Thursday, April 15, 2010


[This is cross-posted from Boise's Novel Orchard, the rockin' writing community that's asked me to be their guest blogger for the month. Check them out here.]
I started taking organ lessons in college, for basically one reason: I wanted to play an instrument that was larger than my dorm room. At organ concerts, I’d admired the beautiful pipes and felt the sound rumble and echo through the concert hall. I couldn’t wait to climb up to the organ loft and pull out all the stops, to feel my whole body shake as I made music.
But after signing up, I realized I only got a few hours a week to play the “big organ.” Most of the time, I was relegated to a tiny practice room. This instrument is tiny; you could probably stack ten or twelve of this little organ in the big organ loft. There are only two stops, or varieties of sound (as opposed to the big organ’s 53) and the highest one is tinny and whiny, slightly off-key. But this actually makes the practice room a better place to practice.
When I talk about practice, I mean the slow, painstaking process of learning the notes. Figuring out how to move smoothly from one note to the next. Playing slowly, one note at a time, until it hardly sounds like music anymore. When I practice, I’m teaching my fingers the path between notes, locking down the fingerings into muscle memory, so when the lights are up and the concert hall is full of people, my fingers will know where to go. And I’m also memorizing how the music sounds. Soon I can hear the next note before it’s even played. I’ll know what it sounds like when it sounds right.
So what does this have to do with writing?
Many of us write in search of those “concert hall” moments—flashes of inspiration. Maybe a word or phrase gets stuck in your head, or a character comes to life suddenly in your imagination. Soon the words are pouring effortlessly out onto the page. But what happens when those flashes don’t happen?
What sustains me as a writer, day to day, is not those fickle flashes, but rather approaching writing as practice. Then it becomes less about the sheer power of your words, but about the little things instead. The feel of the keys as they click under your fingers, letter by letter. The smell of the ink from your ballpoint pen. The more you sit down to write, the more these sensations get imprinted into your muscle memory, into your unconscious.
The sounds of sentences are making their way into your memory too, when you practice. You might try a short punchy sentence one day, or a long rhythmic list the next. You’ll experiment with colons and semicolons and commas. And you’ll start to hear your own voice coming out.
That’s why I consider journaling, blog posts, forum posts, to be writing practice as well. You’re still sitting down to the computer, still working on finding the right words to express your ideas. You are teaching your fingers their way. So when you do get a sudden inspiration, and you grab for your notebook or computer, your body knows how it feels to sit down at the desk. Your writer’s “ear” knows the variety of sentences available to you, and can choose the right one. And the writing that comes out of this “performance” is stronger than it would have been without those hours of practice.
Malcolm Gladwell (an amazing nonfiction writer who you should check out, if you haven’t already) recently wrote a book called Outliers about what it takes to be successful. In this book he tells the story of the Beatles (way back before they were, you know, The Beatles) and a series of concerts that they played at Hamburg, Germany. This was a brutal gig—they played at noisy clubs to rowdy patrons, 8 ours nonstop per night, 7 nights a week. By the time they became a US rock and roll sensation, they had performed 1200 times. Twelve hundred. Most bands don’t perform 1200 time in their whole careers! That, according to Gladwell, was one of the things that set them apart from other bands. They had performing in their blood, in their muscle memory. They had put in their practice time.
Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become truly great at what you do. 10,000 hours! If I stuck to the college concert hall schedule, it would take me 39 years to be a great organist. Truth be told, I don’t care about the organ that much…but I do care about telling stories. And so, each morning, I sit down with my notebook, grab my ballpoint pen. I’ve got a lot of practicing to do.

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