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practice makes progress

things I learned by choosing my dreams and becoming a writer, pt. 1

I’ve been a storyteller since Day 1.

I suppose it all goes back to my parents reading to me as a child. My mom was the queen of picture books, everything from classics like Dr. Seuss and the Bernstein Bears to Dinotopia and The Little Soul & the Sun. My dad was the one who introduced me to novels, most importantly The Hobbit, which is the first story I can ever remember hearing. From then on, I knew that this is what I wanted to do with my life: to ell just one story that would mean as much to just one person as Middle-earth meant to me.

That burning desire has followed me through my entire life, but I ignored it for a long time. All throughout my adolescence and young adulthood, I made abortive attempts to write a fantasy novel, but every time it sputtered to a halt around the halfway mark. I knew I wanted to write, but I didn’t know what I wanted to say.

When I finally finished my novel The Place Where Magic Begins this past year, it was like a dream come true. Quite literally: Ana, the novel’s anxious teenage protagonist, has dreams that magically come true, in a world where magic has been outlawed. I wrote the opening lines of the novel in a notebook the nurse gave me when I checked onto a psych ward for a week in August 2017, and I finished it two-and-a-half years later in an all-night writing session that found Ana waking to greet the dawn just as the sun rose over the lip of the world outside my window. It is, without a doubt, the single thing I’m most proud of having created.

(Thus far at least…!)

Finally allowing myself to be a writer rather than just someone who writes, querying literary agents with a book I wrote and revised to completion (!!!), hasn’t just fulfilled the dearest wish of a four-year-old bibliophile. It’s also taught me a lot about how to be human – and I’d like to share some of those lessons with you in a blog series called "Things I Learned by Choosing My Dreams and Becoming a Writer."

This series isn’t so much “writing advice” as it is “life lessons I stumbled over along the way." Whether you’re a writer yourself or have always secretly wanted to be one, a creative of any other description or just a human trying to make meaning in an increasingly atomized and chaotic world, I hope these insights are of service to you!

Let’s begin with Lesson Number One…

  1. Practice Makes Progress

A Catholic laywoman went on retreat to a Benedictine convent. Benedictines pray eight times a day in what’s called the Liturgy of the Hours, and that includes Matins or Vigils, a service which takes place at 2am. It’s a rigorous practice, to say the least! On the third or fourth day of her retreat, our sleep-deprived laywoman turned to one of the nuns and asked, “What are we doing? Why on earth are we waking up at 2am to pray?!” The nun looked back at her, smiled, and said gently, “We pray because the bell rang.”

We pray because the bell rang. Not because we’ve had some powerful spiritual insight that forces us awake and demands our attention. Not because we’ve received a sudden revelation from the Lord (or Lady, or ONENESS, however you prefer to think of Them). Because the bell rang. Because that’s the practice to which we have committed ourselves. You might say that Benedictines pray eight times a day as a form of spiritual fitness training, so that when Spirit does show up, when they do feel the Presence of the Divine, they’re in “good shape” to listen and to act upon what they hear.

You don’t have to be a religious person for this to ring true. Any writer will tell you that you can’t just write when inspiration strikes – you have to practice writing, even (or perhaps especially) when it’s difficult or seems pointless. You might use the metaphor of a jazz musician. They may seem “touched” when they play, as if they were channeling something greater than themselves. But they’re only able to do so because, for every hour-long performance, they’ve spent a hundred hours practicing. It’s not necessarily fun – if you’ve ever taken piano lessons and quietly (or not so quietly) resented your teacher for making you learn your scales, you’ll know exactly what I mean. But it’s necessary. Even inborn talent means little without being tempered by dedication and discipline.

But for those of us who do have a bit of natural writing talent, when the Muse doesn’t come to call, when the lightning doesn’t fly from our fingertips onto the waiting page, it can seem like we’ve lost our touch. I can tell you from hard experience, it’s way too easy to set down our works-in-progress and simply wait until inspiration returns. But as the French biologist Louis Pasteur put it, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” Paradoxically enough, some of my best writing has come, not when I've been high on the rush of authorial mania, but when I’ve been toiling along on a manuscript, putting words to paper like pulling teeth. Suddenly, in the midst of the grind, an insight will flash across my consciousness which never may have come if I hadn't prepared the ground for it with all this seeming drudgery. Perhaps you can relate. My point is, the discipline of writing is like any other: practice may not make perfect, but it does make progress.

Of course, there are many different practices for different kinds of people. Not everybody is called to be a Benedictine, the same way not everybody is called to crank out six pages a day like Stephen King. Some people like to do writing sprints, getting as many words on the page as they can in a fixed amount of time; I prefer to set a daily word goal (1,000) and work toward that. Likewise, I like to rise early and write first thing in the morning, but you might find late nights the best time to settle in and let the magic happen. Some writers will use rewards as an incentive; others find certain settings more conducive to creativity than others. I'm often at my most productive in the corner of a favorite coffee shop between the hours of 8am-12pm - but of course with covid-19, I’ve had to adapt for my own safety and others’. The trick is to find a practice that supports your “writerly health” in your current life circumstances – and then commit to it.

Your creativity will thank you.

So: what practices or routines support your creativity? What’s a practice you might like to adopt, but haven’t yet? (Why not try it out over the coming week?) What are some of the habits you’ve picked up that maybe aren’t so helpful anymore? Start a conversation in the comments – I’d love to hear from you. 😊

Blessin’s, --Tom

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