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Practicing Practice

Lisbon street art  Credit: KRT

By Kristen Thompson, Associate Coordinator, Bluegrass Writers Studio

     Many writers have yet to develop a reverence for unseen work. A blank page and a field of white with a blinking cursor are held in mind as precious marble that cannot be marred with misstrokes. But there are many ways to hammer and chisel, and plenty of stone to work with before you get close to the figure within. The angles of the chisel and the strength of the hammer blows must be learned in order to carve the figure once you come to the right place.

     A vocalist might sing a piece of music for weeks before a show, and writers may have drawers and hard drives full of attempts. We've all heard of that kind of practice. But before the famed aria, there are warm-ups, the basics of the art that aren't heard in the final piece, yet they have everything to do with its success. Writing exercises are a stockpiling of skills and ideas, and, like singing scales, help put the right note on the tip of your tongue when you need it. 

     One way to hang out backstage in your mind is to make a list of subjects you have no interest in writing about: hernias, water buffalo, Charlie Sheen, almond bark, vinyl siding. Absolutely no pressure, right? As your mind filters through all of existence for the things you aren’t motivated by, it will come across some things that make you think, well, that’s fair game. I might have something to say about that. List those in another column as you go along: Eskimos, gristmills, pancetta, folk dancing, house finches. As an added bonus, word lists also give you interesting juxtapositions: folk dancing house finches. All of these words and ideas become available to you as skills, new brain pathways. 

     Baseball players take batting practice, sure. But before that, there are hamstring stretches, bicep curls, Wade Boggs playing catch. Basketball players perform drills to improve the power of their jumps. The fans cheer as the point guard levitates for a three-pointer in the final minutes, but they were never at the gym, watching her master plyometrics boxes and doing calf raises. Football players practice the quickness of their footsteps and the agility of their turns. Practicing turns develops your ability to think fast on your feet. What if writers committed hours a day to practicing turns? You don't even have to make up the first line. “I met a gin-soaked barroom queen in Memphis …” Then what? She said that Jesse Presley was her favorite of the twins. Ouch. 

     In order to practice to the fullest extent, you must let go of the perfectionist writing method, wherein each word, as it lands on the page, must hit its mark completely. Sometimes you'll insult the King of Rock and Roll and feel bad about it. Or not. Practice, etymologically, means "to perform repeatedly to acquire skill, to learn by repeated performance." A writer has to acquire skill, to learn by repetition, just like the practitioners of any other art. By the Greek root, a practitioner - someone who has practiced - is “fit for action.” Someone who is practiced is an “expert.” So in the end, practice makes perfect.     

Contact Information

Kristen Thompson

Published on June 18, 2014

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