The Simple, Frustrating, Ruthless Act of Practicing
Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working
This quote is beautifully presented on the background of my laptop (and the top of this article). It drives home the point that the essence of the creativity is to get started and cultivate a writing practice. I recently read a post on Medium from Srinivas Rao, who has faithfully written 1000 words per day.
He describes how much of what he writes on a daily basis is garbage, but once he gets past the garbage, the real gold shows up. There’s countless bits of information like this, and besides the writers who continually share this indispensable fact with us, comedians are my favorite sources of material on practice and generating garbage to find the really good bits.
Louis CK says he performs over 150 shows (not jokes, shows) to find the hour of content that will become his next great record. Jerry Seinfeld famously uses a wall calendar and red sharpie to draw an X over the days he’s written a joke. By all accounts, the chain has remained largely unbroken for years. Several writers have told me the trick is to write “gross amounts” of words to find the gold which will become your next viral post, book, or screenplay. We absolutely must daily get over the fear of creating garbage so we can create the gold.
Anne Lamotte illustrates this perfectly in her book Bird by Bird.
“I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her.”
The problem is many of us can’t fight through the wailing banshee of self-doubt that grabs ahold of us for the first 300-500 words. Another demon I face off with is the fear of making past 500 words of garbage to only write 1000 words of garbage.
Why the hell would I want to do that?
Because of simple math.
If I wrote even 500 words per day, which is not a crazy amount (see below), I’ll generate 182,500 words in a single year. Last year, using the “inspiration strikes” model, I wrote 42,121 words.
The amount of usable content more than triples, and even the off-chance the difference in my practices result in triple the garbage, would I still have gained anything? Yes. The value of a steady practice is significant to our work, creativity, and very lives. When we commit to gradually practicing anything, we will improve. Exercising, reading, playing an instrument, cooking. Steady, consistent practice paired with bravery is the mark of a successful artist. I’ve know the value of a practice for months, but still struggle because of fear and a lack of discipline.
I know a few people who have written best-selling books, get paid thousands of dollars to speak, and run successful companies. To be honest, I don’t think they’re any more intelligent, creative, or talented than me. This may come off as cocky, since I haven’t done any of those things. But the truth is they’re not better than or you. Here’s what they are better at, and it makes all the difference. It’s also what separates us.
People like Jeff Goins, Nathan Barry, James Clear, and Srinivas Rao practice, every day, with intention, and they don’t stop. Whether they are happy, sad, motivated, inspired, hungover, sick, or or healthy. They get down to work.
The reason I find this so difficult (and you may also) is because it’s so simple to start. So simple it’s frustrating, and easy to delay or make excuses for. We wouldn’t buy a paper with the only word we need printed in bold letters across the top.
Frustrating, unnerving, and merciless. There’s nowhere to hide. With no book to buy, workshop to attend, or shortcut to take, I cut and run in search of more immediate gains. Jon Acuff told me that inspiration without instruction is worthless. I agree, but in this case, Start! is easy to say and difficult to practice. I’m a writer, no matter what other jobs and “fundraising” opportunities I take on to support the habit. And do you know what writers do? They write.
Keep talking about topics, niches, and platforms if you like, they’re all excuses that keep us from practicing. Yes, in the connection economy we all live in, writers also have to be entrepreneurs, speakers, and teachers. But all of these are a result of writers writing. Not people saying they write, and skipping the days of practice which manifest the opportunities to grow and develop your tribe.
FYI: The little gremlin is still there, telling me to stop, that I’m currently at 684 words, and securely past the 500 word threshold I set for the day. But I’m sitting on a Greyhound bus 60 miles from Nashville, home, dinner, and I’ve got more to say.
As I write, the resistance (as termed by Steven Pressfield) changes tactics. Knowing that I’ve pushed past the initial garbage phase, the negative self-talk says this will remain garbage, never see the light of day, and is a waste of time.
You don’t want to waste your days writing garbage do you? I hear the voice say.
It’s not garbage. It’s practice.
Here’s a great passage to underscore the point.
“1000 words a day will produce enough content that I have plenty to pick from the garbage”
As I write, I discover the benefits of a sustained practice, and plenty of content to choose from is certainly one of them. The gifts of a practice include more than a large pool of articles and snippets, but finding your focus and developing your writing voice. We can only attain this by consistent, intentional practice of the discipline we choose. This applies to pairing, singing, drawing, playing, coding, cooking, and more.
Would you like the essential message? Here it is:
There’s no plan, workbook, or shortcut to getting better at writing.
Finally, when practicing, I have 4 rules.
No editing, hating, or doubting. Just writing.
P.S. – this post is 1059 words. I checked my word count over 30 times. It took me nearly two hours. I’m mildly frustrated, because I feel it’s garbage. Damn the feelings, it’s getting shipped anyway.
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