Quick, think of your favorite musician. Doesn't matter which one.
Bonnie Raitt? Yo-Yo Ma? John Coltrane? Lady Gaga? Eric Clapton? Youssou N'Dour? Dolly Parton, Mirian McPartland, Wynston Marsalis, Howlin' Wolf, Luciano Pavarotti, Biggie Smalls?
Doesn't matter. She, or he, does, or did, three things.
Practice. Rehearse. Perform.
Practice is just playing around. "Just!" It's getting familiar, comfortable with your instrument, whether it's your voice or the dobro. It's having fun, even if on a particular day it's not all that much fun. It's experimenting. And it doesn't have an intended specific outcome. It's just how a muscian says to his or her instrument --- or, if you like, to his or her muse --- "You matter to me. I want to hang out with you. And I want to do that just because. Just because I love you. Because I like you. Because you interest me deeply. Because every time I do, even and especially when I think I don't want to, you never, ever fail to show me something."
Rehearsing? It's almost the same as practice, but with two gigantic differences. The first is, rehearsal has a specific intended outcome. Yeah, there's an element of fooling around, experimentation, and learning, always, but hey --- we're here to decide which songs are going to be in the second set or the next recording. And once we do, we're here to do them over and over again, in different ways. Until we decide on the way that sounds best to us. Thus the second difference: rehearsal is always, at a certain point, repetitive. When we decide on the direction we're going, on what sounds best, we're gonna do the songs that way over and over again, until it's as perfect as we can get it. All while knowing that perfect is an illusion.
And performance? That's where we show the world what we've done. Everyone won't like it, of course, but we know we've given it our best shot. And those who do like it will really, really like it. And the odds are good that the back-story of our efforts --- the practice, the rehearsals --- won't show a bit. It'll look effortless. (If the effort shows, the musician didn't practice and/or rehearse enough).
And --- here's the most amazing part --- all that work and effort and anxiety will fall away at the moment of performance. Because the performer, too, will be absent. Because he, or she, as an individual, as that person who worked, got bored, got anxious, got tired, didn't know if it would work out, questioned whether it was worth it --- that person is gone. There is just the music. Both the musician and the audience leave the concert hall or stadium transported, intoxicated. "That," we say, when we finally have words again, "was a great show."
I practice writing every day. Yes, absolutely pointlessly. I can show you the cupboard of notebooks kept on and off since I was sixteen (I'm 60 now, and these days there is no "off"; practice is always on, every single day).
Sometimes I "freewrite." Sometimes I do an acrostic (never with just a single word per line, however). Sometimes I make lists (views I remember from various windows; interactions with birds; things I have lost; beliefs I used to have). Sometimes I write haiku. Sometimes I do my practice at home; sometimes I take my notebook and little bag of pens to a cafe and work/play there. Sometimes I use a lot of jazzy colors, or doodle and sketch or Zentangle along with or in and out of the words. And I almost never read over what I've done. It's not for that. It's for the doing. It's the way I prostrate, daily, resting my head on the sacred feet of creation, taking refuge in something much bigger than I can understand but in which I trust, perhaps more completely than any other force in the world.
Most days I also "rehearse." I consider a first draft of anything I intend or hope to publish "rehearsal". Ditto, second draft. And third. And fourth. And more.
And then, there are all the drafts in response to others' responses to the prior rehearsals. I usually don't show what I'm working on until I've been over it quite a few times myself, and when I do show, especially at the beginning, I am very selective about whom I show it to. I want to know where whatever it is works and where it doesn't, but I'm aware that it, and I, may still be pretty tender. If I and the piece I am writing were a garden of enthusiastic seedlings, I don't want to be stomped on, I want to be thinned, weeded, maybe, and fertilized.
The writer's cast of producer/directors
Usually my partner is the first to hear or read what I've been rehearsing. In the old days, I used to often show these tender, just barely rehearsed starts to my mother, the writer/editor Charlotte Zolotow (at 97, she is far, far past this role).
Sometimes, it's the Second Saturday works-in-progress writing group I facilitate. ("Facilitate" as a verb sets my teeth on edge, but I don't have a better one. So far.).
Somewhere in here, my beloved agent takes a look. Though she is tough --- I have to be sure the work I show her, and my relationship to it, is sturdy enough to bounce back should it get a stomp or two from her. But she, my agent, is good. I don't always like what she says, but I usually wind up agreeing with it, and I never doubt that she wants what's best for the piece of writing.
Rehearsal for publication
If and when a particular piece of writing has been accepted for publication, a whole new round of rehearsal begins. This is the kind of writing called "revisions."
Some writers love this part. Some hate it. Me, at times, both.
Revisions-as-rehearsals are not as scary as those private first draft rehearsals, where one is usually making stuff up out of the most vaguely felt and pieced-together mash-up of ideas, hopes, experiences, and imagined stuff. Not as scary, but not as exhilarating.
The quality of revisions-as-rehearsals depends greatly on the editor.
A good editor pulls from you that which you have not quite said. She or he finds the soft punky spots, where the reader's foot would go right through the floor: where the writer has written inaccurately, or lazily, or without specificity, or untruthfully.
A good editor may make you wince, but his or her comments will also make you think. Spade over what you've done. Aerate your ideas. You read the editor's comments, he or she takes you out to lunch, and suddenly you get excited again. You say, "Yeah, unh-hunh, now I get it. I think. Sort of. Maybe! Let me get in there and see..." A good editor gets you wanting to go back to work. Your same-old piece, that you've been hanging out with so long, is suddenly fresh and eager, and calling to you, yelling to you, standing by the door stamping its feet, saying, "Let's go, let's go!"
A bad editor? A bad editor is a necessary evil: necessary only because every book gets assigned an editor, and she or he is the gatekeeper to publication. and if you want to get published, you have an editor, sometimes a bad editor.
Some bad editors are just plain dumb. They make you do extra work that does not make sense to you; that is unreasonable, that doesn't serve the book, that goes against what you are trying to say. And some bad editors are on an ego trip. It's power, it's I-know-better-than-you-the-writer (and oh how tempting, and foolish, it is to respond on the same level).
Whether benignly dumb or on an ego trip, here's what interactions with bad editors are not, and what they should be, and are with a good editor: how can these two diverse minds and sensibilities, those of the writer and those of the editor, work together, with discernment and respect, to co-create the best possible book/performance?
If you got saddled with a bad editor and you want to get published, you go along with as much as you can stomach. You try to do the absolute best you can with his or her less-dumb comments. You try not to sink to their level. You pick your battles; some things, you realize, you cannot "go along to get along" on. And if you don't do it too often, sometimes you, the writer, can just say, "No," to the editor (and oh how you wish they had been the kind of editor to whom a "Yes!" could have been uttered truthfully and with enthusiasm).
And you can also say the largest "No" and buy back your contract, and look for and hopefully find another publisher, with an editor who, though she or he may make you work your ass off, makes every rehearsal of the book, every rewrite, count. For a hard editor is not a bad editor. Unless she, or he, is.
I've had a few superb editors, a lot of so-so, somewhat competent ones (they improved the books in some ways, but in others did not, and wasted a lot of my time). And I've had a couple who sucked. And I've bought back contracts a couple of times. And/or, when it came time for the next book, "divorced" publishers who saddled me with bad editors.
Writing well, like playing music well, is a lot of work. Why do we --- writers, musicians --- do it, then?
Performance... and practice
Because sometimes a reader closes a book and sighs with pleasure. Says, in effect, "That was a really great show."
But you know what? I can't, in my heart of hearts, say I write to cause this reaction. I love having this reaction as a reader... but if I set out consciously to try to create it as a writer, if I wrote because I wanted to astonish readers, I would freak myself right out of writing a word.
That words which I've written do, sometimes, give something big to my readers: that's extra. That's gravy. I'm delighted. I'm humbled. I'm pleased. And in my heart's core, each and every time I get this reaction, even as I may be saying politely and truthfully, "Thank you so much," I swear to you that inside myself I am prostrating, resting my forehead on the sweet, beloved feet of creation itself, mysterious, strange and compelling.
Unlike a musician's transcendent "great show" moment, we writers have our instances where we are emptied out (in the best possible way), transported, intoxicated in the act of writing itself, not performing as such. Not every day, not every time. But sometimes while practicing and sometimes while rehearsing, it comes.
And so I return to practice. I say to my writing, "You matter to me. I want to hang out with you. Because I love you. Because I like you. Because you interest me deeply. Because every time I do spend time with you, even and especially when I think I don't want to, you never, ever fail to show me something."
Because nothing is wasted on the writer.
Crescent Dragonwagon's next Fearless Writing workshop, a weekend-long retreat, will be held in New York, on February 1,2, and 3, 2013. Find out more at the link above, and register now.