By Jacqui BanaszynskiAs we turned the last pages of 2022, I am pondering the years past and the year ahead and the concept of writing practice.
I’ve spent my professional life trading in the written word, but never came to comfortable terms with that term. If anything, in the 30 years I worked in daily newspapers, I found the notion odd — a wifty-sounding claim bragged on by people who considered themselves capital-W Writers.
My colleagues and I saw ourselves more as reporters. It said so right there on our business cards. Sure, we wrote — usually every day, and often several times a day. Unlike the 24/7, Jabba-the-Hutt-appetite of the digital era, the print newspaper went to bed at some point each night. But not before we put out anywhere from three to eight editions and, if the news was big enough, did a post-close hot chase.** See note below.
So practice writing? Who had time? Ours was a profession of delivery, not dither. No one got paid for writer’s block. There was always another newspaper to put out. Deadlines showed no mercy. We reported, wrote, hit the SEND button, then did it all again. And again. Not for practice. For real.
Or to claim my own not-so-humble brag, we embodied a Yoda approach to our work: “Do or do not. There is no try.”
It’s folly to argue with Yoda. As many years as I’ve lived, he lived far longer. And had far better script-writers.
Redefining practice as action
But one thing life teaches you — perhaps especially a life spent in journalism — is that there is always something more to learn. I have learned that Yoda was right — and he was wrong: There is no doing without trying.
I also have learned:
- There is no such thing as a “humble” brag. Bragging is bragging. Own your pride and be prepared to back it up with substance. (Journalist’s version: Yesterday’s story award doesn’t matter as much as today’s story.)
- Criticism of someone else is usually a defensive move. Own your insecurities rather than blaming others. (Journalist’s version: Stop arguing — with sources, editors, colleagues and reader. Ask, listen, then ask some more. Corollary: If you make a mistake, correct it.)
- When you trade in words for a living, you can get tripped up by those words. You attach meaning to them that might be limited or misunderstood by those you are trying to reach. That misunderstanding can extend to context, backstory, literary allusions, cultural references and jargon. Consider and consult the audience. (Journalist’s version: Duh!)
Which brings me back to the the concept of a writing practice: Most successful writers have one. All productive writers do.
A nonfiction book author I know gets up well before dawn, when his family is in the deepest part of sleep, and writes for two hours before the day asserts itself. A freelancer friend retreats to a borrowed wilderness cabin for two-week stretches; she makes soup, chops wood and writes 750-2,000 words a day. A newspaper reporter I once worked with spent years in his home office writing late into the night, not going to bed until he was satisfied with 600-700 words. That’s the equivalent of a newspaper column each night and two books each year. He now has published 60 novels, most of them best-sellers.
Maybe those practices would be better called writing rituals, or even obsessions. I know many other writers — professionals and wannabes — whose practices are less intense but just as regular: a morning gratitude journal, a nightly note to a child, a weekly Substack blog. They vary in form and intensity, but all require focus, commitment and follow-through.
In plainer terms, all require discipline. And discipline is a concept I understand, even if I don’t always practice it. I grew up with it in my working-class family: Make the bed before you have breakfast, do your homework before you go out to play, do the dinner dishes before you watch TV. I survived as a student with it: Get to class, take good notes, study before the test. I spent — maybe sought — a career with it: Show up when news happened, check your ethics and facts, hit the SEND button by deadline. I had it reinforced in my second career as a teacher: Come to class prepared, be available when students needed you, get grades in on time, be prepared to explain those grades to students, parents and the administration.
All of that required discipline — or, at least, follow-through on intention. And discipline means constant practice which, with a bit of focus, can lead to proficiency and, with enough determination and a bit of luck, can become mastery.
Because practicing is doing. Athletes and musicians don’t just show up, ready-to-go, at games and concerts; they practice for a lifetime. Physicians and lawyers have “practices.” Artists practice by pushing paint on paper. My 15-year-old nephew is a practice driver who drove his mom and brother seven hours to see his grandparents.
I have spent my life doing by practicing. My practice is journalism. And in my chosen branch of journalism, that means I practice writing.
Which is a good way to think about it because, frankly, journalists seldom get it exactly right. We are a tribe of perfectionists stumbling through a craft that defies perfection. What I long sniffed at as a lack of time to “practice” writing was actually insecurity over a lack of a time to be perfect.
Practice with purpose
Now as I coach and lead writing workshops, I preach the concept of writing practice. It varies in form and intensity but it’s always there: Writing to prompts, writing with your notebook closed, seven-minute free-writes, reading drafts aloud, writing five pages to find five good grafs.
I wish I were better at it in my own writing life. I’m not interested enough in my own mind meanderings to archive them in a journal. My work days with words are long enough that I don’t have the energy or drive to extend them for no known purpose. I am not one of those journalists who is compelled to write when I have certain nothing to say and no one to say it to. Fifty years into this profession, I remain an uncomfortable and insecure writer.
As we turn the first pages of 2023, the world pressures us to have resolutions. I refuse to comply because I know, for me, that way leads nowhere. So rather than set up an exotic writing practice that is doomed to fail, I limit my practice — then try to stretch it through discipline. I write an annual Christmas letter. I write frequent thank-you notes. I write a postcard each week to my lifelong best friend. I write mini-narratives on Facebook when I travel overseas.
I write this newsletter every Friday.
My non-resolution for 2023 is to embrace the concept of writing practice, which means embracing the concept of practice as doing. I want to find more constructive (professional?) ways to build in a productive writing practice for myself. I want to learn from people in my writing workshops what writing practices work for them. And I want Storyboard to be a haven of tools and inspiration for those of you who write.
All best for the new year.
** Putting the newspaper to bed. Filing for multiple editions. Hot chase. That’s all 20th century newspaper jargon. Find an old-enough newspaper veteran, buy them a cup of coffee or a beer and ask about it. You might hear some good stories, and learn along the way.