During my first year of college, before I came to terms with the fact that I had neither the desire nor the drive to continue as a music major, I spent a good portion of my life in practice booths. Tiny, tomb-like and entirely primitive by today’s standards, they encased virtuoso and struggling beginner alike in soundproof solitude. Hidden from prying eyes, protected from critical comments, we hauled ourselves through scales, arpeggios and etudes like half-mad mountaineers. Climbing by half-steps up, sliding by half-steps down, we felt the hours tick by like the steady clicking of the metronome.
Sometimes practice was enjoyable. Occasionally, when fingers turned awkward and timing was off, it was frustrating beyond belief. Progress was satisfying, but we never expected our solitary hours to be fun. We accepted the premise that the goal of practice was performance. Emerging from the solitude and semi-gloom of our booths into the light of recital or concert halls, we put our carefully-honed techniques into the service of Beethoven, Mozart or Brahms. Practice was private, performance was public, and those long hours of solitary practice were only a means to that quite public end.
When I think about writing and consider this week’s Write on Wednesday question (“Do you have a writing practice? What’s it like? How has it helped you become a better writer?” ), I realize how differently I approach my writing than I did my music. I don’t “practice” writing as a completely private act, hidden from public eyes. While I sometimes work in an isolated silence that rivals any practice booth, in the process of writing, practice and performance collapse into a single event. What I write, I post – for good or for ill. There are no hours devoted to vocabulary scales or grammatical arpeggios. There are only the literary equivalents to concerto, partita and sonata: writing, more writing and writing again, performed for anyone to see.
Because I write primarily for others and not for myself, the content of my writing and the readers I hope to engage are as important to me as the craft. While the ability to structure an essay is important, and even though constructing interesting sentences and paragraphs is necessary, I’m equally concerned with the human qualities that shape my identity as a writer, and determine the nature of my work.
The qualities I consider important don’t come easily. Discipline, perspective, perseverance, integrity, responsibility and confidence aren’t given at birth, like blue eyes or long fingers. They require development over time, and a willingness to re-commit to their value over and over again. In short, they require practice.
Because I’m essentially flighty and undisciplined, easily distracted by the beautiful or interesting and more than willing to veer down roads that aren’t roads at all but merely footpaths through the grass, discipline is critical for me. At its heart, discipline is about choices: I will do this, I won’t do that. Choosing on a daily basis to read, to write and to think is important for any writer. In the same way, decisions to engage fully in the disciplines of daily life and a willingness to respond to the needs of the world in which we live help form us as human beings, and as writers with something to say.
I’ve always considered integrity to be foundational for good writing. I don’t mean this in a strictly moral or ethical sense, although questions of morality and ethics abound for anyone who writes. Here, I mean integrity in the sense of wholeness, a consonance of word and deed so complete that who I am and what I say are obvious reflections of one another.
One of my favorite authors, Anne Morrow Lindberg, said it beautifully in her exquisite reflection, Gift From the Sea: “I want a singleness of eye, a purity of intention, a central core to my life that will enable me to carry out these obligations and activities as well as I can… I am seeking perhaps what Socrates asked for in the prayer from the Phaedrus when he said, “May the outward and inward man be at one.” There is no doubt that outward and inward can be joined, but that, too, takes practice.
There is nothing mysterious about perseverance. Perseverance is getting up at 4 a.m. in order to write. Perseverance is coffee at midnight, because the paragraph is almost right. Perseverance is meeting apathy with renewed effort, criticism with dignity, and failure with a firm commitment to re-set higher goals. Perseverance can be a bit tiresome, but it’s as easily practiced as putting one foot in front of the other, over and over again.
Everyone has a perspective on life. Not everyone shares my perspective – that our world is a gift to be treasured and preserved, that goodness and beauty are real, or that love and trust are worth even the discovery they may have been misplaced. For that matter, not everyone believes that words matter, or that on the deepest levels they participate in the rich, complex and vibrant realities they represent. In a world filled with cynicism and laziness, choosing the right word can be an act of artistic rebellion against the prevailing culture, but doing it effectively requires practice.
In time, a writer has to stop looking into the mirror of public response in order to begin trusting his or her own vision and nurturing a deeply personal sense of what is right and true. Beyond that, there is tremendous freedom in communicating without hestitation or regret. However strange it may seem, I’ve never asked someone to read my work before I publish it, and I’ve never removed any of the essays I’ve posted. Instead, I write and re-write until I’m satisfied my words are ready to stand. Then, I allow them to do so. For now, it’s simply my way of practicing confidence.
Finally, words have meaning, and those who craft them are charged with using them responsibly. Whether the final product is an essay or poem, a flight of fanciful fiction or a satirical screenplay, a novel or simple notations in a blog, the writer is called to understand how powerfully words affect the world, and use that power with wisdom and discretion.
Discipline, integrity, perseverance, confidence and responsibility – when those qualities are developed in the hiddenness of life’s practice booth, they allow performances to shine. William Faulkner had his own memorable perspective on these issues, and expressed them in his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
“The young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing, because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat. He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truth of the heart; the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”
The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”
Faulkner’s words are so nearly perfect it seems impossible to improve upon them. And yet, I would dare to add this – in order to write about the heart, you have to have a heart, a heart which is whole and responsible, disciplined enough to persevere, and confident in its conviction that the heart of the world is worth a lifetime of commitment.
That’s why I practice being a writer as well as doing my writing. With a practiced heart, you can perform without fear, and let the sentences fall where they may.