One of the things I love about teaching at an art college is that it gives me an inside glimpse into the habits of visual artists. In the moments before class begins, I watch my students sketch in their notebooks. Sometimes their sketches lead to great works, but most of the time the doodles they generate are just for practice. They understand that to be a great artist requires rehearsal, and so they fill their pages with practice runs as they try out different ways to sketch a pair of hands or feet or eyes.
Permission to Practice
What strikes me most about my students’ process is that they seem to be having fun. They ENJOY their doodles. They don’t get anxious about what they’ll grow up to be, or whether they’ll be published.
As I watch them, I can’t help but wonder—what would happen if we writers gave ourselves that same kind of permission to practice and try new things?
Write like an artist
Which brings me to the idea of treating our writing journals like an artist treats her sketchbooks—as a place to practice.
We might use our notebook as a place to experiment with different angles and approaches to a scene or character. To try out dialogue. To practice skills like incorporating sensory details or playing with the length of time we stay with an image or scene before we exhaust its possibilities.
If we make the notebook small enough, we can carry it with us and practice writing on the fly—when we’re on our lunch break, or waiting for an appointment, or just before bed. Because, aside from the fun my students seem to be having when they sketch, the other thing I notice is that they don’t wait for one big chunk of time to get to it.
They see any scrap of time, no matter how small, as an opportunity to practice.
Fill the one-inch picture frame
The idea is to take on just as much writing as would fill a metaphorical one-inch picture frame, as Ann Lamott suggests in her book, Bird by Bird.
A writer I admire writes in short eight-minute bursts—between meetings with students or while she’s riding the bus. Another writes entire novels in thirty-minute chunks.
The secret is to let go of expectations that what we capture in our notebooks will lead to something great every time. We might find ourselves stumbling on subjects or memories, themes or images that will fuel finished works, or we might find ourselves just practicing our skills.
Either way, treating our notebooks like artist sketchbooks encourages us to embrace each piece of writing as an opportunity—to build up practice and potential material, and to have fun while we’re doing it.
What would you write if you knew the world was waiting to hear what you had to say?
And why not start writing it today?
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