If you go to a good art school (and yes you STEM readers out there, such places do exist) they teach you to think of your art as a practice. And yourself as a practitioner. There’s a purpose to this tradition, although admittedly it takes most art students – myself included – until well after they graduate and are in to their practice to understand why.
Before I say more about practice, I should say why I think this idea is useful at this time for writers. Today the writing world is in a certain amount of turmoil. Digital technology means that the limitations imposed by print have evaporated overnight. And although the change could be seen coming long ago, many writers and publishers are struggling psychologically to adapt. Questions like whether it is still possible to earn a living as a writer, whether self-publishing is a viable route for writers, and in particular who qualifies as a “professional” writer at a time when a personal blog can have more readers than a national newspaper, are much under discussion. And I think the confused welter of responses all stem at heart from two incongruent perceptions of writing – one belonging to the print age, and one the digital.
That word “professional” is one to think on. In the still recent past professional writers were those who produced content for the print publishing industry, for which in return they were paid. Today that line around professional is a lot less clear. A self-published Kindle author or a blogger pushing traffic to Google Adsense account might be considered professionals. They can certainly be making much more money in some cases. But the status of professional, I believe, is still what most writers crave on some level. I also believe that the best thing any writer who wants to become a professional can do, is to stop thinking of writing as a profession at all.
And start thinking of it as a practice.
What do artists mean by the term “practice”. I’m going to put forward three meanings for the term, all of them useful. But perhaps the third is the most significant.
Practice 1 - When asked about the sticky question of “making it” the comedian Steve Martin says “be so good they can’t ignore you”. That’s not a message a celebrity saturated, get rich quick culture likes to hear. And it’s sometimes disturbing how many people bring that mentality to writing. Of all the ways you might try to grasp at fame and fortune, writing is possibly the most masochistic. As I’ve stated *repeatedly* before on this blog, the only way to achieve anything that resembles traditional perceptions of “success” as a writer is to get very good at writing. And yes, even Dan Brown, E L James and Stephanie Meyer are good writers. Within the bounds of what they do, they excel. And once you get beyond the outliers who achieve fame and fortune with a little luck, you find the large number of writers who sustain a career are all good at what they do. Want a long lived career as a feature journalist? You’ll need to be as good as these Pultizer prize winners. Getting that good at anything means practice. And if you want to get that good at writing, then writing is the thing, day in and day out, that you will have to practice. And that does not means just doing – it means studying, reflecting, and critically appraising your own work. There’s no getting around it, if you want to be a writer you’re going to have to practice and study just as hard as you would for any other advanced career.
Practice 2 - Doctors, lawyers and architects also have a practice. But commonly we talk about a legal practice, we mean a business. These are professionals who build a unique skill set, expertise, or creative style. A General Practitioner might have broad knowledge of may disciplines but they have unique knowledge of their patients. Lawyers have areas of expertise and hold delicate and confidential information on their clients. To succeed at the highest levels architects must develop a unique style and vision, like but unlike any other before or after. The business of these professionals – their practice – builds around them as their expertise grow and their relationships to their clients expands. And writers are no different. Haruki Murakami – by any measure among the most successful writers of the today – puts his success down to the fact that he writes books that hook people. And over the decades of his career, millions of people have been hooked by his books. So when he publishes a new one, it sells millions. How different is that to the absurd idea held by many genre and self-published writers that they can “build” a career by flooding stories in to the world at a rate of 10,000 words a day – or 80,000 words in a weekend! - that will sweep them to fame and fortune. Successful writers build their practice book by book, reader by reader.
Practice 3 - For most of my 20s I helped people with writing. I don’t mean helped them learn to write, although in my 30s I’ve now taught creative writing at a dozen or so universities. No. I ran writing workshops and community projects that used writing to help people. Sometimes that meant working with kids. Sometimes old people. Sometimes people with poor mental health. Sometimes people with addictions. Or people who were just poor and lonely and depressed. I wrote a little about this for Aeon magazine last year. One of the things I learnt – and I mean really learnt in the you won’t stick your hand in the fire again kind of way – is that you can’t help people. You can only be there as they help themselves. Which is, when you think about it, much harder. The other thing I learnt is that there is a reason why so many people are drawn to writing. And I’d guess at least a quarter of all people feel a serious draw, at some point in their lives, to expressing themselves seriously in words. And a proportion of those will pursue it. But this isn’t idleness, vanity or ego driving them. Writing, as people explore its potential, is a tremendous tool for growth and development. When someone feels the draw to write, they’re feeling the same draw a daisy feels to turn its face up to the sun. All of us, even those professional writers among us, write to connect with a source of nourishment inside us, without which our souls shrivel up and die. As Ray Bradbury said in Zen in the Art of Writing, if he went a day without writing, he felt restless. Two days, sick. Three days and he felt his mind falling apart.
There’s a term for something that we do that feeds our being in this way. It’s a spiritual practice. Or if that term offends you might call it a health practice. Although in the final account, our spirit and our health are one and the same. I’ve had a meditation practice now for five or six years. It began with sitting on a mat every morning for 30 minutes watching my thoughts. Now it extends in to most of my day, cultivating awareness of the present moment as I experience it. It’s been invaluable to my happiness. And so has my writing practice. When we write, we’re drawing on our deep imagination, that blooms from the unconscious mind where our dreams our kept. And we combine that imagination with language, the very mechanism of our conscious mind. That’s hard. It takes practice. And it is sooooo good for you. Writing is for the mind as running is for the body. Sitting down with a blank page, grasping an image from the imagination and spinning it out in to language is something I do every day. I almost take it for granted. Except when I teach workshops, I see what a revelation it is to people who perhaps never in their lives had that experience. Right there inside everyone – and I do mean everyone without exception – is a wellspring of imagination. Some people struggle with the language to express it. Others have to much language, it gets in the way of the imagination. Different kinds of blocks. But all of them can be worked out.
Really these three meanings of practice are all parts of the same process. You’re drawn to something that you want to excel at, writing for instance, so you begin to practice. That practice, of course, is great for you. It is part of growing and developing as a full human being. And over time as your practice develops, it can also become a profession. Because if you get good enough, they can’t ignore you. As I said up at the top of this, I think the third of these meanings is the most important stage of the process to think through. Because it is the easiest to lose sight of in a world that can leave very little space for good spiritual health.
If you accept, even for the moment, the idea of writing as a spiritual practice, that calls in to question some common ideas about it as a profession. Because while it is entirely possible for your writing practice to grow in to a profession, the attempt to make it a profession can seriously damage it as a practice. The most unhappy and creatively unfulfilled people I know are those who traded in their writing practice for a professional career at a time or in a way that was not in balance with their needs as a practitioner. And its an easy trap to fall in to. If you take the time to get good at writing at all, you’ll quickly find that all kinds of people do in fact stop ignoring you. They’re often extremely kind and generous, sometimes thoughtless, and occasionally malicious. The agent who suggests you write a genre style that’s currently “commercial” but clearly not what you do. The editor who says your writing has to be in close third person because that’s what George R R Martin writes. The reviewer who savages your short story because, on some level, they wish they’d had the courage to write it. Or you can do it to yourself, by giving up on that promising but odd story with no real direction to write something more saleable instead. All of these things can, if balanced with your writing practice, be the right thing to do professionally. But they can also crunch your practice. And more often than not when they do that, they don’t work out professionally either, and you end up with neither.
The happiest and most creatively fulfilled writers I know are the ones who tend to put their writing practice ahead of any and all professional concerns unless they can be balanced. They also, in the counter-intuitive way of such things, tend to be the most successful in professional terms as well. Here is one of them.
Let me flip this around in to another perspective to try and convince any stragglers who are still determined to sell their writing out at the first opportunity. What calls you to writing is the same thing that calls you to reading. A kind of joy, one hopes. It’s the same thing that calls you to play games in the playground as a kid. Or tells you, out of the blue one day, that you need to get in to snowboarding / French cuisine / dog grooming [DELETE AS APPLICABLE] so you go to a class and BOOM meet the person who will become your husband / wife. Some people call that our soul, our higher self, God, intuition. Try not to get turned off if because those aren’t your words. They are just words, in the end. The question is, do you listen and act when when the calling comes? Or do you, instead, react with fear. Because if you’re called to write, but instead try to turn your writing prematurely in to a profession, that’s fear. Maybe it’s rational fear, because writing might mean living a different kind of life than the one your parents / friends our even you once wanted for you. But it’s fear nonetheless. And if you allow fear to dictate your responses in life you’re guaranteeing yourself a great deal of unhappiness.
My way of resisting that fear is always to return to the idea, that I learnt at art school, of my writing as a practice. I try not to ask professional questions – what will sell, who should I network with, what is my status. Instead I focus on the basic questions of a practice. What do I need to learn next to get better? What do I need to make next to grow my practice? Who am I writing for? What do I want to tell them? And the counter-intuative reality is that whenever I focus on my practice, I make professional progress . But whenever I try to be professional, both the profession and the practice suffer.
Like many of my blog posts, I wrote this for myself firstly, but thought I would share it for others on the path.