Practice Makes Perfect

Or does it?

I’m re-reading Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Her advice both inspires and frightens me. She makes me feel like writing is as simple as breathing and as impossible as climbing Everest. One chapter in particular struck me this time. In The Goody-Two-Shoes Nature, she advises against being satisfied with a dutiful writing routine.

“Don’t just put in your time. That is not enough. Be willing to put your whole life on the line when you sit down for writing practice. Otherwise you are just mechanically pushing the pen across the page and intermittently looking at the clock to see if your time is up.”

Those sentences struck me as painfully true. I know I’m guilty of punching my writing time clock. I write mindlessly and sometimes I’ll hit on a great new idea, the perfect word, a brilliant sentence, but more often I stay stuck in my groove. If I want to get out of it, I have to push my limits and do something new, something terrifying.

This reminded me of a book I swiped from my husband’s business collection. I was fascinated by Geoff Colvin’s ideas in Talent is Overrated. He maintains that it takes ten years of practice to excel (similar to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule in Outliers), but that the way most of us practice isn’t enough. He writes in great detail about the studies of Dr. K. Anders Ericsson and his work on expert performance, particularly in the area of deliberate practice.

According to Colvin, deliberate practice requires that we:

  • Work with a teacher. We need objective evaluation of our abilities and our progress. A teacher can devise practice sessions focusing not on skills that we have already mastered or on tasks that are too far beyond our capabilities, but on work that is difficult, yet not impossible.
  • Repeat. We have to keep practicing things that are hard until they come naturally.
  • Challenge ourselves mentally. Practicing without thinking won’t help us improve. Adding intense mental focus makes our practice more difficult, but more effective. We won’t be able to spend as much time working since the effort required is more exhausting, but we’ll accomplish more in that shorter amount of time.
  • Accept that it will hurt. It’s fun to do things we’re good at doing and so very frustrating to stretch for skills just beyond our reach. Failure is a constant risk, but the rewards are worth the pain.

If I want to stretch my writing skills, I need to listen to Natalie Goldberg and Geoff Colvin. I need to follow the example of my friend who loved horses so much that she learned to ride. She found a teacher, started taking lessons every week and practicing in between. Now she has a horse of her own and she competes. Sometimes she’s frustrated by what she perceives as a lack of skill, but watching her ride is inspiring. I think she found the perfect teacher, one who pushes her beyond her comfort zone to keep reaching for the next level.

It’s time for me to find that teacher. I need someone who will give me objective feedback and will push me to reach beyond safe. I’m a cautious person, so taking deliberate risks with my writing won’t be easy, but I have to overcome my fear of failure. It’s time to stop aiming for perfect and go for truth.

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37 Comments

Filed under Books, Writing

37 responses to “Practice Makes Perfect

  1. Annabellesmom

    A friend & I were discussing writing tonight, so I’ll send her a link to this post. I think she’ll benefit from the ideas you put forth. I like to think of such creative endeavors as evolving the same way I incorporated dance into my life from teen years onward. It’s really always a work in progress, and to become better requires the very elements you mentioned. Good luck with the steps ahead.

  2. Accepting that it’ll hurt is the difficult part. And whatever truth you find changes as you evolve as a writer, I think.

  3. You’ve got some great ideas in this post. Now to get to it.

  4. I love how you’re always seeking out knowledge, to help guide you in following your passion of writing. You keep pushing yourself, and I know the end product will be all the better because of the steps you take now in your pursuits. You rock, Shary!

    • As the daughter of teachers, I don’t think I’ll ever stop seeking to learn. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your encouragement. Thanks, Monica!

  5. Tall person was bitten by the writing bug many years ago and in the early days would write constantly, even waking at night and stopping in the street to jot in his notebook. He was always worried that if he didn’t write things down at the time he thought them then the words and ideas would be lost. Despite being exhausting it was very productive. However, he realised that allowing creativity to continuously flow is very addictive and distracting. He decided that he needed to change his approach to writing and adopt a more disciplined approach. Whenever thoughts and ideas rushed through his head at inconvenient times he pushed them to one side. After a while he found that the fear of losing ideas and thoughts diminished. Once he had accepted this he found that when he made a conscious decision to write the creative ‘door’ would open and the thoughts and words would flow until he closed the ‘door’ again.

  6. I am in exactly the same place as you are right now, Shary! I have actively been looking for a mentor/editor for my WIP — and I can’t wait to get some much needed feedback and critique! (But like you I’m a very cautious person so I’m nervous… but know I won’t progress without this.)

    • A local writing organization has critique groups and author mentor programs. Maybe you have something similar? I’m thinking about signing up for one of them. It’s a committment (time and money) but I think it will be worth it. Please let me know if you find a group or mentor. I’d love to hear about it.

  7. Good advice Shary and I’m so impressed with your dedication and tenacity. How are you going to go about finding a teacher? There’s some great instructors at San Diego Writer’s Ink – have you taken any of their workshops or classes? That way, you can be exposed to many different ones and perhaps get a sense of someone with whom you can work.

    • I’ve taken few classes with great teachers at SDWI. They also have a new author mentor program that I might try. Step one, get some pages ready. (I think that’s the hardest part.) 🙂

  8. Elizabeth

    I love the “Bones” book. She inspired me years ago. I wrote her a fan letter and got a reply back from an assistant. It was a good reply, but I felt like my privacy was sorta violated in a way by having had someone else read my letter to Natalie. After all these years somehow I still feel the sting of it. Weird.
    I think that it helps to get paid to write. There is less emotional baggage involved if you have a deadline and have to turn in your work. Dean Koontz wrote a good book on writing and it involved the mechanics of sending out your stuff as much as the how to write stuff. Teaching someone to write is like teaching someone to walk. (in other words, do you really need someone to hold your hand?) We all know how to write, in our own way, because it is really just talking on paper. The more you do it the better you will become. You might as well try to get paid for it too, as long as you are doing it.
    Don’t worry so much about being good. Are you a good talker? A good walker? Life is not so much about the competition of doing things as it is about the great feeling of having gotten the god-damned thing done. That is how I feel anyway.
    I love to write.
    Thanks for the opportunity. See you tomorrow night at book club.
    P.S. I have read lots of “bad” writing and really enjoyed it. Probably most of the stuff written in the world is really bad, but who is to judge, and who cares? The good thing about a writing group is that you don’t feel so alone in the world and you have some real people to read your papers to.

  9. Great post, Shary. I have her book and have never read it. Now you’ve inspired me to get it out and read. You’re right though; it takes much more than just time. And after taking Drusilla’s class last week, I realized how much I could benefit from a good teacher.

  10. Anitra

    Hi Shary,
    I really like your last line. It came as a surprise. Keep me posted about your search for a teacher. How about Judy Reeves?

    • She’s a great teacher and I’m alway interested in the classes she teaches at SDWI and in the retreats she does at her studio. Hoping to do a few this year.

  11. “It’s time for me to find that teacher” and for me too Shary. I love the fact that you never stop learning, it’s inspiring!

  12. I think the ‘Accept that it will hurt’ is an immensely important and misunderstood principal of just about any mental task. Many people quit when they hit a wall and the next idea doesn’t come easily. It’s supposed to be uncomfortable–that’s how we know our mind is exercising and stretching past its previous abilities and perspective.

    • We don’t like painful things, do we? I know I’m guilty of changing direction when I get blocked instead of finding a way through. Time to get tough on myself.

  13. I loved this post SO much, it’s going in my printed-out, “inspiration” folder. I am happy to report that I am doing all the things you mention currently (and yes it has been a long, more-than 10-year journey). Consistency is the key, though. These reminders will be great to put in front of my face and review from time to time. (I just love the point about the value that a GOOD teacher brings – teaching you to stretch and grow!)

    • I’m so glad it was helpful, even though the ideas aren’t new to you. Good teachers really do make a difference.

      • elizabeth dobbs

        so inspired by your talk ‘n your post , I wrote this morning for the first time in years. What I wanted to write and what I wrote were the exact opposite. Funny.

        • It is funny how sometimes the pen (or keyboard) takes over. We never know what we’ll get.

          I was inspired by our chat, too and my morning writing session went so well today. It really does help to talk with a writing friend to get some perspective.

      • Sorry… Didn’t mean to sound like I didn’t learn anything new. Some (most) of the things I’ve been doing have been PURELY accidental, and many more I need to refine and stick with. I thought this post was fabulous and don’t want to sound like a know-it-all; FAR from it.

        • You absolutely didn’t sound like a know-it-all and I’m very glad you liked the post. And it’s helpful to know that striving to learn in this way, by accident or design, does work. The proof is in your writing, always so clear and so imaginative.

  14. Shary, you seem motivated and I think that’s the first step in effecting any change. Indeed, we need a lot of practice before we perfect anything but like your friend, we have to be willing to take some risks. If we don’t take the first step in challenging ourselves, of taking ourselves out of our niche, I’m afraid we’ll forever be stuck in the same old routine and work output. I love that you’re striving to go forth without stopping to ensure things are perfect. You’re up and running, lady! Good for you! 🙂

  15. Goldberg’s book used to scare me, too. Writing, to her, is everything, and I’m just not that dedicated. If you haven’t read Anne Lamott’s book “Bird by Bird,” you should check it out. Where and how will you find a writing teacher

    • I do have Bird by Bird. Great book!

      We have a wonderful writer’s group here, San Diego Writers, Ink. They offer a wide variety of classes, workshops and programs with great teachers. One of the newest programs is a one-on-one critique with a local author. Could be just the thing I need. First, I have to get my pages ready. 🙂

  16. I giggled here—my husband quotes that 10,000 hours thing too whenever I’m in the middle of a pity party. 🙂