Skills of Practice (Part II): Doing the Work

A couple posts ago, I mentioned three skills to practice: showing up, doing the work, commitment to the practice. I’m currently exploring these three areas in their own posts. I’m very curious about practice.

CAUTION: I doubt these will be how-to posts. I don’t have answers. My process is more exploratory. You’ve been warned.

Doing the work. I mean, it should come so easily, once we show up, right? Make the effort to get there and then, simply, do the work. But, who among you has never felt like doing your work?

For the writing me, it’s a fear of the blank page/screen. For the running me, it’s the open road or the ticking down of the clock on the treadmill. For the meditating me, it’s the timer that seems to be moving through sludge. For all three, though, I think it’s called the same – resistance.

It’s the little blinking cursor, taunting me. Come up with something original. Come up with something brilliant. The Great American Novel. This is what my writer side tells me I need to do. Then the Inner Editor is like, Who do you think you are? Such a damaging question. And one that, I think, rears its head up in a number of ways in my life. And because I like to answer questions, I start fighting with that part of myself.

Those arguments never end well. Instead, they leave me feeling defeated, usually putting aside my writing, hanging up my shoes, or not meditating for longer and longer stretches of time. And if I’ve made such an effort to show up, why won’t I do the work?

For me, there are two pieces to doing the work. (Note: This is a constantly shifting process for me. This could change in a week. Or less.) The first is finding something about which I am passionate. If I don’t care about what I’m doing, I’ll be lucky to show up, but it won’t keep me coming back. I’ll work/run/sit in fits and starts, but, the work won’t resonate and I’ll let it languish. In his memoir, On Writing, Stephen King mentions that he tends to only work on first drafts for six months or so. Anything more and it begins to feel foreign to him. I’m not sure if I fully buy that, but there’s a story/thread/something I’ve been kicking around for nearly two years now. I’ve done some work on it, but I keep losing the oomph. So, when I do revisit it, characters’ names change, I forget what I’ve written and what I haven’t. And yet, there’s a kernel somewhere in there that keeps me coming back. It’s just making the time, letting it come through, and doing the work.

I truly believe that practice allows things that come to fruition, because you’re body, mind, muse, whatever is expecting this practice to happen, and begins to prime itself like a pump at the well.

The second piece to doing the work, for me, is finding ways that make it fun and/or attainable. I’ve participated in National Novel Writing Month since 2005. I’ve finished three times, and the others resulted in more writing in a month than I had previously done that year. Not only is the insane goal of 50,000 words in 30 days up my alley, I think it’s the community of writers around me that keeps me passionate about the task. I think that while I love the activities I talk about here, sometimes, I need to be reminded of the joy I find in them by being what some might consider over the top.

Fun is relative to each person, so I won’t tell you how to find your fun in your practices. I will share a few tricks I’ve used the following at various times.

Inside cover of one of my journals
Inside cover of one of my journals. The quote is one of my favourites from Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.

For writing: stickers or stamps on days that I write; a new journal; creating collages on the covers of journals; new pens; rediscovery of old pens; lure of watching an episode of TV when I’m done; setting goals to see if I can beat them.

For running: creating specific playlists; changing my route; promises of a cookie or something like that at the end of my run; finding a route I love; finding one thing about my route that I am grateful for; hopping over cracked sidewalks and up sidewalk curbs, thinking I’m a superhero; trying to beat previous times for that route.

For meditation: stickers or stamps on days I sit for at least X amount of time; burning incense when sitting; sitting before watching that TV DVD episode [this one is slightly different, as it’s also that I ensure that the area where I sit is one of the cleanest and most organized places in the apartment, as that makes it a place I want to go].

While I’ve spent more time on this aspect of the skills of practice, showing up is vital to doing the work. Because if you don’t show up, there’s no way that these ways to make it fun if you don’t show up to do the work.

How about you? After you’ve shown up, how do you ensure the work gets done?


13 thoughts on “Skills of Practice (Part II): Doing the Work

  1. I think that company and publicness play a role for me, too. I mean, when I actually get myself to dance, dancing is easy — everyone is going to dance for the hour, and you just do. Dancing at home is harder for me to sustain — starting is OK, and maybe I’ll go for a couple of songs, but I get distracted, or tired, or bored, and flit off. It’s one of the reasons I like walking outside — there are no good alternatives to walking home once you’re bored. ;^)

    Grading or studying in a coffee shop is a similar feeling, for me. If I carry all my stuff there, and spread out at a table, it feels goofy to stop too soon.

    • I definitely agree. The funny thing is, publicness also changes things, slightly for me. Or perhaps, how I use it, changes. I used to only be able to write in coffee shops and public places like that. It somehow felt safer and I was able to “do” more. Now, I find it really challenging, and I much prefer reading in public spaces. The dining room table has become of the more frequent places I write. But, the challenge there is seeing that as space to hold sacred, when I can also see the dishes need to be done. ;)

      • I think publicness definitely does change things, sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a less desirable one.

        And it’s been interesting, to me, seeing what work I can do at home, and what work I need to do in the office, and what in a coffee shop, and how that’s shifted through grad school and working where I am now.

        And i guess I was noticing that a lot of poeple rely on a buddy for the getting there part, but I think the place that that helps more, at least for the way I do things right now, is on the carry through. (I think that goes back a while for me, too… I’m picturing studying in college. I was always really bad at that — I’d flip through my notes, and then what? But having other people in the room, working on things together, bouncing things around… then I could keep studying.)

  2. For me the key is getting started. Once I get a few minutes in, other voices–doubt, insecurity, temptation to do other things–go away. The key is to force myself to get a rhythm going.

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