Writing is like playing a sport: if we want to get better, we have to practice everyday.
If we want to write, for example, we have to write every morning when we wake up (or, depending on our schedule, every afternoon). But we don’t just simply write- we write to improve a particular skill, we write with the intention of getting better. Barbara Baig refers to this as “deliberate practice”: just as an Olympic swimmer plans his workout regimen with the aim of refining his technique and improving his time, a writer must dedicate a certain number of hours to familiarizing himself with the tools of his craft. He may spend an afternoon reading a great novel to learn how to construct believable dialogue or a quiet evening home skimming through expert journalism to discover the secret to writing an intriguing lead. He may collect spellbinding sentences from his favorite novels so he can break them down grammatically and see how they work. Or like a football player doing drills, he may do short writing exercises to practice specific skills: incorporating narrative into non-fiction, rendering character, devising plot, describing the physical world.
Such practice is absolutely essential. But there’s one crucial way writing differs from sports: when a marathon runner does laps, his goal is to improve his time so he can win the next race. When we practice writing, we do so simply for the sake of getting better.
Why do you think writers labor for lifetimes drafting a single novel? To win fame and a Pulitzer? to see their books on the New York Times best-seller list? to meet Oprah? Yes, it would be incredible to realize any one of these ambitions but external validation isn’t what motivates them- and it can’t be what motivates us. After all, what if we never achieve sensational success? Our writing will have felt a terrible waste. Am I saying we should view dazzling literary acclaim as unavailable to us? Absolutely not. I’m simply suggesting that it’s risky to make that the goal. Whether or not we’re published, whether or not our work is met with impassioned condemnation or eager praise: over these things we have absolutely no control. Not to mention, if we write merely what we think can be published, what we we think will sell, we’ll no longer be writing authentically from ourselves.
Writing isn’t a championship game- it’s a vocation, a calling, a passion, a hunger, a muse. We write for the delight of a graceful sentence, for the satisfaction of putting our thoughts into the most impeccable arrangement of words; we write to make solid the fleeting experience of living; we write to decipher the mystery of who we are and how we feel.
So rather than aspire to be “real” writers or require some sort of stamp of approval to feel successful, why don’t we focus on what actually matters-the writing itself? If we focus on the writing, if we focus on delivering the many beautiful ideas that long to be born through us, we won’t have to worry about anything else.