Practice Part 5 — The Value of Tracking Work

Hemingway is said to have aimed for 500 words a day.  Image via

Hemingway is said to have aimed for 500 words a day.  Image via


One of the biggest obstacles to creativity is a lack of self-entitlement.  “Who am I to be here” in front of the computer, canvas, or on the stage?  “I haven’t worked hard enough.”

A few years ago, I started logging my hours of writing and drumming.  Here was some of what I learned:

  • I was surprised to find how much work I actually do.  My lazy self-image might say less my work ethic and more about my method of self-motivation. 
  • At times when I didn’t work, it helped to have a concrete sense of what a productive week can look like (which I had, thanks to my work logs).
  • As a writer, I felt most free when I was most conscious of meeting my minimal work targets.
  • As a drummer, I felt most confident on stage when I knew I had met my practice targets in the time leading up to the show.
  • I always use a timer, which I stop during breaks so that the measurement has integrity.  (On my computer, I use a program called Active Timer that tells me how much time I spent in any particular document (as opposed to time spent checking email, etc.)
  • I set modest goals in order to build a rhythm of success instead of failure.   (If you are wondering about the power of a regular modest output, consider that John Irving stops his writing day at three pages; Hemingway’s daily target is said to be 500 words.  Multiply these small doses by 250 days and you can see that they add up.)
  • I find that in weeks during which I work consistently, even when I fell short of daily targets, I end up producing better work.  Working every day leaves me more limber.  The hardest thing is to come back to work after an extended absence.
  • The accumulation of the work logs whets my appetite for doing more work.  I’m open to considering that this testifies to my twisted artist’s conscience, but I also know that we artists often need to find ways to trick ourselves into working.  If keeping track of my work is one such trick, why not keep doing it?

Thank you for reading.

Practice Part 4 — Practice Discovery

Natalia Ginzburg.  Image via .

Natalia Ginzburg.  Image via


Consider the following observation from Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg about her early writing process:

So I was always hunting for characters, I looked at the people on the tram and on the street and when I found a face that seemed suitable for a story I wove some moral details and a little anecdote around it.  I also went hunting for details of dress and people’s appearance, and how their houses looked inside; if I went into a new room I tried to describe it silently to fit well in a story.  I kept a notebook in which I wrote down some of the details I had discovered, or little similes, or episodes which I promised myself I would use in stories.  For example I would write in my notebook ‘She came out of the bathroom trailing the cord of her dressing-gown behind her like a long tail’, ‘ How the lavatory stinks in this house — the child said to him — When I go, I hold my breath — he added sadly’, ‘His curls like bunches of grapes’, ‘Red and black blankets on an unmade bed’, ‘A pale face like a peeled potato’.  But I discovered how difficult it was to use these phrases when I was writing a story.  The notebook became a kind of museum of phrases that were crystallized and embalmed and very difficult to use.  I tried endlessly to slip the red and black blankets or the curls like bunches of grapes into a story but I never managed to.  So the notebook was no help to me.  I realized that in this vocation there is no such thing as ‘savings’.  If someone thinks ‘that’s a fine detail and I don’t want to waste it in the story I’m writing at the moment, I’ve plenty of good material here, I’ll keep it in reserve for another story I’m going to write’, that detail will crystallize inside him and he won’t be able to use it.

From “My Vocation” by Natalia Ginzburg
Included in The Little Virtues

Her insight that “there is no such thing as savings,” carries over to many realms.  A drummer might, in the course of practicing, discover a particularly fun fill and decide to perfect it for use at a particular point in a particular song.  Then, during performance, the drummer will find that the fill feels wrong.  The moment of discovery has been lost, and the fill has crystallized and lacks the fluidity demanded in the moment.

Likewise, a songwriter may want to hold onto a melody or a line of lyrics, an architect may want to hold onto a particular vision of how two spaces adjoin.  In all of these cases, what we might prioritize is not holding onto the particular ideas but rather the creative flow that led to them.

Note that this does not discount keeping notes from which we might later proceed.  It only points to the fact that though we can preserve a discovery, it’s much harder to preserve its moment of arrival, and the distinction is crucial. 

One way this phenomenon shows up in the world is when bands find that their albums and lack the magical feel of their demos.  The demos are filled with discovery; the albums, with failed attempts at reenacting those discoveries.  Discovery, by its nature, cannot be reenacted.  One can only set oneself free to pursue new discoveries.  (It's for this reason that my band, Semisonic, resolved to make master-quality demos.  A master-quality demo might not need to be redone.)  

Thus, when we come upon an especially striking idea, we might do something with it right then and there.  Spend it, because we can't save it.  And later, when our work is done, we might reflect upon what happened to make that moment of discovery possible.

Thank you for reading.



Practice Part 3 — Exorcising Our Demons

Image via .

Among the problems that wait in the practice room or writing desk are all of the artist’s demons, the naysayers, real and imagined, who hover over the workspace.

These demons sneer and shake their heads at us.  They tell us to be someone other than who we are.  They slime us with their negativity.

To exorcise these demons from our creative life, we must identify them and the thoughts they have implanted in our minds.

To this end, I invite my writing students to conduct an inventory of their demons.  (This process can be adapted to serve creators in any number of forms).

The first step invites the writers to identify their doubts about themselves.

1.   Complete this statement:

The part of myself that I don’t want to see on the page is . . . 

The second invites the writers to think about possible sources of their self-judgment.

2. Complete both of these statements. 

a) The reader whose judgment I fear the most is . . .

b) The part of me that this reader most dislikes is  . . .

Note that these judges may be both real and imagined.  They are often projections (it may be that Uncle Bob could care less about your short stories) who nonetheless loom over our work.

The truest answers may surprise us.  They may also upset us.  We might find that naming our demons threatens some long-programmed aspect of our mindset.  To denounce those demons will upset the warped moral center of our creativity.

But naming and denouncing these demons is the key to our liberation.  Having exposed the sources of our doubt, we can then ask ourselves if we intend to allow these naysayers (real, imagined, or some combination thereof) to have control of our process.   Or do we intend to reclaim our process from them?  If so, time to identify those creative nemeses and tell them to fuck off.

Thank you for reading.

Practice Part 1 supplement — Finding Relaxation Through Procedure

Jazz maestro Alan Dawson, whose teaching has reached generations of drummers.  Image via .

Jazz maestro Alan Dawson, whose teaching has reached generations of drummers.  Image via


As one works to locate and remove effort, it becomes clear that effort is easier to spot in its physical manifestations.  Someone practicing a musical instrument may have an easier time isolating points of effort (tightening fingers and wrists, for instance) than, say, a novelist who labors over a particular plot point (though her posture and strained facial muscles might tip her off to the presence of effort).

Many artists develop procedures to facilitate their own relaxation, physical and mental.  Their rituals and procedures reduce decision making and thereby simplifies the practice agenda.  Some examples include . . . 

  • The procedure of copying work by others and then letting this give way to ideas of one's own.  This is the basis for Clark Terry's "Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate" formulation.  In earlier posts, I have pointed to examples in writingpainting, and filmmaking.  
  • Joan Didion's writing routine is to start by retyping the last few pages of her previous day's output.  This gets her into a flow, and then she keeps doing.
  • Bill T. Jones's dance process starts with a perfunctory execution and naming-out-loud of the dance moves, and then he proceeds through various steps toward full-blown expression.
  • Sanford Meisner's Repetition Exercise is a procedural method of accessing one's acting intuition. 
  • Establishing a practice schedule, so that the question "when and where and for how long shall I work?" has been settled in advance.  This removes the moral effort of asking and answering the question "shall I practice?"
  • Establishing a practice routine, so that the question "How shall I start?" has been answered.  For instance, Hemingway always ended his writing day at a point where the starting point for the next day was clear.  He didn't have to make a decision first thing in his writing day.  It had been made at the end of the previous day.  

    Here, Drummer Alan Dawson demonstrates a warmup exercise he developed called The Rudimental Ritual.  


The term ritual is worth noting, as this exercise helps a musician enter into a mindset focused on work, so that she gets warmed up and in a flow, ready to engage some particular problem.  Some writers begin their day with 30 minutes of free writing—nothing to do with their current work, simply a way of getting the words flowing onto a page and opening the conduit from their intuition.

  • Establish practice rules.  For instance, "I will take a five-minute break every half hour," or "No email before noon" or "I will stop after three pages."  Again, this relieves the conscious mind from answering questions that might otherwise distract the artist.

We think of procedures as confining, but as we see here, well-defined procedures can be vehicles of expressive freedom.

Thank you for reading.

Practice part 1 — Practice to Remove Effort

Jimi Hendrix, who was said to have had his guitar slung around him at all times, allowing the constant practice that produced the effortless virtuosity with which he changed rock and roll.  Image via .

Jimi Hendrix, who was said to have had his guitar slung around him at all times, allowing the constant practice that produced the effortless virtuosity with which he changed rock and roll.  Image via


This series on practice is aimed at exploring not only the practice of performance (musical instruments, voice, dance, acting, and so forth) but also the practice of making (writing, composing, painting and sculpting, choreographing, and so forth).  In both realms of activity, practice might be viewed as a gateway to more fluid creativity.

When a beginning drummer enters a practice space, her first impulses (like those of the beginning writer, dancer, painter) are to 'let it out,' though what it is may not yet be known to her.  The thrill of doing something with this newfound medium is foremost in her mind, and this inevitably leads her to go for it, to smash and crash and rock out.  Doing so, she hopes to find expression.

And then this goes nowhere.  The drummer is disheartened.  She doesn’t feel she is quite letting it out, perhaps because she has not yet realized how much effort she has inserted between herself and her ideas.  She’s gripping her sticks tightly, making faces, hitting loudly.  What awaits her is the discovery that progress will come with the removal of effort.

The point is made brilliantly in this Ted Talk from classical pianist Benjamin Zander.   The relevant segment is found from 1:15 to 4:15 in his presentation.

Thus, whenever we creators are in our practice room, writing desk, or art studio, we might constantly ask ourselves, “Where am I feeling effort, and what happens when I remove it?”  Answering those questions illuminates the way forward.

The point of practicing any creative activity is to align one's output with one's intuition.  And too often, what stands between those two is effort and all of the inefficiency it interposes between the artist and her intuition.  Effort seduces us into thinking we are smashing through some wall.  Too rarely do we realize that this wall is the effort we are injecting into the process.  By removing it, we learn to get out of our own way.  We find that our deepest expression is within us and that we access it not through effort but through relaxation.

Thank you for reading.