Every time I write something, I look back at it, especially after I’ve removed myself from it for a while, and I find all kinds of changes that need to be made: word choices that need to be emended, proofreading errors, structural problems. Anything that has gone wrong with a piece of writing will reveal itself to you with time.
If you’re looking at your writing and you’re completely happy with it, then there’s really only two possibilities:
- You have achieved a level of equanimity that rivals the Buddha himself.
- You haven’t actually read what you wrote.
Either is fine, but if you’re really trying to achieve clarity and excellence in your expression, then you’re going to need to get acquainted with the asymptote of communication, failure, and the relationship between those two.
Before we do that, though, you’re going to need to do some writing. Today is about practice.
Karl Ove Knausgaard has taken the literary world by storm in the past decade. His output is prolific. He produces so much writing and most of it has a sort of strange incantatory effect that is difficult to describe. In recent months, I’ve been slowly working through his epic, six-volume, 3,500-page novel My Struggle (a title which he unfortunately stole from Adolf Hitler: it bothers me every time I look at the cover). I will often lean over to Natalie in the midst of reading that book and say, “It’s like Knausgaard is re-telling my life. This episode with his kid at the birthday party; I feel like I’ve lived that exact scenario.”
But this is not a review of My Struggle. I bring up Knausgaard because in the midst of his reflections and meditations on the world and human experience, he offers an important thought in Winter (part of a seasonal cycle that I highly recommend):
[A]ll writers are amateurs, and…the only thing they have in common is that they don’t know how a novel, a short story or a poem should be written. This fundamental uncertainty creates the need for habits, which are nothing other than a framework, scaffolding around the unpredictable.
Let’s break down Knausgaard’s wisdom, point-by-point.
First, understand that you’re an amateur. Whether you’re writing your first novel or you’re churning out page-turners on the level of Stephen King, each piece of writing is a custom job that requires new solutions and new approaches. If you’re writing something that you know how to write, then you’re probably getting bored. You’ve done this before. It’s old territory. Writers are explorers by nature. We discover new territory with our work; we plumb the human situation, the human psyche, and even the depths of the universe itself.
If you’re writing, then you have to understand yourself to be an amateur. You’ve got some tools in your belt, for sure, but you’re in new territory every time you set out. That’s part of the fun!
Second, in order to tackle this amateur status and do something with it, you’ll need to figure out some habits. I call this—because I’m influenced by Natalie Goldberg—writing practice.
Writing, like anything else, is a skill and all skills require practice. When we practice, we fail. That’s how practice works. As a golfer, I spend hours at the driving range and a lot of what I do is hit shots that don’t go as planned. (Okay, okay, okay. Maybe that’s not a great example. That’s what happens on the course too. But you get the idea.) Failure is good. It's how you learn. Embrace failure in everything! (I'm gonna be writing more about this in the future...)
You need a practice, an approach to your writing and to improving it that will help you cope with failure and yield results. I know of no better method than writing every day. You can read my Monday writing posts all you want, buy as many books about writers and writing as you want, but almost all of them are going to tell you the same thing: write more and write more often!
My writing practice is built around Julia Cameron’s “Morning Pages”: three hand-written pages, produced first thing in the morning when my mind is still in that fluttery, fuzzy morning state, that place where you believe everything today will pan out just as you hope it will. Actually, I modify the practice a bit because I don’t do it quite first thing in the morning. I take some time to stretch, grab a cup of coffee, and then spend about twenty minutes in meditation before I get to the Morning Pages, but I do get to them. I have notebooks full of these daily pages; they date back three years now. These notebooks bear witness to my constantly changing life and have even informed some of the biggest decisions that I’ve made in recent years:
- In that time, I have realized that I was in a job and in a place that wasn’t good for me. Morning Pages gave me a forum to surface some of that and to process it, to give it voice.
- In that time, I have written and published my writing in journals and anthologies (something I’d never done before). Morning Pages affirmed me in my path as a writer.
- In that time, I have managed to find happiness and balance in several areas of my life. (But this takes constant vigilance and effort. Also, it ain’t always pretty.) Morning Pages has served as a place to dialogue with myself as I seek to figure out what I really value and what I want to prioritize.
Morning Pages really has changed my life. It’s also made me a better writer. Every morning, I practice writing. I work at taking the ideas in my head, whatever they may be, and putting them on the page.
This is what a writer needs:
Time spent writing.
I estimate that I’ve spent somewhere around 1,000 hours working on Morning Pages these past three years. That’s great practice. The structure of Morning Pages has forced me into the reflective space and the deliberate practice necessary to become less amateur at my craft. (I’m still quite the amateur, though, and I always will be.)
The trick, however, is commitment. This is one of the nice hacks of Morning Pages: because it’s done first thing, you don’t have to think too much about commitment. You just have to wake up early enough to do it. This may require setting your alarm 30 or 45 minutes earlier, but it’s worth it. To be a writer, you must write. If you’re serious about it, then you’ll prioritize. Why not make it first thing in the morning?
If Morning Pages doesn’t work for you, then I suggest you find some other writing practice that will. Here are the things that a good writing practice really needs:
- Time. You’ve got to spend time doing it.
- Consistency. You’ve got afford yourself that time with some consistency. Every day is best, of course, but life happens, right?
- No Judgment. Don’t you dare judge this writing. It’s practice. We don’t watch Steph Curry clanging a bunch of three-pointers on a Tuesday morning and say, “What a terrible shooter!” Practice isn’t public and it doesn’t need to be judged. Did you get your practice in? Yes. Was the writing good? Who cares?!?!
Build your practice around those three principles and you'll find yourself getting better and better at your craft.
Next week, we're going get even more thoughtful about this practice. What are we trying to accomplish as writers? Churning out a lot of writing is one thing. But what's my purpose?
In the meantime, thanks for reading and please do respond via Twitter (@sbhebert) if you have any thoughts.