The Art of Practice, Part 5: Fighting Gravity, One Word at a Time

This is the fifth of a six-part series on practice. See also Part 1Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

photo courtesy of louveciennes (Flickr-Creative Commons)

image courtesy of louveciennes (Flickr-Creative Commons)

Surprisingly enough (or perhaps not so surprising) my last post on writing practice didn’t get to everything I had to say on the subject. I had intended to share some of the cool things that have happened to me as a result of my writing practice, but ran out of time/space/words to do it.

So I’m back with this next post in the series, sort of a sequel to last week’s, to delve a little bit more into the writing practice underground…

As I’ve done my writing practice over the past weeks and months, I’ve had some neat and interesting experiences—and some profound and freeing ones, too. The act and discipline of writing practice has been incredibly helpful for me. Not only for creating content for this blog and other projects I’m working on, but for digging deep into some personal areas, past and present.

Writing Practice Versus Journaling

“Words dazzle and deceive because they are mimed by the face. But black words on a white page are the soul laid bare.”
― Guy de Maupassant

I used to journal a lot. In my 20s and 30s, I did it most every day. Sometimes it was those “here’s what I did today” sort of entries; sometimes it was “here’s what I’m thinking or feeling” about a particular situation I’m in, or doing some soul-searching on something that was plaguing me.

I haven’t done the regular journaling practice in a number of years. Got away from it, both because I felt I couldn’t do it well, do it regularly. I wanted to do it every day, and I would beat myself up if I didn’t. Or, I’d write entries the next day or a couple days later, to “cover my tracks”—even to myself—because I hadn’t written on the day…

The other reason I haven’t journaled in a long time is I got burned by the words; my ex-wife and I were struggling at the time, and she read my journals to find out what I was feeling, since I wasn’t really communicating to her about them (at least not well). Unfair that she read something I felt was private, personal, just for me—but I understand now her reasons for doing it. But at the time it was a betrayal—not just by her, but by the journals themselves.

And so I stopped.

This is another reason I’ve chosen to call my regular writing “practice”—keeps some distance in my mind between “just writing” and the “journaling” that was difficult in the past. No expectations in “writing practice,” and lots of expectations in “journaling” (at least for me).

The beauty of writing practice is that it can encompass anything—it’s wide open. It can be like a journal, or it can be free writing on a new story, or a list of things I have to do today, or ideas for a blog post, or “I don’t know what to write about so I’m just going to describe the people sitting here with me in the Barnes & Noble café…” It can be deep or shallow. It can be personal or objective. It can be light and fun or moving and challenging.

All it needs to be is my fingers moving on the keys, without judgment, without fear, without expectation.

The beauty of that sort of writing, free from those limits, is not necessarily brilliance or some divine inspiration, but instead an openness and flow that sometimes leads to clarity, and even revelation…

Facing My Gremlin on the Page

There is power in the word.

“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”
― Rudyard Kipling

For me, the power of the word is the power of creation. Through words I create realities that are sometimes more real to me than the physical world I live in day to day. Science says that our mind cannot distinguish a memory of a dream from a memory of an experience we had in the physical world—that both have equal power and relevance and intensity in our minds.

For me the same is true of the words. When something is created here, in the words, that experience can take on an intensity that rivals the strongest memories of experiences I’ve had in my “real” life.

One such experience happened a few weeks ago. I was in the midst of my writing practice…

… and I found myself deep in writing about the concept of belief, and arrogance, and self-doubt, when I came to this moment of clarity:

“So why do I doubt?

I don’t doubt that the writing is good enough, I doubt that I’m good enough.

That I’m a person worthy of the attention of others. That my ideas, my truths, these essential pieces of myself—are worth something to someone else.

And that right there is the crux of the problem. I doubt that I’m good enough. I doubt that I have enough essential value as a person that I should be accepted at whatever endeavor I undertake.”

But even more powerful was what came next: I realized that that doubt was coming from somewhere, from a shadowy place inside my mind, and the whispers of those thoughts that caused me to doubt had an architect… and that architect wasn’t me…

And soon, on the page and in my mind, I was fighting that whispering thing…

“…now the bastard is on notice. He’s been hiding in the shadows, the mastermind of this whole shadow operation meant to keep me down, keep me small, keep me silent. But I just pulled his screaming ass into the light. I called him out. I’m looking straight at him and feeling… not fear, but anger.”

I still can feel the emotions I was experiencing as I wrote those words, because as I was writing them, I was also experiencing those actions. I pulled that bastard from the shadows of my mind. I stared him down, this dark, shadowy thing, with razor teeth and snakelike tongue, as he squirmed and screeched to get away.

I realized, too, that in the light this thing, my Gremlin, was smaller than I’d thought, when I only looked at him out of the corner of my eye, surrounded by the shadows that cloaked him and made him seem so vast and powerful. I was reminded of the Wizard of Oz, where Oz the Great and Powerful is really just a small, weak man hiding behind smoke and mirrors and a shadowy curtain. My Gremlin is no different: it’s the shadows, the darkness, and my fear that give him power. Without the protection of the shadows, he is small and weak (and ugly—oh yeah, completely ugly—but he’s always that). He’s not worthy of my fear. In fact, seeing him in the light, as he squealed and struggled to free himself from my grip, my stare, my anger, and flee back to the shadows, I realized he’s more afraid of me than I am of him.

All of this, born of a simple act of writing practice. Of asking a question of myself “Do I want to be a writer or not?” and following where that led.

And that led to clarity, and revelation, and a new-found (and hard-fought) freedom.

Is Writing Practice for You?

“A word after a word after a word is power.”
― Margaret Atwood

I’m a writer, so writing practice makes logical sense for me. My art and my craft are words, so the more time I spend with them, playing with them, practicing with them, the better I become.

Perhaps words aren’t your medium. Perhaps you’re a photographer or a painter or a woodworker. Perhaps you hated writing in school (school essays universally suck). Perhaps you hate reading, or are a bad speller, or haven’t written anything in 20 years.

Is there value in writing practice for you as well? My answer to you is yes.

Here’s why:

Writing practice is a means of communicating. Through writing we express our thoughts and feelings—to others, yes, but to ourselves first and foremost. Writing doesn’t have to be shared with others. The act of writing practice can improve the way we think, and articulating our thoughts and feelings, even just to ourselves, can positively affect the way we communicate with others.

Writing practice is self-exploration and self-discovery. If we let it, and are free and truthful with it, writing can help us discover and understand our feelings and beliefs. It can help us determine and articulate what we stand for, and what we stand against. It can help us identify areas where we want to change, areas where we need to change, and can even help us make that change within ourselves, as we experience those changes through our writing practice.

Writing practice is exercise for the mind. It makes us stronger. Just like physical exercise helps create a body that’s healthy, that can resist illness or injury, and that can help us perform acts of physicality for necessity or enjoyment, writing can do the same for our minds. And just as physical exercise is excellent for sweating out the junk our bodies can accumulate, writing can serve the same function for our brains.

Tim Ferriss talked about his writing practice (what he calls “morning pages”) in his recent interview with Margaret Cho. “It’s my equivalent of taking my psyche and sort of whacking the rug to get the dust out of it before I move on to my day,” he says, “so that I don’t have all of the gremlins in my head.”

Exactly, Tim. Me, too. (Interesting that he also uses the term “gremlin”…)

My Writing Practice

“Writing practice provides a foundation in words that we can stand the rest of our lives on.”

So, even if you’re not a “writer,” my belief is that you can still benefit from establishing a writing practice.

It doesn’t have to be like mine, although mine is pretty basic, and has few rules (just like my meditation practice and my walking practice).

My writing practice is this:

  • Sit down and write. Go for 10 minutes minimum (though I often go over that once I’ve begun…)
  • The topic doesn’t matter. Write on any subject, or a bunch of subjects. Or on nothing in particular.
  • The medium doesn’t matter. Open a blank file and write electronically. Grab a notebook and a pen and scribble.
  • The location/time doesn’t matter. I generally do my writing practice in the morning, right after walking practice (which is right after meditation practice). Even if I have scheduled other writing for that day, I still do the writing practice in the morning. Sometimes I write at my desk, sometimes at a coffee shop, sometimes on the patio in the sunshine.

Other Writing Practices

Here are a few other ways you might start a writing practice:

  • Journal. My personal challenges with this approach aside, journaling can be a great way to discover amazing things about yourself. Don’t worry about fancy journals or pens. Grab a notebook and a pen, or even the back of an envelope and a stub of pencil, and just write.
  • Start a Blog. Pick a topic to write about, or leave it wide open. Start it like an online journal, or use it to talk about your favorite interest or hobby (and what it means to you). If someone reads it, great! But the act of putting something out there has value in itself, even if your dog is your only subscriber…
  • Write Letters (yes, the old-fashioned, paper kind). Write letters to people you care about, to tell them what they mean to you. Write letters to your favorite heroes and tell them how you love their work. Write letters to government figures and suggest changes that might improve your city or state or country. Write letters to soldiers far from home.

For all of these, keep in mind that these are for practice. They’re for you, not for anyone else. No one has to read the journal. You don’t have to tell anyone you started a blog, or even what the URL is. You don’t even have to send the letters.

Because the act of capturing your thoughts and feelings and beliefs… that’s invaluable just by itself. That’s the point of the practice. To write, and to keep writing. Just for you.

(And what if someday you decide to announce your blog to the world, or send those letters, or publish parts of that journal as a memoir? That’ll be an added benefit of the practice you started. And you might just be pleasantly surprised at the response!)


Next post, I’ll wrap up this (now six-part) series on practice with some additional observations and suggestions. In the meantime, if you have any observations or thoughts or experiences about your own writing practices (or any other practices you have), please leave a comment!


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One thought on “The Art of Practice, Part 5: Fighting Gravity, One Word at a Time

  1. James Michael Taylor

    Incredibly visceral writing sir! Your description of that bastard Germlin was so good I had to tweet it!

    I often start my journal entries the same as when I sit down to write productively – with random, stream of thought, word vomit. It usually doesn’t take me long to get down to the bones, though, and begin a conversation on the page that I’m curious and interested in hearing the breadth of.

    It’s fascinating that you follow your meditation and walking practices with writing – calming the mind, engaging the body and the blood, then letting it all out on the page.

    Surely more valuable than my fourth grade writing prompts!

    Getting a bit of journaling in during my mornings makes me feel like I have some control over my life and clarity with my emotions and thoughts.

    It’s the little things, my friend.

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