Thursday, March 31, 2016

Practice Doesn't Make Perfect

"Practice makes perfect." Surely a mantra we all heard as children…whether it was in sports, spelling, music or math. This was a standard line repeated by grown-ups who were just trying to help us learn. Practice is a good thing…right? But perfect? Rarely possible.

Over the years, I've come to understand perfection is a false master regardless of the task. My perfect custard might look like your messy pie. Your perfect swan dive might be my belly flop. Perfection is subjective. It's as inaccurate a measure of success as coloring in the lines is for creativity.

Practice, however, is the part of this adage that is really more important. After years of being tethered to that false master of perfection, I’ve learned being open to the adventure that practice brings is freeing, encouraging and often surprising.

In my daily life, both writing and yoga teach me the delight is in the practice, not in the striving for perfection. I practice to finish something so I can try again. I practice to expand my perspective and learn more. I practice to get better and explore what's next.

My yoga practice recently led me to a handstand and a backbend. My writing practice has sparked a curiosity I didn’t know I had. Both have given me a satisfaction I wouldn’t have discovered if I had been seeking perfection rather than practicing.

My writing often involves taking rambling notes of observations with no idea of what connect points may eventually arise. These notes may be random words scribbled on the back of receipts or emails I send myself while waiting for the gas tank to fill. Just the practice of capturing observations, turns of words or the echoes of people’s stories gives me huge pleasure - not because I'm using them to write a perfect best seller, but because they keep me curious.

The practice of writing is also calming. I can often tame those head chatter thoughts clanging around like pinball marbles once I take a few minutes to shoot them out through my fingers. If something insightful lands on the page, great. If a connection to someone comes of it, all the better.

But I know one thing for sure…I never want to perfect this practice of writing because then I’d stop asking questions and discovering new paths. Perfection is when the fun and discovery of it end.

When I first started frequenting yoga classes I thought the phrase "practice yoga" sounded a bit pretentious…and yoga isn't supposed to be pretentious, right? At first, it often seemed the instructor who spoke the words "practice yoga" was a limber 20-something who didn't get it was impossible for a middle aged woman to practice herself into a backbend or headstand.

After a couple of years of an increasingly frequent yoga practice and some very gifted and encouraging instructors, however, I now understand now why it’s called a practice. I initially saw yoga as striving toward an athletic goal like moving from a circuit of 30 squats to 40 squats to 50 squats.

I’ve discovered the real practice with yoga is the exact opposite of striving – it’s working from where you are at that moment. Maybe today I can do a backbend, but tomorrow I may not even be able to touch my toes. That’s ok… just enjoy and finish today’s practice and come next time ready to practice again.

In her book, Bird by Bird, writer Anne Lamott speaks beautifully of practice and making a commitment to finishing (in this case she's talking about writing but it's an apt observation for any type of practice). "What you are doing may just be practice. But this is how you are going to get better, and there is no point in practicing if you don't finish."

But finishing here doesn’t mean perfecting. There's always more to see, learn and discover if we allow it and just keep practicing, not striving for that unreachable state of perfection.

I think I’ll stay on this path of practicing practice rather than practicing perfection for a while. It’s a lot more fun.


Saturday, March 26, 2016

The possibilities of the purple pen

Huh? Write with a pen? On paper? Surely you’re kidding. I write with a pen only when jotting off personal thank-you notes or signing an occasional check. I’m the queen of a paperless workspace, the diva of electronic communication.

Those thoughts churned through my head on the first night of a writing class. The instructor had offered us the choice of old-style composition books for our writing work. I reached for my laptop saying, “I don’t write by hand.”

“Here we do,” the instructor said.

So in the interest of cooperation, I dutifully selected the notebook with the cover that most appealed to me. I pulled out the only pen I had in my bag- a purple roller ball I use for editing at work. I opened the notebook, skimmed my hand across the first page and gripped my purple pen helplessly. I felt completely blank.

There’s something different about staring at a blank piece of paper versus a blank computer screen. At least the screen has other stuff going on…icons, blinking curser, color. That blank lined page scared me. That purple pen felt like lead in my hand.

I’ve always liked the simplicity of cut and paste on a computer. If I get something wrong it's just a matter of highlight and delete. The consistency of font choices is familiar. They are tidy and easy to manage. Things might occasionally get messy with track changes but I can always hide that. And a computer key never leaks purple ink or leaves a ridge on my finger.

As the weeks went on in my class, however, I got more comfortable with the hand written exercises. I began to see writing by hand gives me the freedom to mess up, make changes, and play with words in a way that keys and a computer screen don’t allow.

Writing by hand means I can go back to another page and find words I thought I didn’t need. Those words were still sitting right there where I left them, good as new. This is unlike typing on a computer. Once that delete key zaps out a word, a turn of a phrase or a thought, it's pretty much gone for good.

Hand writing has broadened my willingness to slog through the “not right”- scribbling thoughts that may go nowhere at the moment but may prove perfect several pages later – and letting those words survive for a possible other use or a different insight.

The process of writing by hand with that purple pen has led me to a softer acceptance of my daily striving to get it right the first time – whatever “it” is. My default has long been “get it right, and if you don’t, just quickly fix it.”

But now, I no longer see a blank page when I open my composition book. I see possibilities in the messes of colors and lines and squiggles that often lead me to places I didn’t know I could explore.

Sure, it’s messy. But isn’t that how we get to the good stuff?

The Pen
It felt awkward in my hand
like what I wrote
had to be right the first time.
Doesn’t everything have to be right
the first time?

Scribbling with the pen is messy
I can’t fix what I get wrong
A drop from my tea cup
smears the ink a bit
It’s just messy
What if I think of a better way to say it
I can’t delete it once it’s there
How do I fix it
without being messy?

My head goes
faster than
my hand can write
I can’t
keep up

What if I
miss words
or lose them
to another
random thought
It’s messy
Words are now
tumbling too fast
Fingers with
the pen
can’t keep up

My fingers get a little tired
from the pen
There’s a ridge on my finger
It looks messy
from leaking purple ink
Writing becomes
illegible scribble
I’m getting
lost in this stuff
that’s tumbling out
It’s getting really messy
Ink shows thru from the reverse side of the page
Makes it hard to read
through that mess
This doesn’t happen with keys
It’s just too messy
Mistakes can disappear
with the press of a key
With a pen, they keep haunting, remembering, waiting
But…what if I need back a thought that fell
victim to the delete key

It’s gone forever
And that would have been really messy