Writing practice isn't easy to explain. "What do you write about?" people often ask. My immediate instinct: "Everything," or "I write through the swampy, inner landscape of my mind and see what surfaces." A long gulp of wine and half smile later, the conversation is over.
So how do you describe writing practice?
First: the godmother of writing practice is Natalie Goldberg, a now 60-something woman who hails from Long Island but has lived in Minneapolis and Northern New Mexico for most of her adult life. Goldberg's approach to writing - which she defined as "writing practice" thirty years ago in her groundbreaking book Writing Down the Bones - marries concepts of Zen Buddhism with writing.
The essential building blocks of writing practice are a prompt and a timer. Write continuously on a given prompt for a set amount of time (ten minutes, twenty minutes, an hour). Use prompts you find in writing books or generate them yourself. Do this regularly. Daily, weekly. It doesn't matter. The commitment is what counts.
There are ground rules to writing practice. Keep the pen going for the entire allotted time no matter what (don't answer that text, ignore the fact you remembered you needed to pay rent today, etc). Write whatever first comes to mind, even if it doesn't make sense. Don't cross anything out. Don't worry about spelling or grammar. There are more, which Goldberg outlines in all of her writing books and which I teach students in my workshops and classes.
So far, a lot of what I've described is the what of writing practice. Here's the why:
Writing practice primes the pump for creativity. If I practice write in the morning - say two ten-minute sessions in response to prompts - I find words spilling out of me for the rest of the day. I pull my car to the side of the road and jot down a short poem that's just come to me. Novel approaches to projects I'm working on surface. Writing articles, essays - even emails - feels easier.
Writing practice is a tool for transformation. "When we write, we begin to taste the texture of our own mind," says Goldberg. Just as in Zen meditation, in writing practice we're sifting through the sands of our inner thoughts. After time, the lightweight sand - our discursive thoughts - gets filtered out. What's left in the sieve are meaty pebbles of What Really Matters. Our Essential Truth. Self awareness blossoms. Our inner voice rings clear.
In her pioneering work on living wholeheartedly, Brené Brown points out that more than 70 percent of participants in her research did some form of short writing. "Many of them worked through their emotions in letters that they knew they would never send but needed to write...Working through blinding shame on paper is far less painful than working it out on a person."
One of my favorite Natalie Goldberg writing prompts is this one from Writing Down the Bones:
"Take something you feel strongly about, whether it is positive or negative, and write about it as thought you love it. Go as far as you can, writing as though you love it, then flip over and write about the same thing as though you hate it. Then write about it perfectly neutral."
I've worked through a handful of complex personal decisions using this process. It's powerful.
Writing practice builds fundamental writing skills. Oh, the beloved myth of the writer: pounding away at a clunky old typewriter, cigarette hanging from the side of the mouth, the Great American Novel spills forth through uninterrupted inspiration. Ask any NY Times bestselling author and they'll beg to differ. Just like anything - mastering a sport, learning to play guitar, becoming a talented surgeon - writing takes practice.
Certain prompts cultivate specific writing skills. For example, you might work with the prompt: go to a public space and jot down snippets of conversation you overhear. Through this exercise, you gain an understanding of how people actually talk. What they say and how they say it. What they don't say. What gestures they employ. Your writing of dialogue then improves.
I'll sometimes give the assignment to "write the sky" every day for a week. There's a tuning into the clouds, the shifting weather, the quality of light. Through this prompt, students are "building muscles" to incorporate nature into a scene they write in order to influence the mood.
Writing practice is an idea generator. My writing practice notebooks are organic gardens. Diverse crops of ideas for essays and articles grow in the rich soil of the words I write.
It never ceases to amaze me: sit down with three other people to write in response to a prompt and each will write from an entirely different angle. I begin writing about the quality of light coming in the three-quarter length windows of the cafe on Newport Avenue I'm sitting in. My mind wanders - and my pen follows - to how my daughter noticed the morning light was different today, the first day after Daylight Savings. Aha! An idea germinates for an article on how children are naturally in tune with the shifting of seasons.
Ready to begin a writing practice? Check out my upcoming workshops. And these are some good books to help you get started:
Writing Down the Bones, Wild Mind, and Old Friend from Far Away - all by Natalie Goldberg
Writer's Book of Days - by Judy Reeves