This is Not a Drill: Learning to Value the Precious Art of Practice
The moment I dreamed about for years had finally arrived.
A writer I greatly admired had agreed to look over one of my scripts. I knew his blessing on my work would open up doors and propel me into the industry spotlight as a rising star. I had already made a list of the agencies I wanted to take meetings with, the actors who would bring my script to life, and the director I was certain would be perfect to guide the project into the Oscars.
This meeting would change my life—and it did.
As this master storyteller fiddled with his latte, I sat contorting my facial muscles into what I thought humility might look like. I mentally rehearsed my surprise and gratitude, preparing for the praise he was unquestionably about to begin heaping upon me. He moved his cup to the side of the table and then back to the middle. His eyes met mine and a kind half-smile formed on his lips. I leaned forward in my seat as he quietly, almost in a whisper, said, “You need more practice.”
A thousand thoughts tornadoed through my head at that moment. I desperately tried to wrap his words around the truth I had already constructed in my head—that my work was not only ready for professional execution, but it would be celebrated by the entire industry. I left the meeting that day with something greater than the immediate success I craved. That storyteller gave me a boon that would radically shift the way I looked at my work and how I approached my writing. I began to treasure practice.
I recently stopped into that Coffee Bean, where the fateful meeting had occurred more than a decade ago, on my way to a much different meeting with an exec at a production company to discuss one of my scripts. As I stood in line, waiting for my mocha, I felt like a different person. I had grown as a writer. I had grown as an artist.
I had become a person of practice.
Practice has always been a required step in the development of any artistic journey. It’s common for musicians to spend the grand majority of their time practicing for the few moments they are appearing on stage or being recorded. Painters regularly paint over or completely discard what they’ve created. We, writers, however, rarely speak of the value of practicing our craft. Nearly everything we write comes with implied big ideas about making sure the pages eventually are produced and screened by an audience.
Obviously, the goal of most writing is that eventually someone will read it and it will get made. But how do we know when the words we’ve prepared are ready? How do we know when our storytelling skills have reached a point where we can confidently ask others to pay us for the work we’ve created? How do we know when our practice has brought us over the threshold and into professional work?
In 2008, author Malcom Gladwell wrote a best-selling book called Outliers: The Story of Success. While the book became known for a variety of ideas, one of the most popular was Gladwell’s concept of the “10,000 rule,” which basically suggested that mastering any skill required roughly 10,000 hours of practice. Despite the book’s success, Googling Gladwell’s name and “10,000 hours” will bring up a rich selection of writers delightfully throwing rocks at the idea. Since the book’s publication, a massive parade of literature has attempted to debunk Gladwell’s theory, leading Gladwell himself to eventually attempt to further clarify and revise his claims.
While any attempt to formulize success should rightly be analyzed and critiqued, what is also striking has been the aggressiveness with which many critics have tried to delegitimize the power of practice. The point is not 10,000 hours or 100,000 hours or even 100 hours. The point is that few are born a great writer—a fact routinely ignored in our discipline.
So how do you practice, as a writer?
This will likely depend on where you are in your writing career. Contests can be an effective way to practice, as they give us a much-needed deadline and often provide feedback. They also have the ability to give our work the exposure to the industry we crave, not to mention a cash reward. However, even those writers not fortunate enough to take home one of the grand prizes benefit from this practice. Beyond contests, getting feedback from trusted sources and then embarking on rewrites is a skill every writer should embrace, and is, in a sense, practice. Even daily journaling or blogging can be one way to keep our vocabulary robust and our wordplay up to scratch.
For me, multi-page character breakdowns, complete with psychological profiles, are a practice I employ with every project I create. No one ever sees these, but they are like the complex mathematical work that allows me to eventually show off a simple answer. They are practice. Occasionally, I write prequels to my stories—scenes that took place before the project I am creating begins. Also, research is a form of practice that expands the toolkit of any writer. The forms of practice I use end up producing a better story, with rich multi-layered characters and powerful subtext, in the project I am working on now.
I knew my work was ready to take to the next level when other writers a little further ahead of me told me that it was ready. I began to have other writers share my work. I began to place in reputable contests. I began to be approached by directors and producers who had read my previous stories and often passed on them. Now, they wanted me to script a story they were developing. Ironically, when I had invested the necessary time in my work, opportunities began to appear. I don’t believe that was coincidence.
As you might have guessed, the most effective practice we will ever engage in is actually writing scripts, novels, or whatever medium we most often rely on to tell stories. Like with an athlete, attending practice is required, but the more games one takes part in, the more muscle memory is created, and the more a craft becomes natural and organic to us as we use it.
I have a friend who has written for a number of well-known shows, who sometimes tries to help writers attempting to break into the business. He insists a writer send him five completed features or pilots instead of just one. He then asks the writer which one is the best and reads that one. He told me this keeps him from taking time to consider the work of a writer who has not practiced enough yet.
Usually, the more stories a writer writes, the more time is invested into one’s craft, the better the writer gets. There’s an apocryphal story about Pablo Picasso often cited by creatives. The story goes that Picasso was sitting in a French café one afternoon when an admiring fan walked over and introduced herself. After a few pleasantries, she begged Picasso to sketch something on a napkin. He reluctantly complied and slid a small drawing of a dove in her direction. As she excitedly reached down to pick it up, he said, “That will be 5,000 francs.” The thrill of meeting Picasso quickly drained from her face. She scowled and said, “But that only look you thirty seconds.” He smiled, took a sip of his beverage, and retorted, “Ah, but it took me thirty years to learn to do that in thirty seconds.”
Like most things worth doing, perfecting a craft takes time. Fortunately, we learn something new with each story we write. We stop making the same mistakes.
Since that life-changing day in the coffee shop, a lot of things have changed for me. However, one of the most unexpected changes is that it’s no longer thoughts of celebrity directors taking on my project that bring me the most satisfaction. It’s the actual act of writing the stories. The longer we write, the more we might be tempted to ignore the sublime gift that getting to tell a story can be. Being paid to create those stories is a step in the journey of a writer for sure, and an important one at that, but it shouldn’t cause us to lose sight of the sheer exhilaration of crafting that opening line of a new story always brings.
From fire drills to wedding rehearsals, we practice what is important. When our craft matters to us, we work on it. We refine it. The experience of writing offers its own wonder, its own rewards. The path to the professional is littered with pitfalls, but most of them are of our own making—things that can be worked through with time. When practice becomes precious, our own growth passes from the realm of the unseen to the seen.
*Feature Image: Mattias Del Carmine (Adobe)