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Good Writing is Practice. Practice is Discipline.

A sense of trepidation washed over me as I stared at my flute case on the table. There it lay, this beautiful, gleaming instrument, this precious sidekick that had once opened doors for me to see the wider world. Together, we had traveled to Pasadena, CA, for the turn-of-the-millennium Rose Bowl Parade and to Washington, D.C. for the 2001 Presidential Inauguration. Together, we had twice traveled across Europe. This instrument of mine had floated music in cold and grey European cathedrals that had withstood centuries of war and weather. It rang out on street corners packed with parade goers and in cavernous concert halls. Its notes filled mirrored practice rooms where I spent hours building my chops, perfecting my embouchure and strengthening my fingering precision through sixteenth-note runs.

Six years later, there it sat, silver and smudgy with fingerprints, just as I had left it the last time I put it away. In the years since college, life happened: I got married, went to work, had children. Carving out an hour a day to practice my flute was out of the question now. In fact, I hardly practiced at all.

Yet I still branded myself as a flautist. As a result, I had been asked to play with a praise band for a church service. It was a request to which I had said a breezy, “Sure!” feigning confidence that I could play this instrument that hadn’t seen the light of day for months.

Inside, though, I wavered. Because I hadn’t practiced, I knew my chops – those mouth muscles you need for good tone – were out of shape. My fingers were not as limber on the keys as they were in my college days. Now, I would somehow have to put all of those skills together again in attempt to make something beautiful: build up my chops, get the notes under my fingers, and put it all together to make the music sing.

The practice was rough at first. My mouth and face muscles were tired after ten minutes of playing. My scales were rocky. I found myself having to clap out the beats of the notes on the page, rhythms that five or six years ago I would have breezed through on a first read.

I wanted the results of this practice to come quickly. What would it take to get back to feeling like the strong and confident musician I had been in college?

I started to practice again, every day. At first, my mouth muscles tired after 15 minutes – a far cry from what I had been capable of in college. But the more time I spent with my instrument, the easier the songs became, and the longer I found I could play without getting physically worn out.

musical notes
Photo by hermaion on Pexels.com

Writing is like that. It is a journey of practice, of perseverance, of showing up day after day after day. I know what it feels like to soar, to pump out words and solid sentences and bring stories to life on the page. I also know what it feels like to flounder, to struggle over each word and sentence and wonder if I should just throw in the towel. Good writing, like good music, requires practice. It requires regularity, a rhythm of showing up. If you’ve been out of practice for a while, or if you’re just starting, the first few times you show up can be daunting. Your creative brain will take its sweet time to come to life. Finding the right words will feel like grasping at straws. A nagging downer of a voice will try to convince you that you’re wasting your time, that you are not cut out for this work of creativity, that you’re naïve for believing you are. You’ll tire quickly, and you’ll likely wonder if you have what it takes to keep going.

“Writing” by jjpacres is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

If you want to grow as a writer, practice is not simply a suggestion. It’s a necessity. You’ll encounter a lot of terrible stabs at finding the right words, the best way to say what you are trying to say, in the process. As you stumble around the words, the language, you will find your way. As Sarah Cy puts it, “All writers have to go through bad writing in order to get to the good stuff.”

The writer William Zinsser praised E.B. White for his seemingly effortless prose. But, Zinsser was quick to point out, nothing about White’s writing was effortless.

In fact, Zinsser says in his book, On Writing Well, the opposite is true: “the effortless style is achieved by strenuous effort and constant refining. The nails of grammar and syntax are in place and the English is as good as the writer can make it.”

Nothing about White’s writing is accidental. When it comes to writing, E.B. White is a hero of discipline.

I would argue that when it comes to writing, showing up is more than half the battle. If you show up and you keep showing up, if you keep putting your butt in a chair and plinking out words, sentences, paragraphs, eventually your words will start to sing.

Make no mistake: Writing is hard work. Working at it means we will almost certainly write sentences that suck, pursue ideas that go nowhere and struggle and grasp for the right words. But this is practice in action: the act of trying, then trying again, then trying again.

“Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire,” said dancer Martha Graham.

When I show up regularly to my practice of writing, new worlds open up. Ideas beget ideas, and as I try to keep up, the more words I churn out and the better those words work together. Like music practice, the more I write, the easier the writing becomes.

*What does your writing practice look like these days?

1 thought on “Good Writing is Practice. Practice is Discipline.”

  1. My writing takes place in my head because the page is too white and allows for too many poems and feelings. It shows who I am and how vulnerable that person is. I am not hiding behind my poems. I’m hiding from them.

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