Sunday, August 29, 2010


"Write a little every day."

If you've a writer, you've heard this advice. If you've tried to be a writer, or thought about being a writer, or dated a writer, or had to pass a freshman composition class, you've heard this advice. And for writers, it is sound. Use it or lose it is the great commandment of human neuroplasticity, encapsulating the harsh truth that our brains optimize themselves to do whatever it is we ask them to do.

Which is why, incidentally, we are all stunningly good at driving. Oh, sure, I know you are a far superior Mistress of the Motor Vehicle than the yahoo who cut you off on the interstate this morning, or the moron just ahead of you yesterday daring to drive the speed limit for 15 miles in a no passing zone. (FYI that person was me. What is this mysterious middle finger gesture you are all making? I'm so pleased to be included in your quaint Southern rituals!)

But the mere fact that we are able to execute, at breakneck speeds, as complex an activity as careering a metal box through a crowded field of metal boxes, speaks to the power of practice. Driving is astronomically difficult for a novice, as are socializing and coordinating breathing with swallowing, but because we are forced to repeat these activities over and over -and over and over and over and over- we become startlingly, unthinkingly, adept.

Want to get good at something? Shut up and do it again.

But what if we don't want to get good? Say I am not a writer and do not particularly care to become one (there are more than enough writers in the world). Should I bother to "write a little every day," or should I get busy practicing things the things at which I actually want or need to improve? (E.g., filling out forms; corralling very small children; brewing tea.) What's the point of practicing, if not to improve oneself?

I've been giving this a lot of though, ever since one of my Facebook acquaintances issued a general directive, to all of us out there in cyberspace, to write a little every day. His argument was that writing is a fundamental skill.

But in many jobs, including both of mine, it isn't. Good writing is useful, yes- it smooths out job queries and makes for less agonizing program notes. But it is far from necessary. My therapy progress notes consist of marking the letters "P" and "NP" in a series of blank squares, and it is possible to go through entire concert seasons without putting your fingers to a keyboard that doesn't yowl when touched.

Is my friend wrong about writing every day? Should we practice only what we want, or need, to be good at? Or are there some practices -writing, perhaps- which are inherently valuable, worthwhile no matter whether or not they serve you?

As I get older, I believe more and more doggedly that we should write a little every day. Each of us, all of us: writers and non-writers alike. We should read a little every day. We should sing a little every day. We should walk a little every day. We should persist, with the stubborn persistence that is the pure heart of practicing, in doing things not because we should, but because we can.

Every day, save for Christmas, Thanksgiving, days I spend entirely on planes, and days I vomit, I practice my instrument. I do it because I have to, because if I do not, I will not be as good as I need to be to get paid to play, nor as good as I need to be to satisfy myself. It is instrumental practicing in both senses of that term: I practice to get somewhere.

How much more joyful to practice without expectation! How much more fulfilling (no, that's wrong; not more fulfilling, but differently fulfilling) to repeat an activity because....well, just because! I sing just because. I run just because. I write -I am lucky enough to write- just because.


wombat said...

I suspect you'll know how I feel about this topic, my dear. No one has a gun to your head forcing you to perform and practice! You DO do it because you can, not because you must. If it doesn't feel that way, why? Those other things, we do because they expand our selves in some way. If writing doesn't do it for you, maybe reading does. Maybe it isn't so much what we do rather than that we do it at all that makes such activities important? In a perfect world, our careers should also expand our selves. Sadly, the world is far from perfect.

my word verification is "thyap." Care to venture a definition?

Anne said...

Yes, but it's instrumental practicing, purposeful practicing. I'm talking about the kind of practicing that serves no purpose. I'm wondering if there really isn't something intrinsically valuable in purposeless practicing...