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.

Learning to write on the #10 bus

Or, My life in yoga pants.

I’ve asked before about practice–how you write, when you write. I used to free write in the morning, on the #545 bus to work. I can revise any time of day, but generative writing worked best on the bus. The ride was quiet enough that it gave me an anonymity and long enough that I could read and write without worrying about missing my stop.

Now my schedule has changed completely. In between jobs, I’m riding the #10 bus in the mornings. Heretofore, I have not written on the #10. There’s so much to see–all the shops and the people and the little dogs. But now, it’s my regular morning bus, and I’ve needed to adjust.

(I thought I could write when I got home. I also thought that I would start keeping the house clean–spotless–catch up on laundry and editing work, job search, blog for the winery, and finish my novel. Hasn’t happened yet–and if I want to write, I’ve got to keep my bus practice.)

I’ve learned I have to start writing right away. While it’s preferable to read a poem first and choose a line to start with or some words to use (or just to get into that poetry space), it’s also much too easy to just keep reading and then realize I don’t have enough time left to start anything. I write best in a window seat, but I must avoid looking out the window–until I’ve written.

My next step is to write longer–can I write the whole ride?

Last night at his Seattle Arts and Lectures reading, Stephen Dunn was asked about turns. As I’ve been thinking about the difference between poetry and prose, this discussion reminded me to add turns to the list. And I’m convinced that the way to get to that turn is to keep writing–past the natural stopping point. For me, this is like running an extra quarter mile past the point where I feel like I can’t breathe. It’s hard. This morning, I failed. I’ll keep trying.

(Caveat: A poem doesn’t have to be long to turn. Now I’m thinking of Haiku.)

The other tactic is accretion, aggregation. To write and then go back–write in the margins (a process I used often when working on my forthcoming book). Compile, pare, look for two perspectives and how one turns to the other. Easier for the short-winded, like me.

Reading: Mona Lisa Overdrive, by William Gibson, and Salt Memory, by Jennifer Sweeney

Hearing as practice

Last night, I heard Nicole Cooley, Beth Ann Fennelly, and Erika Meitner read at Open Books. A riveting evening. Vibrant. The images, the structure, the story/not-story, the pull-no-punches telling–even the introductions to each poem.


And I confess that at one point, one quick point, surrounded by such splendor, I thought, “My new manuscript is crap, it’s all crap, it isn’t ready to send out, it won’t ever be ready to send out, I need to write much better poems.”

But the poetry was coming again, so I let that moment pass (really!) and was whisked away by more poems.

I came back to those doubts on the way home–doubts surrounded by inspiration. And by the time I reached the freeway onramp, I realized that this is exactly what I need. Seeing and hearing how it can be done (this way and this way and this way and this), another understanding.

Another door opens.