What are your scales?

Not for weighing. Not for justice. I’m asking about writing practice.

I’ve asked about practice before in terms of preparation (do you have a favorite place, do you have a cup of tea), but today I’m asking about the doing.

Musicians practice their scales. Dancers go to class. These are the basics, the kind of repetition that builds muscle memory while leading to growth (play a little faster or more legato, stretch a little deeper). These activities form and keep a foundation on which you build the concerto or the choreography.

(For this moment, let’s not worry about the differences between performing and creating.)

As writers, what are your scales? What do you practice daily, or regularly, to keep your mind honed and ready for inspiration?

I’ve been thinking about this: What are my scales?

  • Free-writing on the bus
  • Reading

Can’t I do better than that?

Free-writing at a regular time helps get writing into my body, helps me know when to show up–a kind of muscle memory or brain trigger. Sometimes.

Reading goes a step further when I read work that’s new or challenging for me, or when I closely read the kind of poems I want to write.

But after thinking about sitting at the piano every morning for five years, I think I need a longer or more focused list–a way to make my practice time count. And I admit that I resent exercises for the sake of exercise. It seems so meta–I want to make something, not spend time on something I’ll throw away. (Even though I throw away many, many poems.) Okay, time to get over that.

Some tried-and-true ideas to get back to:

  • Choose a poem and write in its rhythm, use its line-break style.
  • Choose a poem and use its first line to write another poem. Or, get fancy, and pick the first three lines, but use them in three different places.

Then, when I’m working the scales every day, it will be time to reexamine what comes next: deliberate practice.

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