The Art of Practicing is Hard to Master

BY JULIA LEDERER

To practice.
The practice of something is the act of doing it.
Practicing is doing, is generating, is trying.
I am practicing typing right now. The procedure of writing a sentence.
A fragment.
A fragment.
Another fragment.
Practicing is the “repeated performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it.”

In my practice, writing, I wonder what that “proficiency” will look and feel like once acquired. It’s like a mouse I can’t catch, always running away, never sticking in a glue trap long enough for me to get a good sense of it. I am never completely sure I’ve seen it, but I know it exits: I can hear it living in the walls around me. Proficiency nibbles holes in pages in the night, then disappears by morning. It’s got to be around here somewhere. I see it in other people’s offices and homes, the mouse darting by. Some have it trapped in a cage, a pet they take out and play with. They know that they are proficient.
They know it’s there, without having to look.
I just keep buying cheese and building new traps.
Maybe this is my practice.
Most enjoyable practices involve cheese at least a little.

Acquiring “proficiency” is “reaching a level of achievement.”
When we achieve, we are successful.

There’s no point in trying to define success. Except I Googled it, just in case.
Success is “the accomplishment of an aim or purpose.”

I like definitions. They make me feel like I know something concrete about what I’m doing.
What I should be doing.
What should I be doing?
Googling that is not as useful. And I already know the answer. Practicing.
Which, for me, is writing. Sometimes it’s reading or researching or watching or thinking or emailing. But writing is the answer most of the time.
And writing is a practice prone to consistent failure. It can always be better. I can always have done more. Even when I have “succeeded” at reaching a concrete aim, like finishing a draft, there are failures within that. Failure is a byproduct of writing, like milk out of a cow.
Spurting everywhere, but better that than a dried up utter.
And nourishing, eventually.

No matter how much I practice, I’m never going to get it right on all accounts. And that notion can be a comfort in dealing with criticism and rejection, but it can also be a freeze-ray straight to the brain. A feeling that keeps me from practicing at all. Because when success and proficiency are so unreliable, it can be daunting to practice anyway. Repeatedly.

For me, it’s not practicing at failing, which I am well-versed in, it’s failing at practicing that’s the real issue.

I read about writers who practice steadily. All of the great ones I hear interviewed have a strict routine. Toni Morrison writes every day before dawn. Philip Roth writes all day, every day. When Haruki Murakami is writing a book he gets up at four am, works for six hours, runs ten kilometres and/or swims fifteen hundred meters, reads and listens to music, then goes to bed. Every day.

These writers are full-time, professional writers. Their resources are different than mine, but that’s a result of their accomplishments. Their practice to a point beyond proficiency, and their resulting successes.

When I am asked about how I work, there are only a few things I know for sure, and none of them involve getting up before 8am.
I am better in the morning, but the normal morning—nine is a good starting time.

My writing practice is more like yoga.
There are postures.
I start in the inverse of a Child’s pose, sitting upright and rigid at my desk. My mind is loud, my jaw is clenched, and my fingers hover above my keyboard like alien ships unsure of the best place to land. This is “Attempted Adult” pose. On the brink of work, of discovery, but not following through.
I return to this pose too often throughout my practice. The advanced version involves the chewing of the lip and a restless right leg.

The second posture starts a standing series involving props. Edible ones. There is a gentle flow between postures that takes me out of Attempted Adult to standing in my kitchen. Extended versions of this pose can involve next level props such as: a blender, an oven, a knife.

The third major pose is one of rest, usually in or on my bed. The active version involves spreading out the cue cards of to-do lists I’ve made, and realizing there is nothing on them that I can cross off, because texting, showering, and list-making are not on any of my to-do lists.
And those are the things I have done.

BUT this is when I focus on my breath, like all good yogis do when they practice.

I hold my breath and open a file.

Then.
Then I write.

(An easier entry point to this posture and flow when my focus is very off involves internet blocking software.)

I stay here for as long as I can. Until I have to go do something, or get distracted, or my brain gets that melted feeling, which feels good and tired but also like there might be grilled cheese dripping out of my ears. This marks the conclusion of my practice.

In between, there are optional poses and flows: dust-busting, baking, the dreaded social-media-ing posture that always leaves me sore.
Sometimes I go outside and wander around with a backpack full of writing utensils. So I’m ready to work at all times, in all places. It’s all in the readiness. I will never fail to be prepared to practice. If you carry a yoga mat around for long enough, eventually it feels like you probably did yoga, at some point during the day.

Recently, I started practicing actual yoga.
I like that it’s quiet and I always feel better afterwards.
This is true of my creative practice as well, when I commit. When I work through the poses and get into a writing flow with focus, when I become fully invested in the present moment of doing it, of creating.
It’s quiet and I always feel better afterwards.

But it’s hard to remember that at the beginning. It’s stiff at the start.

Julia Lederer is an internationally acclaimed playwright. Her plays have been produced across North America, in cities including New York, Chicago, and Toronto. She has developed work with: Roseneath Theatre, Nightwood Theatre, Birdtown & Swanville, Driftwood, The Thousand Islands Playhouse and at the Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Alaska. Her plays include: The Best Plan for Living Happily (VideoFag), Reality Theatre (winner of Driftwood Theatre’s Jury Prize), and With Love and a Major Organ (“Best of Fringe”, "Patron’s Pick”, and “Outstanding New Playat the Toronto Fringe Festival). It was published by Scirocco Press, and can be purchased on Amazon and elsewhereWith Love and a Major Organ will be produced as part of the Theatre at Boston Court’s 2017 season in Los Angeles and at the 2017 Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Alaska.

 

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