In my other life, I’m a swimming teacher. The thing that often frustrates and bemuses me and my fellow swim teachers is that parents will come to us and say that they don’t think their child is progressing very fast. The conversation goes something like this:
“My child, little Ben, isn’t progressing very fast.”
“Well, he is progressing, but just slowly. Do you bring little Ben down the pool during the week to practice?”
“No. I’m too busy.”
“Do you get him to blow bubbles and practice putting his face in the water in the bath?”
“No. He has showers.”
“Do you get him to practice his kicking while sitting on the edge of a chair, or walk down the hallway at home practicing his arm strokes?”
“No. But what difference would that make?”
“Does little Ben do any other sport or play an instrument?”
“Yes. He plays piano.”
“Does he practice?”
“Yes. I make him do half an hour every day.”
“Is he progressing?”
“Do you think he’d progress if he didn’t practice?”
“No. That’s why I make him practice.”
“Well…” dramatic pause where the parent looks at me bewildered and I realise I have to spell it out for them. “If little Ben needs to practice his piano to progress, what makes you think he’ll progress with swimming if he doesn’t practice? There’s only so much I can do in one half hour session every week shared with five other kids. He is progressing, but if you truly want him to get better, he needs to practice what he’s learning.”
This is the moment when the parent realises that I am right and either decides to bring little Ben down to the swimming pool more often, or practice those things I suggested with him at home, or just let it slide because they are too busy to do otherwise. Usually, they just let things slide and don’t mention progression ever again, because they are too busy and can see that little Ben is learning to swim and is getting better off the back of that half hour lesson a week and that I’m not such a bad teacher after all, because the real problem is that they don’t make him practice and don’t want to be bothered making him practice. Which is a shame. Because even a few minutes of blowing bubbles in the bath, or practicing the kicking motion on the edge of the couch, or doing the arm motions while walking, every week, would help him progress so much faster and engage him more in the lessons because he’d have something to show me of what he’d practiced. Little Ben might not one day be the next Thorpedo, but he would get better, faster. And he would learn a really important lesson:
You see, practice does make perfect.
This is the same for writing. The brain is like any other muscle – if you don’t use it regularly, it will lose the plot – quite literally. If you are only writing every now and then, you will never be able to get a hold of your characters or understand where your story is heading, because you won’t be engaging with them. I find, if I don’t ‘talk’ to my characters regularly, they don’t ‘talk’ to me either. If, like little Ben with the swimming, I only do the bare minimum of writing every week, it doesn’t matter that I’ve learned all that I’ve learned at workshops and through books and so on. If I don’t put it into practice, not much happens. However, if I touch base with my story and my characters in some way every day, then they and their story flows onto the page so much easier and my writing improves.
Other writers I know often bemoan the fact that their stories just aren’t coming to them, that their characters seem inconsistent and they just can’t seem to put into practice the things they learn about at workshops and from writing books and meetings with writing groups. I always ask them how often they write, and more often than not, the answer is ‘not very often’. I have heard from so many published authors that it wasn’t until they made writing a priority and practiced their fledgling writing skills with regularity (ie: putting bum on seat, fingers on keyboard and just wrote), that things started getting better for them. And it’s true. When I was just treating it like some funny hobby I did every now and then, I didn’t really get better at it. It wasn’t until I made time to write every day (or at least touch base with my characters every day by reading what I had written and thinking about what was to come next), that my writing started to improve. And it wasn’t really as hard as I thought it would be to write a little every day. I used to think that I couldn’t write unless I had at least two hours to write. Okay, having more than 2 hours every day would be fantastic, by I’m a mum of 2 very busy sons, work 25 hours a week and have a husband, who, while being as supportive as he can be, has a job that has really long hours so that I pretty much do everything for our kids and around the house by myself. I realised that expecting to have at least 2 hours free to write was a dream and unless I changed the expectations of that dream, I would never get better. I would write, but I wouldn’t be a writer. Because, even back then, I realised that practice makes perfect.
So, I decided that I would write in whatever snatches I can. I got a laptop so I could write while the kids had dinner and while they played or watched TV – the laptop meant I was mobile and could write wherever. A few years ago I also got an iPad which I take to work with me and use to write during my lunch breaks, as well as writing on it when waiting for the kids to get out of school or do whatever sport they are doing. I get up early, get everything ready for the kids to go to school and then write for 1/2 hour to an hour most mornings. There are times when I do get a few hours in a row – and they are incredibly wonderful – but I don’t rely on them to allow me to write. I write whenever, wherever the opportunity arises and put into practice those things I have learned through reading and workshops, because practice does make perfect.
And quite frankly, it is amazing how much you can get done in half an hour.
I also belong to 2 writing groups and have a critique partner that give me motivation and I give myself little deadlines by entering competitions and get more feedback from the judges. And this is how I know that practice makes perfect is true. Because my writing groups and critique partner’s feedback indicates that my writing is getting better all the time. And I’ve gone from getting so-so comments and scores in the competitions to getting into the finals, placing and winning. And if I keep working and keep persisting, I hope that all this practice will pay off and bring my dream of publication into reality. But whether it does or not, doesn’t matter, because I know that I will have given it my all and practiced and will continue to practice my writing skills to get better and become the best writer I can become. I am regularly using my writing muscles and they are getting stronger all the time.
So, to little Ben and all of my swimming students and writing friends I say – practice, practice, practice – it really does make a difference.