Becoming Better at Practicing Practice

Salieri: The Parton Saint of Mediocrity
Salieri: The Patron Saint of Mediocrity

The link below came across my Facebook newsfeed via one of my favorite college writing professors: 8 Things Top Practicers Do Differently

She mused, “I wonder what connection this might have to teaching writing.”

I clicked, primarily because I try (as much as possible) to think of whatever project I’m currently writing as “only practice.”

It’s a trick I use to psych myself down. If I’m not writing THE BOOK, if I’m only practicing for someday when I’m ready to write THE BOOK, then I can’t really screw anything up.

Or can I?

This study would seem to suggest that, yes, you can screw up practicing.

And more isn’t better if you’re cementing errors into the way you approach something.

Damn it.

The article discusses the behaviors demonstrated by the “top” practicers.

While examining these, I was reminded of my years in theatre.

I was good at memorizing. I could usually learn my lines in one reading, (I was much younger then). Plays that have a rhythm or poetry to them, like Shakespeare, were particularly easy to lock down.

But I also had what I called “link lines”. These were lines that, for some reason, my brain saw as not contributing to the actual content of the speech. In other words, lines I didn’t understand.

I invariably forgot those lines when I was on-script. When I was off-script, I had to work hard to recall the link lines. For every 99 lines that poured out without effort, there would be that one tricky little line that forced me to stop and think.

It turns out, mistakes like these are a departure point between people who practice productively and people who don’t. Top practicers handle these blips differently.

“The researchers note that the most striking difference between the top three pianists and the rest, was how they handled mistakes. It’s not that the top pianists made fewer mistakes in the beginning and simply had an easier time learning the passage.

The top pianists made mistakes too, but they managed to correct their errors in such a way that helped them avoid making the same mistakes over and over, leading to a higher proportion of correct trials overall.”

In other words, they stopped and figured out what those tricky link lines actually meant, instead of rattling right past them.

Playing a new piece of music and memorizing a chunk of text, are probably pretty similar processes.

But add to it the complication of composing a whole new work from scratch (whether music or fiction), and applying the list gets complicated fast.

The article cites 8 findings among the top pianists:

1. Playing was hands-together early in practice.

2. Practice was with inflection early on; the initial conceptualization of the music was with inflection.

3. Practice was thoughtful, as evidenced by silent pauses while looking at the music, singing/humming, making notes on the page, or expressing verbal “ah-ha”s.

4. Errors were preempted by stopping in anticipation of mistakes.

5. Errors were addressed immediately when they appeared.

Of the strategies, there were three that were used by all three top pianists, but rarely utilized by the others. In fact, only two other pianists (ranked #4 and #6) used more than one:

6. The precise location and source of each error was identified accurately, rehearsed, and corrected.

7. Tempo of individual performance trials was varied systematically; logically understandable changes in tempo occurred between trials (e.g. slowed things down to get tricky sections correct).

8. Target passages were repeated until the error was corrected and the passage was stabilized, as evidenced by the error’s absence in subsequent trials.”

To some degree, the concept of “practice” is tied to the concept of “habit”. It’s based on the premise that those things we do habitually will become easier. Then, because they are easier, we can add complications to them, which we are then better able to negotiate.

So my original question remained: How could the findings from this research help me be a better writer – a better practicer of writing?

Therein lies the clickbait.

If we can identify what top practicers do, we can incorporate these habits into our own practice. We can learn from the greats to become great. We want easy answers. Discrete, performable steps.

But the list above is not a list of tricks. This list is symptomatic of a different kind of overall approach to practice: 1. Complete engagement and 2. Setting aside the ego or self. In other words, these pianists approached the process as learning, not practice.

Those who were top practicers exhibit signs of focusing on understanding what the music is doing ( #1, #3, #4, #5 and #6) and how it is doing it (#2, #7, and #8).

For top performers, practice is learning. Not mechanics. Not memorization. Not repetition. Not time invest. Learning.

They weren’t afraid to admit that they didn’t understand a line. They didn’t rattle right past it. Instead, they learned what it was and why it was there.

In creative fields, as in learning, questioning requires you to surrender your ego, to risk appearing stupid, to raise your hand and ask the dumb question no one else will ask.

Ironically, in creative fields, surrendering ego requires a tremendous amount of self-awareness. You have to know what is tripping you up – the places where the piece is flowing against you instead of through you – in order to remove them.

You have to be able to tell when you’re getting in your own way.

In the Oscar-harvesting 1984 movie Amadeus, we’re given a contrast between greatness and mediocrity. What the audience sees that Salieri does not, is that Mozart is great because he does not stand in the way of his music.

Salieri writes to achieve his own greatness. His music is practice: a means to an end. He constantly appraises his self-worth based on how his music is perceived. He listens to his ego.

But Mozart listens only to the music. Mozart’s commitment isn’t to his ego, his wife, his audience, his patrons, or his family. He writes the music as it wishes to be written. He is a student of his music. He learns from it. His arrogance stems from his knowledge, not that HE is great, but that his music is great.

To me, this is the mark of genius: a commitment to the work for its own sake, coupled with the ability to recognize when your pride or arrogance or incompetence is interfering, then searching for ways to remove yourself and let the work flow.

It’s like the cool conundrum: Cool people are people who don’t worry about whether or not they’re cool.

We all have moments of greatness. For most of us, they are few and far between. We practice for them. They are the end we’re trying to achieve. THE BOOK we will someday write.

But for the truly great among us, there is no difference between practice and learning, because learning is an end in itself.

So my new goal is not to practice my craft. My goal is not to go through the motions of setting down another chapter or completing another revision.

My new goal is to surrender my ego and deeply engage, to understand why something I’ve done is not working. To listen to what the work wants to become.

My new goal is to learn.

VonegutPractice

Becoming Better at Practicing Practice

First Tooth

Mother and Child by Mary Cassatt

First Tooth*

 

A poem shimmering forward

like the mirage of human form

awakens me from tattered sleep.

 

Before I’ve reached my pen,

she’s awake again and wailing.

 

The shard of bone gnawing

through her gum claws

closer to the surface, aching

to erupt. We rise, unrested.

 

When I lift her, she tries

to scale me like a mountain.

 

I make coffee while she

worries her toothlessness

like a splinter or a pebble in a shoe.

 

We maroon ourselves

on the living-room floor,

on an island of brief sunlight.

We won’t leave the house today.

 

Through steam-stained windows,

the naked trees are vague.

The sidewalks are phlegmy with ice.

 

Winter grinds its fist into the city.

 

Naptime – she refuses to sleep unheld.

My shoulders ache from stillness.

I search for the image that woke me.

I struggle to dredge the seed from memory,

urge it to burst its smooth skin,

to declare itself.

 

Her cheek against my breast is

firm and cool like rising bread.

 

She wakes again,

and wails her yearning for teeth.

 

I ease her down so I can

stretch the knots from my shoulders.

 

Light gathers in the tears on her lashes.

With a orphaned look,

she reaches for me, both arms up.

 

Her hands panic

like dizzy, breathless butterflies.

 

This is new, this reaching.

 

 

 

 

*Originally published in MotherVerse Magazine

First Tooth

APPROACHING LINDISFARNE*

Another old poem to appease the blog gods. I’m deep into the tenth revision on the novel, so old poetry shall have to sate. Thanks much to Suzi Ramsey Towsley for use of the smashing pic!

 

Courtesy SRT Images: www.SRTImages.com All rights reserved.
“True” Courtesy SRT Images: www.SRTImages.com
All rights reserved.

 

APPROACHING LINDISFARNE

 

born of sky so sharp it cuts itself

and bleeds pink-green light

on coasts of frosted shoal

on labyrinths of ice and stone

they emerge from fog

 

air hisses across their skin

keeping breath with the oars

muscles tighten   reach

creak of leather   wood

the ocean’s bearing

shoulders narrow   broaden   narrow

closing in   they slow

slither-slow and cease

 

they drift

 

silence holds the sky

above conspiracies of wind

hushing pines along the shore

 

they wait   oars aloft

the ocean trembles

 

smoke trickles from the horizon

seeps into a gloaming sky

steel stirs against their thighs

 

their oars   fin-faithful

sink then surface

fast falling   drum steady

rise gleaming   dripping silver

 

plunge toward shore

 

 

 

 

*First published in Cirque, Dec 20 2010

 

APPROACHING LINDISFARNE*

50 Shades of WTF?

The book I recently finished writing deals with themes related to sexual consent.

Because of this, I needed a narrative device to make the romantic relationship so overtly consensual as to be hyper-consensual.

The end result is that I’ve been writing a relationship that has elements of BDSM at a time when 50 Shades is all the rage. Yuck.

First things first. I am not a member of the kink community. However, I took care to ensure I was accurately portraying that relationship dynamic. Probably MORE SO because it isn’t one I have ownership of.

Sexuality is deeply connected to identity, and just as I would take care to responsibly portray someone else’s culture or race, I felt I needed to treat these people with as much respect as possible.

Second things second. What I’m writing is not porn. (Though my mother might disagree with that statement). So it is by definition inherently more complex than spanking and tampon yanking. The stakes are higher.

Sexuality and identity get messy fast.

Third. I really did try to read 50 Shades and the writing was so awful, I couldn’t get through it. But the books are universally accepted as badly written, so that is not my point.

My criticism is not of the book. My criticism is of the devotees of the books who argue, “It’s just a book. Relax.”

Incidentally these devotees tend to be the same women who go through relationship after relationship, then look at me and say, “You’re so lucky. You have such a good husband.”

Oh, you mean the man I chose? He didn’t fall out of the sky. I picked him. What’s more, we work very hard to maintain open communication and respect for one another. Luck has fuck-all to do with it.

If you’re following along on this conversation, you’ve heard “It’s just a book. Relax.” a lot. If I were a sociologist, I would conduct an experiment to examine the relationship patterns of the population of people who enjoy this book.

But I’m not. I’m a writer. And as a writer, my central point is this:

Stories matter.

To say, “It’s just a book” is to say, “It’s just a romanticized projection of our rape culture’s social norms that reflect what we wish to attain. Relax.”

I know it’s easy for me as a reader and a writer to place a premium on stories. Much the same way that in Hollywood, the movie about show biz always wins the Oscar. (I’m looking at you here, Shakespeare in Love).

But how can anyone say, “It’s just a book?”

It’s “just a book” about a horribly unhealthy relationship idealized as romantic.

Relax?

To be absolutely clear – the kink is not the abusive aspect of the relationship portrayed in the story. The RELATIONSHIP is the abusive part. When we equate stalking with love – we have a problem.

If you’re thinking to yourself, “If only he would completely violate my privacy and pressure me into doing things I don’t want to do, then I would know he loves me” then you, my dear, are the reason every woman who is raped is tagged as “asking for it.”

This is precisely why I developed such respect for the BDSM community as I worked on my book.

They’re grown ups about their sexuality. They don’t tolerate wishy-washy assholes and their petty drama.

As Louis CK puts it, “I’m not gonna rape someone on the off chance that she’s into it.”

Seriously, ladies? I’m trying to raise daughters here. Could we please just grow a modicum of self respect?

Do I really have to post 700,000 links to articles about how narratives are important and influence our emotional development?

Do you need studies that prove our ability to empathize is learned from stories?

Will you shut the fuck up about it being “just a book” if you see anthropological reviews that detail how narrative is the embodiment of what we are, what we wish to be, and what we must be warned against becoming?

Or are you a grown up?

This is basic.

Stories matter.

It’s never “Just a book.”

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go revise mine to amplify the consent aspect of the relationship. I know it will never sell 30 gazillion copies.

But I’d rather be broke than sell women shit-sandwiches and call it candy.

50 Shades of WTF?

Early Readers

Just a quick note to say that my early readers have finished with the manuscript and I’ll soon be starting revision #10.

Yay! It felt really done last time. But now that I look at it again, I see that it’s solidly good but needs some muscling up. It’s nice to get to a point where it feels like it is it’s own being. My little book’s all grown up.

Hopefully after this edit, I’ll be able to narrow my focus for my other two projects. I’m at that lovely messy point with them where I have NO IDEA what the plot is doing. It’s both exciting and exasperating.

A note on early readers:

I chose 6 people of the 15 or so who offered:

2 bailed. 1 because of over-commitment. (But she gets a pass forever, because years ago she was one of the saints who slogged all the way through the god-awful 200,000-word first draft of my first attempt at writing a novel). And the second because she didn’t care for the genre.

1 commercial fiction reader. This was very helpful. I write lit fic. But having a commercial reader gave me lots of useful criticism on pacing and plot.

1 actress. Always a good choice. Actresses know how to give constructive criticism. They also appreciate emotional nuance.

1 English teacher. I haven’t gotten this critique back yet, so we’ll see how it goes.

1 wild card. Someone I know only marginally, but who, if they hate it, I won’t run into in the grocery store. I’m awaiting this one as well.

My husband has also read it, but his feedback is almost useless, because he loves everything I write. (I’m sorry, darling. You know it’s true).

I feel primed and ready. I want to jump on the beast and start surgery. I have a game plan and notes. I know just where to start.

I just wanted to take  a moment to say how very grateful I am for my early readers. If you find early readers who are honest and insightful, treasure them. They’re worth their weight. Also, keep a rotation of people for different projects, because you don’t want to burn anyone out.

And reciprocate. Read for others. Even if they haven’t read for you. What goes around comes around.

Now. To the manuscript!

Early Readers

Prepping to publish

Forgive my two month hiatus. It was the result of a combination of the holidays, a grand tour of the southwestern US, a long, deep, terrible chest cold, IT issues, and mid-winter hibernation instinct.

Yesterday, I recommitted to my 2015 writing goal, by taking a workshop on preparing to publish.

The class was offered by 49 Writers  and taught by Deb Vanasse .

I cannot recommend it or her book “What Every Author Should Know”  highly enough.

Since I started writing fiction 4 years ago, I’ve been avoiding thinking about publishing.

Writing a book is like hiking up a large mountain. You keep your eyes trained on the ridge ahead of you.

“There’s the top,” you tell yourself. “I’m almost there. I’m almost done. I’ll be done just as soon…”

As soon as I’ve completed the story.
As soon as I’ve revised and edited.
As soon as I’ve fixed that one scene.
As soon as I’ve scrubbed away that one character.
As soon as I’ve rewritten the last four chapters.
As soon as I’ve finished the 10th revision.

Every time you reach the ridge, there’s another one just ahead. Just a little higher. Just a little farther.

But now that I’ve finished my book and delivered it into the hands of my early readers, I have to admit something I’ve become increasingly aware of. The last few years have felt like a mountain, but they’re only the foothills.

The mountain is still ahead. Publishing.

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While the mountain is largely obscured to those who are on the trail, it is fully visible to your friends and family who are not making the climb.

They helpfully stand at the bottom and say things like, ‘When are you publishing your book?” or (my favorite) “When will you be a rich and famous writer?” (Seriously, just because I’m climbing a mountain doesn’t mean anyone’s going to crown me king of it when I get to the top).

I haven’t avoided the topic completely. I just haven’t delved.

It’s obvious that so much is changing in the world of writing and publishing. Self-publishing. Agents. Print on demand. E-books. When you’re trying to get a good story right, and get it on the page, the changing landscape of modern publishing is enough to make your head spin.

There’s so many routes up the mountain and so many people climbing them that it’s easy to find wild success and wild failure stories for every path. But I think I’m finally ready to tackle the mountain. I’ve decided (for now) to try a traditional path. Networking. Queries. Agent. Editor. Publisher. Sales team.

With a different project, I might choose a different path. But this seems like the right route for this time and this book.

One of the exercises we did for the workshop was to imagine two different outcomes both set in the future five years after publishing.

The first was our wildest fantasy of our lives as published writers. Fame? Fortune? Accolades? Independence? (My fantasy involves Emma Thompson swooping in to insist she direct a film version of my book and mentor me in screenwriting).

The second outcome is the reality of what we expect. To be able to pay our bills? To write a sequel? To teach in an area of expertise?

Looking at the two futures side by side, Vanasse encouraged us to look at the one item on the list that was the same in both futures. In other words, in your wildest dreams and your most grounded reality, what is the same? This will tell you why you are writing.

For me it was this: Five years after I publish my first book, I want to be working on my second or third or fourth.

No matter what, I want to keep writing.

So, it looks like the ridge just ahead is destined to be a part of my permanent landscape, and when I reach it, there will always be another one, a little further, a little higher.

There will always be edits to make, continuity errors to fix, queries to send, synopsis to write, and revision upon revision upon revision upon revision.

This thought is both exhilarating and exhausting.

But at least I know now – while there may be resting places, there is no summit. There will always be another ridge to climb. The mountain goes up forever.

I’ve wiped off the sweat and had a drink of water. I’ll need to camp here for one more revision before I head toward the next ridge, and the one after that, and the one after that.

Except this time, I know what to expect.

Prepping to publish

Tweening

My eldest daughter entered the tween years this summer. Like so many other phases of parenting, this one caught me off guard.

Phases. You know they’re going to happen. Other parents tell you about them. You read about them in human development books (at least, you do if you’re married to a psych dweeb).

But nothing really prepares you for what a new phase will look like on your child. This is partially because how their biology hits them is unique for each kid and situation.

When my eldest was three, she developed a stutter that came and went for about a year. It was something I refused to make a big deal about despite the advice of other, older moms. First, because I was concerned that making a big deal about the stutter would cement it in her identity as a personal trait. Secondly, her doctor wasn’t worried, so I wasn’t either.

One day I noticed that the stutter appeared for a few weeks, and when it disappeared it left behind a new language tool, (such as use of multiple adjectives or subordinate clauses). “Okay,” I thought. “This is just her brain hard-wiring itself.” The stutter was, I thought, a result of her brain firing up new neural connections. It disappeared shortly after her fourth birthday. No one had ever told me that a stuttering phase might accompany a verbal explosion. It was unique to her.

Then there was the kid phase. This happens around 6-ish, when your child stops seeming like a baby/preschooler/snuggly love-bug and starts being a kid. A great kid. A kid you’re happy to know. But a kid with things to do and people to see, and who may or may not make mom and dad a priority. This is a phase where you step back, take a deep breath and watch them begin to grow in directions you never imagined. They develop interest in things you could not possibly care less about. But you fake it for their sakes.

The tween change has been different for me. I wouldn’t say that my daughter is on the threshold of puberty, but she’s definitely within spitting distance of it. It’s terrifying. Not only because of the wealth of dangers that accompany coming of age in our society, although goodness knows, that’s bad enough. It’s the anticipation of watching someone you love prepare to undergo a transformation more difficult and delicate than they can possibly apprehend.

I’ve done things to prepare her of course. She’s heard since she was tiny that the human brain continues to develop decision-making apparatus until around 25 years of age. That all the years up to then are critical to her cabeza.

She knows that women have periods wherein they bleed to shed unfertilized eggs.

These factoids come along with more dogmatic platitudes: “School first. Then you can worry about boys.”

But the thing the tween phase didn’t prepare me for is this. When I look at my daughter, I feel like I’m mothering an infant again. Not that she is dependent on me. Rather, it’s that sense that you get as a new parent. That part of you that says, “My god, this human being is beautiful and precious and her life has tremendous potential and that is a TON of responsibility. How do I not screw that up!!!”

Part of it is that she is truly a beauty. I’m not just saying this because I’m her mother. She’s a knock out in the making.

But she is beautiful beyond just the beauty of her features. Hers is the beauty of becoming. Sharing a house with her is like living with some mythic animal that is dangerous and beautiful, and entirely innocent of both. Sometimes when I look at her, I see the fat-cheeked, extroverted toddler that flirted shamelessly with strangers, and sometimes I swear I can see the long-legged, thin nosed, driven woman she will be in a few years.

Before becoming a parent, there’s no way to understand how fiercely you will love your children. You love them so much it’s scary. So much you feel like it will break you in two. So much that you want it to break you in two if that’s what they need from you.

It’s a conflicted love. You want them with you more than anything in the world, so you can keep them safe and share their every experience. But you want the world for them too, as imperfect as it is. A world far beyond anything you’ve ever experienced, full of opportunities beyond what you could ever provide.

So you ease them out into that world a little at a time and feel them slipping away, little by little. Until one day, the weight shifts by just a fraction, and they are more gone than here, leaving you to rejoice for the new adventures they’ve found, while your own heart breaks and mends and breaks over and over again endlessly.

Tweening