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QUINTESSENCE

Habits of Creative Practice

Blue Grotto, Island of Capri
...That writers are special people. In fact we're most of us quite ordinary, only - well-suited or not - equipped with the habit of art, a susceptibility to language, a practice of noticing, a faith in writing itself learned from reading.
- Richard Ford, upon being asked what he believed to be the greatest myth about being a writer

I love this comment by Richard Ford about writers. Because it reminds me that writing is, as all of life, a practice. Practice involves repetition of process and the techniques of skill. Writers read to hear the music in sentences, and to think in terms of situation and story. Writers listen to the way people use language in dialog and bend meanings and sounds to extract meaning and nuances. Writers pay attention. An abruptly-ended conversation on the street corner catches our eye from the bus: Why did that man smack the other with his newspaper and then wink? What was said? Was it funny? Perhaps not, given the way the other fellow stiffened and inhaled sharply. We suspend our observations in writer's time and space. We lean in for the story, imaginations engaged, shading in the inferences and mysteries of what we can only guess at. Reading anchors our work, our empathy that story is more than entertainment or record, it is understanding. We find ourselves everyday in the pages we read.

But what speaks to me as I begin this new writing year is Ford's first observation: that working writers are "equipped with the habit of art." Which is to say, productive work routines. Habits of art establish the foundations of discipline in all creative endeavors. Grand ideas remain chimeric and unformed - never translated - if they fail to make it to the stage, the canvas, chisel or pen. Projects languish as conceptual glimmers without good work habits: artistic inspiration is transformed by work guided by intent, shaped and layered in the studio into the very thing originally just imagined.

What habits of art in your life need changing this year? Beefed up, edited, tweaked into a better fit with the schedule and goals you've set for yourself? For me, focus this year is on ways to amp up early morning productivity. Never a "Heh Sunshine!" kind of gal, the first hour of the day for me is one of worldly re-entry: fuzzy time when dreams dissolve and sort out their meanings, for stale emotions to reset, mental lists prioritize, to gather my creative tumbleweed "intent" from wherever it has tumbled away to during the night. Once that hour is behind me (usually two mugs of coffee in) I can begin a working day.

The goal is to get through my morning reentry earlier and at my desk sooner. I've explored various methods and discovered a few surprises: morning yoga puts me back to sleep on the mat and an early run revs me up too much, erasing the soft edges of tentative new ideas that bloomed in the night. Why not edit at the other end? Focus on the night before the morning in question. Accumulate less of what needs to be swept clear? Find better productive ways to lighten the content of that early morning drawer?

I'm experimenting with two new habits. Skipping the last hour of late evening news (and all of its upsetting headlines, traumas, and pointless weather repetitions), and substituting in an hour of inspirational reading. Not novels, as has been my past habit. (A good novel puts sleep far away, and when I do finally drop off I dream plot lines and character dilemmas - not a clean slate for morning work of my own.) I've stocked my bedside table with inspirational reading - poetry, books on creativity, great old photography collections, interesting artists' memoirs - material better suited to settling my mind into the right groove before sleep for waking in the habit of art. Cancel the news, switch to a new kind of reading, and hopefully wake with the brain-pump primed.

Let me know what habits of art have worked well for you. Let's get productive!

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