawks. They are instructed to become experts. Or our doctors-of-choice. Their business is called “practicing medicine”, and we respond to those who truly practice their art. We decide they know what they are doing, and we trust them.
At the beginning of a school year, Natalie Goldberg asks her students to choose a practice they will do for the endurance of the class. Answers vary, of course, from lose twenty-give pounds, to run five miles a day, to finish their novels. Then Goldberg adds her practice-goal for the year to the students’ list: sit for twenty minutes per day. What? I thought writers’ practice would be to get active and write hundreds of words every day. But this is her True Secret of Writing. To show our determination to write by signaling to the unconscious the seriousness of our intention. She says it reinforces and supports our “yes” to life for no reason—not because you were good or bad or worthy or kind or successful, but because, like a blade of grass or thunder or a cloud, you are an alive writer. What practice builds in us, she goes on to say, is a true confidence that can’t be derived from the usual outward signs of success—fame, money, beauty, but from the fact that you show up over and over again. You do what you say you are going to do; you stay in the driver’s seat.
I’ve also decided that if I don’t intentionally choose what I will practice regularly, then what I am doing instead becomes the activity or thought or attitude that is being practiced and will be reinforced just as much as a carefully chosen goal. Perhaps we can’t not practice and make something into a habit. Whatever we are doing is practice and stays alive no matter what. I'd like to know I'm making a choice, not accepting what's easiest or most convenient. Practice, practice, practice--a new idea.