My sister Angelica writes often about the flow of practicing, especially as a classically trained musician and now as a yogi. I’m not a classical pianist and don’t ever plan to be, however like many other artists and creatives I share the need to “practice,” and the need to develop strategies to practice best.
In her undergrad and graduate days studying piano, Angelica would tell me that she had to hole up for hours practicing in the piano rooms, seeing no one except for another piano or music major doing the same thing. That’s what a good pianist does, she would tell me, explaining that practicing eight hours a day was a norm. The need to practice in this way seemed pretty foreign to me, until I wrote a senior thesis last year.
At my alma mater, Hampshire College, our senior thesis work mimics the intensity of graduate programs (albeit on a different scale, as we have one year to complete our work which sometimes includes both the research and the writing.) I researched for my creative non-fiction narrative during the Fall, living in Cuba, and came back in the Spring with few commitments aside from the need to sit down everyday, write, and complete the work. Instead of eight hours at the piano keys I faced eight hours a day on the laptop.
So what happened? For one, I learned experientially that writing is a practice. (Something I had “known” about before, but had never confronted so strongly.) Writing a final work that I could be proud of (and that my professors would pass) didn’t necessarily have a lot to do with creative intelligence, compelling subject matter, or a way with words. I needed all of those things too, however just as importantly I needed to know how to enter the flow of writing. Through the flailing, here are some of the strategies I developed (or wish I had) to finish my work:
Accept that Practice is Practice (Or, a draft is a draft)
It took me quite a while to realize how important this idea was for me to move on with my work. Angelica used to have performance anxiety, and she realized that one way she could address this was to simply perform more. She performed so infrequently and for such high stake events (such as degree recitals recitals at the end of each year) that it was understandable that she would feel overwhelming anxiety on the big day. While I was writing my thesis I wanted every word, every paragraph, every chapter, to be beautiful, compelling, thought provoking, and publication ready. Those are some pretty unrealistic standards that would keep me from writing at all, and I had to learn that practice is practice and a draft is a draft. Looking back, I needed to build more time in to my senior year to have time to “practice” and feel the pressure of the deadline less strongly.
Engage the Body to Engage the Mind
I have to admit that during my thesis I often let myself slip with this one, holing up in the library without making time to exercise. When I came to my senses, though, I would go for a swim and come back to my work refreshed and more focused.
Accept That There Are Bursts
Routines help us commit to our work and give us the time to truly practice. This is one of my goals currently as I begin the practice of writing again. (I also want to use the idea of the “ready position” to help me have a productive practicing session.) During my thesis I had to accept, however, that there would be bursts and these were a crucial part of my practicing flow as well. Truthfully these bursts were often instigated by a looming deadline a day or two away, but I found that when I accepted that the work needed to be done I could actually enjoy the process of writing in huge bursts. (Perhaps because I finally had to let my inner censor rest so I could turn something in to my professors.)
What other strategies do you use to enter the flow of practicing? Do you experience bursts as well, and do you consider this to be a helpful or harmful part of your flow? Do you need to remind yourself that “practice is practice”?