“A thousand books on tennis won’t improve your serve, but a thousand serves will.”
~ Rick DeMarinis, from an excerpt of his article printed in The Writer, November 1985, and reprinted in the November 2010 issue.
As I sat in a hallway at work the other day, I overheard someone practicing the tuba. The music climbed the scale with perfect tone but then squealed and tumbled into low vibrations, like the sounds of a diesel truck unwilling to start. I flashed back to a recent conversation with my son.
“Mommy,” he said, “I want to play the trumpet.”
“That’s excellent!” I cheered. Then, I rattled off stipulations and requirements that he ignored until he heard the word “lessons.”
“No, mom. I don’t want to take lessons. I just want to play the trumpet.”
My son and I are not so different in that way.
“I just want to write a novel.” How many times have I said that before?
In the beginning, I didn’t have time for books about the craft or a writing class or advice about failed first novels.
“I just want to write,” I repeated.
But, writing – like tennis or trumpet playing or…anything, really – is rarely done well the first time or the first hundred times. To hone my writing skills, I needed diligence, a willingness to learn, and a daily commitment.
And, I needed to practice.
I understand that now, so I practice my writing in several ways.
1. Morning pages. Every day I write one to three pages — of rants, self-doubts, or goals for the day. Often, I start off by reminding myself what day of the week it is, a challenge in itself sometimes. Occasionally, I record a milestone, like a draft complete or a short story’s Honorable Mention.
2. Letters to my best friend. Inspired by Lynn at The Letter Jar, who is on a mission to compose 365 letters in 365 days, I began writing letters to a dear friend with two small children. Phone calls are near to impossible when you have small kids at home. Besides, a hand-written letter is a treasure after a long day of laundry, meals, and redirection. While it’s a different kind of writing, it draws out my creative side just the same and often leads to story-telling. Plus, I reconnect with my dear friend in an old, and more intimate, way.
3. Writing exercises. Every other Wednesday, I face a strict deadline to post a story, by midnight, based on a word prompt. While the deadline is self-imposed, I have good reasons why I don’t blow it off: 1) I am motivated to write something new, 2) I stretch my writer’s mind by forcing myself to write outside of the box (a psychopomp might stand at your death bed wearing a hooded cloak or he might just show up in a Mets cap), and 3) each attempt at the exercise reinforces my commitment to writing.
4. Submitting. I’m not talking about submitting to my inner editor or the lackadaisical attitude of my muse some days. I mean, that whenever and wherever I can, I submit a completed story. I’m a firm believer that there’s much to be gained in the practice of writing cover letters, following submission guidelines, and crafting the ever-painful three sentence bio.
5. Reading. Nowadays, on top of novels and short story collections, I do read books and magazines on and about writing. Then, I translate my experience as a reader into my perspective as a writer, by writing a post about an inspiring article or interviewing a guest author.
6. Writing workshops and Author Readings. Workshops help me grow as a writer in the areas of craft and in giving and receiving feedback (which complements all lessons learned about writing). Also, when I attend an Author Reading, I learn the art of not sweating buckets or passing out while standing at a podium, in front of a roomful of peers, reading your story.
What kinds of exercises help you practice your writing?