Practice Your Craft (A Lesson for Myself)
By Rachel Revelle
I wrote part of this post on a legal pad. Does that sound completely foreign? What would cause me to write things out in pen and ink, when typing in a Word document is basically ubiquitous and so much faster? Well for one, I still hold out for cursive writing, and will defend its increased speed and easier flow compared to print. But regardless, the process is certainly more measured and deliberate, and I think that’s just what I needed.
I was thinking a lot about the process of writing this weekend. I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, after watching the video of Ann Patchett’s talk to the Duke Class of 2016, and reading about Maya Angelou’s speech to the same group.
Maya Angelou gave her annual address to my class in 2007, and I was awed. She is a master of words, stringing them together with the rhythms of jazz and with the weight of history. Her language consumes. I’m not sure what Angelou’s writing process is, whether she sits down with a legal pad or a notebook or a laptop, but she clearly focuses on expression in a very deliberate way. She also pays attention to her influences—both literary and familial—and urges others to do so.
When I pay attention to Angelou as an influence on me, I find myself focusing my speech, phrasing in a way that will make the most impact, and delighting in an expression that truly does justice to my thoughts. I write and speak with greater intentionality when I have a clear and non-distracted focus on something that inspires me.
I do know a little more about Ann Patchett’s writing process. She shared that when she starts to formulate a storyline, she builds it up in her mind, it becomes absolutely the most inspired storyline anyone has ever conceived, and then… “everything that is glittery and gorgeous and full of life” comes out on paper and is dead. Anyone who has tried to produce anything—not just writing—has most likely experienced this block. Even in these short blog posts, I feel the agony and disappointment of translating my mind’s work into a reality. As Patchett says, going from “head to hand is the death of dreams!”
The solution is simple, yet tremendous: focused and devoted practice, until you make “a clear passageway from head to hand.” She attributes her success as a writer to the fact that she can sit for eight hours a day and simply practice the art of writing. Neither Patchett nor Angelou woke up one day as Great Writers, and they only qualify as such because they work at it. Every day. All the time. Malcolm Gladwell made popular in his book Outliers the theory that the most successful in any field—from Bill Gates to the Beatles—have put in at least 10,000 hours of practice at their craft. Mastery isn’t something one simply acquires; it’s something one earns, little by little.
This is probably not a message we want to hear. But hopefully the craft we are practicing is something that we love. Investing time and energy includes us in a community of that craft, at whatever level we may be. I found it a little bit easier to put pen to paper when I was immersed in the language of Angelou as a literary influence, and in the frame of mind of a writer. So focus on the things that give you inspiration, enjoy being in the community of your craft, and then practice producing your own work. In an incremental, disciplined process, you will start to make your own contributions.