Monday, November 8, 2010

Mentor Monday: Back to Basics

I'm dragging something out of my old stash today, because I've got this book deadline . . . . but the selection is not entirely random. Over the weekend I was involved in the same basic discussion in several very different contexts. The subject was, essentially, kick-starting. How do I get back to and/or improve my [fill in the blank - writing, decluttering, diet, exercise regimen  etc, etc]?

So when I found this piece about "practicing the fundamentals," it seemed particularly appropriate. Plus it's dreary, wet and cold outside, so thinking about baseball and spring is a pleasant distraction.

And so, without further ado, we bring you back to . . . . February 16, 2005:

The Red Sox just won the World Series (oh my, doesn’t that sound lovely?). Now they’re in Fort Myers, stretching and running, tossing and catching, hitting off a tee, scooping grounders and shagging flies. They’re doing exactly what high school players and little leaguers are doing. Why? Surely they already know how to do all those things?

Spring training is all about conditioning and fundamentals. Like baseball players, writers need to stay in shape, keep our skills sharp, and practice. Here, then, are some recommendations for your Spring Training regimen:

Training camp: Working in a different environment focuses your brain and triggers new thought patterns. Change-of-scenery plans range from taking your notebook (spiral or computer) to a coffee shop or the library to renting a room at a business-friendly hotel (with real desks) for a weekend. If you live near a college, you may be able to reserve a study carrel after exams are over. Packing yourself up and going somewhere for the express purpose of working on your writing is a great stimulus.

Conditioning: There are exercises and stretches we should all be doing to prevent carpal tunnel and swan neck, but the conditioning I’m talking about here is of your mental writing muscles and heart. Writing exercises include the Morning Pages made famous by The Artist’s Way and the writing prompts of the Stop, Look, Write! books. [Note from 2010: Since I wrote this in 2005 I have taught a class using Ursula Le Guin's Steering the Craft, which I highly recommend.] Most familiar of all is the journal. Some people swear that exercises only work if the writer knows they’re not going to be read by anyone. Some go so far as to ceremoniously burn their morning pages every day. Others think writing letters or even emails qualifies as an exercise.

I think the key ingredient in an exercise is that you are writing just for the sake of writing: not for an editor, not for a sale, not to finish your poem or make your deadline. I heard a wise editor compare writing exercises to a musician’s scales: you do it because it’s how you warm up, and because you can never over-practice the basics. With that in mind, the exercise can be a discipline that requires you to write a set number of minutes or pages, regardless of content. Or it can be writing that serves some other purpose (letters or journals) so long as their main function is to prime your writing pump.

A different kind of exercise is the writing equivalent of those fielding drills and batting practice. These are assignments you design (or adapt from books or classes) to teach yourself something: Write a devotional that uses no “religious” language. Write a conversation among three people whose voices are distinct enough that you don’t need speaker tags to tell them apart. Describe a sunrise to a blind person. Others provide editing and revising practice: take a manuscript you think is finished, and cut it by 20%. Retell your story from a different character’s point of view. Convert your poem to prose. Each of these artificial projects forces us to use consciously the skills we want to be using unconsciously whenever we write. The practice will pay off when we make that double-play look effortless, or knock one out of the park come play-off time.

Spring Training is in full swing. Opening day is just a month away. Will you be ready?

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some revising to get to!

1 comment:

Mur said...

Love this comparison, Sally. Going through my e-mail often works as my warm-up because then I'm not distracted by it all day. For me, journaling is a wrap-up. How about the rest of you?