Balancing Passion and Practice

A few nights ago I went to a jazz club. I love watching musicians play, especially jazz—there’s something about the way they move. Not just their fingers, but entire bodies seem to create the rhythm or melody of the music.

I’m inept as a musician. Mostly because I never really practiced. I also lacked the drive to practice. When I was very young, my cousin and I both started playing instruments around the same age (me=violin, him=flute). I’ll admit I did the bare minimum to be competent. I learned how to play decently, but not well. My cousin, however, had a real drive to practice and improve. Every time I saw him, he had that flute with him. He was passionate about it, and it drove him to play and practice. I never felt that way about music. Writing, on the other hand…

I think that with any artistic type of endeavor, there needs to be a balance between the passion that drives you to practice and improve and the precision you achieve. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell theorizes that it takes 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to be great at anything. And I’ve heard (I’m sorry, I can’t remember where) that the true successes, those masters that really excel at what they do, love the practice as much as they love the performance. The trying and striving is as important to them as the final achievement.

When we focus too hard on the end result, on perfection, I think the soul goes out of what we’re doing. A musician might hit all the notes, but if there’s no feeling behind the playing, the audience feels the emptiness. Likewise, a writer just churning out technically perfect prose often lacks the emotion that draws readers in. I know when I was halfway through my MFA program, on the 10 or 12th round of edits for the same chapter, I felt like the chapter had died and I was just trying to figure out what to do with the remains. In workshop, I’d get few comments, but there just wasn’t much to say about it. The writing was fine, but the feeling had been chased out.

Everybody gets there sometimes, that point where practice makes something so automatic, so natural you don’t need to think or feel it—you just do it. But, there’s a fine line. You can’t just play the notes. The practice makes it so that your fingers will automatically hit the right keys, but the passion is what makes it a living creation. Same with writing. There are technical aspects that must become automatic—not just the mechanics like grammar and spelling, but the style and rhythm of your writing. Only when you have these basics firmly in your grasp are you able to consistently move beyond them. To improvise.

So write and revise, write and revise, write and revise.

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