Dani Shapiro
December 7, 2010

On Practice

Oh, it’s difficult.  Finding and maintaining a daily practice in anything–whether yoga or meditation or hiking or learning an instrument or writing–requires something beyond discipline.  Something that is like a distant cousin to discipline–so distant that the two are barely related  at all.  I dislike the word discipline, when applied to the writing life.  Oh, you must be so disciplined is one  of those things people say (people who are not writers) because they don’t know how else it can possibly be done.  (The secret underside of this statement is, of course, that if only they too were disciplined, they would be able to produce novels, since that’s all it takes.)  I mean, yes.  We do actually have to sit down in a chair.  Or stand and pace.  Or take baths.  Or drives.  We do have to devote a certain portion every day to this thing–this discipline.  It’s our job, after all.  But when I speak of practice, I’m referring to something different, something deeper.

Discipline–if I were to think of a physical manifestation of it–would look like a very tense person.  Gritted teeth.  Furrowed brow.  Squinting eyes.  Focusing hard.  Practice, on the other hand, requires a kid of looseness.  Writing from a softer, more porous, interior place.  A forgiving place.  Think of the word: practice.  It doesn’t imply perfection; in fact, it precludes the possibility of perfection.  One of my graduate school mentors used to say: all novels are failures.  It took me aback, at the time.  I was young, and this seemed like a dreadful thing to say–but now I understand it.  There is no perfection.  All novels (stories, poems, plays) are as good as they can be when the writer finally lets go of them.  What practicing promises is engagement.  Sitting every day with new pages, with a work in progress, is all about engagement.  And that kind of engagement is gentle, and leaves lots of room for missteps, for misguided attempts, for tearing it up and beginning again.  So what?  Novels are born of the practice of writing.  It’s not as if we practice and then sit down and write.  The sitting down and writing, that daily time, is the thing itself.