The Continuity of Practice
Several years ago, while living in South Africa, I was writing one night – a rare spurt at the time – and when finished, I stood up and said out loud, alone in my flat, “There is nothing that makes me feel more tender toward myself than this.”
Still, I failed to officially start the book that would include this content (and in doing, commit to writing on it daily) for three more years. It is perhaps the oldest, most basic question for writers, and I think particularly for new ones: we know we’re wired to put pen to paper, we know how we suffer when we avoid it, so why is it still so hard to sit down and write?
It’s not just us.
In her essay “The Getaway Car,” nationally renowned author Ann Patchett writes: “Every time I have to set out to translate the book (or story, or hopelessly long essay) that exists in such brilliant detail on the big screen of my limbic system onto a piece of paper . . . I grieve for my own lack of talent and intelligence. Every. Single. Time . . . I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers.”
Reading this essay a year ago as I was finally starting the memoir that I hope will become my first book, I was at once seized with recognition at the sentiment and also felt I wasn’t entitled to resonate. I wouldn’t know about the challenge of writing a long piece, after all – envisioning the whole, masterful product in my head – as I hadn’t managed to do it yet. I had forever written bits, in bursts, à la Natalie Goldberg’s timed writing practice, especially while living in Africa for three and a half years during my twenties. I had drawers of notes but didn’t know how to tie them into something cohesive, so didn’t.
I think part of the challenge of committing to a larger project has been that I didn’t identify as a legitimate writer until the past two years when I started publishing feature articles in Seattle area magazines. This move had its own roundabout path: I enrolled in culinary school, but quickly learned I didn’t enjoy nor feel natural cranking out meals en masse in a commercial kitchen. The upside was I’d gained an area of enough expertise from which I could now pitch articles, and once I started writing regularly as a freelancer, about food and other topics, I was hooked. I started my memoir a year later.
Starting, however, as we all know, is only one piece; the other wing of the bird is to keep going. In my case, I feel lucky because the topic of my book – a daily meditation practice I found in South Africa that has affected me profoundly – has ultimately instilled a trust in regular practice that helps me sit down and write each day. In a ten-day introductory Vipassana meditation course, you meditate almost constantly: ten and a half hours a day. By the time you leave, you have likely experienced some effect from sitting so much, and can therefore determine if you want to continue the practice (meditating two hours daily) at home. Read: you do it enough to learn if it helps you be happier, and if so, the motivation to continue creates itself.
During the course, S.N. Goenka, the Indian teacher who gives meditation instructions via recording, repeats often, “As far as this technique is concerned, the continuity of practice is the secret to success.”
When is this not true? I teach an ESL class to immigrants and refugees at a local college. On the first day of each quarter, encouraging participation, I stress what they already know: that the only way to get better at speaking, or writing, or reading, or anything is to speak/write/read a lot. It is that simple and that critical; it will not happen otherwise. Same goes for writing a book, meditating, learning to cook: you choose. Without very regular, clocked practice in any pursuit – which inevitably includes countless hours of feeling flat, distracted, messy, unoriginal, unsexy, headed nowhere – we will not progress.
Furthermore, progressing has two strands: there is the literal plodding closer to a goal as pages accumulate, but there is also watching ourselves improve our art. Oh, here is the true delight. I recently finished a three-month-long magazine writing internship that required twenty hours a week – more than I’ve ever written regularly. Logging this amount of practice, I saw myself start to produce tighter articles by the end, and stronger, clearer memoir writing as well. The process also provided a window into how much more improvement is possible if I keep at it regularly.
With whatever amount of practice, there are no guarantees of publication or anything else, of course; especially in the early stages, we don’t know what’s a practice book and what will turn into more. Nonetheless, I’ve come to believe that if we keep up efforts at something that makes us feel so grounded, satisfied, joyful and generous, eventually we’ll see external results, too.
This past year, I’ve committed an hour a day, five days a week (more if I can manage it) to my memoir, and I’m now in my third draft. Some days – some whole weeks – are dreadful, and I have to remind myself, watching the clock, that I only promised to sit there and try; I have no quota to fill. Other days, the best days, I just tune in and go, knowing that publication or none, I could never regret this process, which fills me to no bounds and has helped me understand myself and my family (major characters in the story) much better and more compassionately.
Africa was what pulled me the hardest in my twenties; the thing that would have its way with me no matter what. Though writing has always been in me, it has chosen my thirties to pull. I’m here now, I want to say. I’m showing up. It’s up to the universe what to make of that.
Okay, universe? Have I been hearing you correctly to press on with this?
But all I get in return is a gentle chuckle that I would even ask. Don’t I know better? The real prize, in the daily doing, is already mine.