I’ve recently been corresponding via email with a friend who is fairly new to personal writing. He’s sent me a couple drafts of a memoir essay he’s working on, asking for feedback and general thoughts about what is and isn’t working in the piece. Reading his essay and framing my thoughts has been helpful to my own writing because it’s another way of looking at a collection of words and thinking about what arrangement would best work to pull in a reader and create associations that will resonate. It’s doing what I’ve told him is the most important thing he can do to improve his writing. Keep writing and read, read, read. In other words, practice.
When we think about a musician getting better as an artist, we expect that he or she would practice, whether it’s hours spent at the piano or the guitar or the flute. We wouldn’t expect a painter to be a good painter the first time oil met canvas. The same with a dancer or singer of photographer. But I think writing is often seem more as a talent — you’re either good or you’re not. That may be true to some extent, but even if you’re naturally good, you’re not going to get better without practice.
Perhaps it’s that writing practice is often all the drafts of a story or novel or poem that no one but the writer ever sees. Will the 36,347 words I’ve logged so far in this year’s NaNoWriMo amount to anything, or the more than 72,000 total words of the novel so far? Does the instant publication gratification of writing a blog post deem the words written any more worthy than words that fill my journals no one will ever read? What about the boxes of old poems and stories and manuscripts stored in the barn, or the full file drawer in my study.
In a way, none of that matters. It’s all practice. Besides NaNoWriMo, I’m also doing The Grind this month, a practice-based endeavor that the writer Ross White organizes. Ross sorts Grinders in to groups by genre (poetry or prose, new or revised, or manic mix, which is the group I keep choosing and I don’t want to think too deeply about what that says about me) 10 or 12 per group, then sends everyone each other’s email and you’re responsible to send a new piece of writing every day to each other via email. You don’t comment on each other’s work or even acknowledge it. This isn’t about feedback or workshopping, it’s about being accountable to other people, strangers in fact, to practice each day by writing.
Pairing NaNoWriMo and The Grind has worked out well, because I’m working on the novel almost every day. On days when I don’t get to the novel, I write a poem to send my sister and fellow grinders, or send the revision of a poem I’ve just edited, or a fragment of essay, anything that makes me practice my writing. I’m getting a lot of practice this month, and I have faith that it’s all going to make me a better writer if nothing else.
Writing this blog has been good practice, practice about practice. How meta.