What I’ve learned about writing practice from living with a musician
“If I don’t practice for a day, I know it. If I don’t practice for two days, the critics know it. And if I don’t practice for three days, the public knows it.”
~ Louis Armstrong
I live with a musician. Every afternoon, when he’s finished with his inbox and his daily office work, he closes his door, then he takes out his guitar and he practices. For two hours. Always the same song. Every day. For two weeks, maybe three or four.
For the last three weeks it’s been “Sultans of Swing,” by the Dire Straits – the song that played when I first tongue-kissed a boy. In September he practiced “Riders on the Storm” by the Doors for a month, which brought back many more memories of my wayward youth.
If I were writing a memoir about my formative years, the songs he plays would make great writing prompts.
“Describe what you were doing when song x played on the radio. Write for 10 minutes.”
Practice, practice, practice
But I learn something much more valuable. To play a song well from scratch, takes time, effort and deliberate practice.
It’s exactly the same for writers. Writing practice is as simple as shutting the door to your office (and your inbox) and sitting down for two or three hours to write with focused intention.
The key is to do as the musician does. Just keep those fingers moving. Whether it’s across the strings of a guitar or across the page or keyboard. The ONLY way to get better is to practice, practice and practice some more.
Deliberate writing practice and the 10,000 Hour Rule
You’ve probably heard of the “10,000 Hour Rule”. Research suggests that the masters in their field – from a baseball champion to a concert pianist – have spent a minimum of 10,000 hours deliberately perfecting their craft.
That works out to around 20 hours of practice per week for ten years. Scary? You bet! But when you think of it as a 3 hour commitment per day, it suddenly becomes less scary.
But make no mistake, mastery demands all of you. 3 hours of daily writing practice is a serious commitment, it means you are devoting yourself totally to your craft. It’s what it will take to finish your final draft.
Deliberate practice is not mindless repetition
Writing prompts are great as a warm-up, to get the words flowing and to tickle your imagination. It’s what finger warm-up exercises are for a musician.
But then, like a musician who practices deliberately, playing a song from beginning to finish, many times over, the writer must write a first, or a second, or a 22nd draft from beginning to end.
Two hours (let’s make that three!) is a good amount of time to write 500-1000 words comfortably. It’s enough to write a draft of an entire scene, a short chapter or a blog post.
Deliberate writing practice is not simple repetition or writing what you are good at. It requires you to identify your flaws and to work at improving on those areas.
For me it’s dialogue. So last weekend, while my partner practiced a new strum pattern, I spent 3 hours practicing how to write better dialogue.
It wasn’t that much fun – I could barely look at the crap I wrote – but it’s the only way forward.
Learning to live with the crappy first draft
Writers like musicians have to tolerate the bad first attempt. That’s something else I learned from observing a musician practice.
To learn a song from scratch and to play it well enough to perform in front of an audience, takes many bad versions of the same song.
To put it another way, writers and musician are artists who need to accept that living with discomfort for long periods of time is part of the calling.
Practice gives you muscle memory
A musician relies on creating muscle memory. To play a song on stage, even if it’s only at the local pub, the musician needs to internalise the song, until it becomes automatic through repetition.
If you have a regular writing practice, you know what it feels like when your fingers start to long for the movement of the pen.
Close the door and allow yourself to make mistakes
Another thing I learned from living with a musician is that he closes the door before he starts to practice. He needs to feel free to make mistakes.
Musicians know the difference between practice and performance. Practice has the purpose of building muscle memory and to improve technique. And the best way to do that is behind closed doors.
It’s what Stephen King in his book On Writing tells writers to do. Write the bad first draft behind closed doors, he says. Allow yourself to write garbage and to show your flaws as a writer. Then work on those flaws in order to improve your craft.
Don’t cling to your words, let them go and start again
The difference between me the writer and my partner the musician is that while the tunes he plays dissipate the moment they are being strummed, my crappy sentences remain a permanent record on the page.
Like the musician, writers have to feel free to release their words and to start again. The more you practice, the more confident you’ll become that there is always more where those sentences came from.
Just like the guitarist has to strum a song all over again, every time I write it’s if I have to learn to do it all over again.
Here’s a quick challenge for you:
What is an area where you need to improve? Is it dialogue? Is it to show rather than tell your reader how your character feels?
Whatever it is, sit down now for 20 minutes of deliberate writing practice. Even if it’s crap, just keep going. You will get better at this!
Over to you, what’s an area where you need to improve?
Please join me in the comments below.