I have played the violin since I was four years old, and my son and daughter play piano and violin respectively. They both go to a Suzuki music school—the same school I attended from ages 4-18. In fact, my daughter’s violin teacher was my orchestra conductor and chamber music coach when I was a teen. All of this means that I have a tendency to view the world through a Suzuki lens, an outlook that centers on incremental practice over progress made by leaps and bounds. This perspective is also especially useful when it comes to writing, particularly when building a writing practice.
We all know full well that no one can write a book in a day. It takes time and continuous persistence. There’s no glamorous solution. Rather, we just have to show up at the page on a regular basis and clock in the hours. It’s that simple.
And yet, there are a lot of sources out there that glamorize the “overnight success” approach to writing. This attitude is best summed up by an episode that happened in my traditional MFA program. One time in workshop, a writer whose story was on deck for critique said to the class: “I wanted to apologize in advance for any typos. I just threw this piece together on my phone, while standing in line at a movie theater last weekend.”
I’ll be honest, the possibility of typos was not the thing that concerned me about this writer’s statement. What bothered me most was the attitude, as though this writer was bragging about how little time they had spent on their submission. It was as if their goal wasn’t to write something good, but rather to write something with as little effort as possible.
This kind of attitude is dangerous because it lulls us into believing that writing should be “easy,” and if it’s not, then there must be something wrong with us. Let me make one thing very clear: the problem is not with us.
Now, don’t confuse writing fast with writing easily. Personally, I happen to be a naturally fast writer. Once I get an idea of what I want to say, it tends to pour out of me fairly quickly. Similar to other writers, I know many individuals who are like this with their fiction and can crank out multiple books a year at a furious pace.
Build speed and stamina through practice.
The speed at which we write has nothing to do with the ease with which we write. Just because I tend to write fast doesn’t mean that the process is “easy” for me. People who see me crank out words so quickly might think that all writing should be a snap. What they don’t see are the years of practice that got me to the point where I write at this pace, the countless hours before I put pen to page, or when the ideas needed to incubate and take shape in my mind.
Speed and ease are two very different things. The speed at which we write and the quality of the words we produce, these things come with practice. Ease, on the other hand, is a fickle beast. Some days it might feel like words just flow out of you, while on other days, each syllable can be a slog.
This is where persistent, incremental practice can be a game changer. We have to train ourselves to produce words—whether we “feel like it” or not. We have to practice showing up to the page, regardless of whether the writing comes easily.
This reminds me of something I learned practicing the violin with my daughter. I’m not going to lie, the past five years of violin have been brutal. Lady Bug is a strong-willed girl and when she decides she’s not going to practice, no amount of cajoling, begging, arguing, or even threatening will get her to do it. If she weren’t so darn talented, we probably would have let her quit ages ago, but when she picks up the instrument, it’s like it was made for her. The trick, of course, is getting her to pick up the instrument in the first place.
In the beginning, when she would blatantly refuse to practice, the teacher suggested a strategy. “Just have her open the box. Don’t make her pick up the violin or the bow. Just open the box and leave it there on the floor.” The idea was not to attach any expectations to the practice, but to get her used to the idea of opening the box. Eventually, curiosity would win out and she would pick up the violin and try to practice. (I wish I could say this strategy worked every time. It didn’t. But it worked enough that we kept at it.)
Normalize the practice.
We can use a similar strategy with our writing, especially when the writing feels like a challenge. Boot up the computer or pull out the notebook and pen, then just sit and wait. Don’t attach any expectations as to whether it will be a productive writing day or not. Just show up and see what happens.
When we practice showing up, we lower the barrier to entry. We normalize the process and the practice. For example, at this stage, my kids practice their instruments because it’s just something we do in our family. Everyone plays an instrument. Everyone practices. It’s our version of normal. As writers, we need to do the same thing: we need to normalize the practice of writing, and make it “just something we do” rather than turning it into a big deal.
In the past, you may have tried your hand at National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a challenge where you write 50,000 words of a novel in the month of November. What I love about this challenge is that it forces you to show up and write, whether you feel like it or not. With such a tight timeline, there’s no room for dawdling or taking the day off. You have to pour those words onto the page one way or another. For many writers, this challenge is the spark that lights the fire under their backsides and gets them to write that book once and for all.
My one small concern with challenges like this is that there is no room for granting ourselves grace and showing up without expectation. Yes, you have to show up with these challenges, but you also have to produce something and sometimes that’s not in the cards. Just like some days you open the box and don’t pick up the violin, sometimes the writing is just plain hard and no matter what you try, nothing comes out. This is why I myself have never done this challenge in earnest. The few times I have tried, I buckled under the pressure to produce and gave up within a few days.
If you have ever tried this writing challenge (or one like it), I tip my hat to you. While I myself have never gotten past the first few days, I have tremendous admiration for folks who are able to get to the finish line. It is an impressive feat, to be sure.
If you have not done the challenge, I want to propose a low-impact alternative. If you’re into resolutions, practice opening the box, at least for the next month. Show up at the computer and give yourself ten minutes. If no words come, then consider your time clocked in and go about the rest of your day. Chances are, though, after a few days of showing up, the words will eventually start to flow.
Remember, practice is not about rote repetition. When I think of practice, I think of a meditation practice or a yoga practice, where 90% of the work is showing up and being present. Let’s make this new year the one where we show up for ourselves and for our writing.
Until next time, keep writing and keep being awesome!
P.S. For more info on Gabriela Pereira, the founder and instigator of DIY MFA, check out her profile page.