There's a difference between practice and performance. Between a dress rehearsal and opening night. Between a hobby and a profession.
And there's a huge difference between writing when you feel like it and writing because it's your job.
For years, I practiced. I wrote when I felt inspired, but never shared anything. I was afraid to call myself a writer and would often sabotage my work.
All the while, I was avoiding one painful truth: I was kidding myself. I wasn't really writing. I was just practicing.
The pointlessness of practice
Every writer has work she is afraid to share. It may be a manuscript, an essay, or an unpublished blog post. She thinks it is both terrible and wonderful at the same time. It is probably both.
Here's the truth: Until the world sees it, it doesn't matter.
Do you know what practicing without a deadline will get you? Nothing. No book deals. No audience. No money. And although writers don't write for accolades, I believe many hope their words will move people.
You have something to say, and there is someone who needs to hear it. But if all you ever do is practice, that won't happen.
One of my favorite writers on the craft of writing, Marion Roach Smith, says this about writing with intent:
Writing is good, honest work. And it cannot be reduced to generic writing exercises and pre-fabricated prompts. And ask yourself these questions:
Have any of those ditties ever gotten you published? Has scribbling from the right side of your brain, or getting in touch with your angel’s feather, or keeping morning pages put you where you want to be as a writer?
After reading one of those books of exercises, or subscribing to yet another web-based, prompt-list newsletter, have you actually finished that letter to your child that you long to give her? I doubt it.
I suspect that those manners of nonsense have instead stolen what little time you had for writing.
Listen: you only have so much time. You can either spend it trying to make your words count, or you can spend it practicing.
Marion recently told me about a writing course she teaches that is full of people recovering from writing prompts. They are disillusioned and frustrated. Do you know what she tells them? To stop practicing, write what they know, and share it.
The right kind of practice
I don't have anything against practice, so long as there is a point to it.
For example, I like to run. I go for a light jog maybe two or three times a week. When I feel like it.
For years, I told myself I would run a half-marathon — someday. I downloaded practice sheets from the Internet and started rigorous training schedules. And I would fail every single time. Year after year.
Why? Because I wasn't serious. I hadn't yet committed.
One day, I registered for a race. Then, it was different. I had a deadline. I spent some money. I wasn't ready, but I decided to start anyway. I no longer had the luxury of convenience and as a result, I had to show up and train every day.
While training, I ran at least five times a week with an average of five to six miles per run (and more, as the weeks progressed). Some days, I felt great. Others, I was as sore as can be. Regardless, I got up and ran, anyway.
When race day came, I was ready. In fact, I was in better shape than I had ever been. All because of a deadline. Because I did the right kind of practice — the kind where you've got some skin in the game.
How this applies to writing
I did the exact same thing with writing. I talked about it. Dreamed about it. I even wrote about it in my journal, setting arbitrary goals. But it didn't become real until I started doing it.
I recently received an email from a writer who's struggling with time management. He told me his days are consumed with urgent tasks; when he has time to write, he no longer feels inspired. “What should I do?” he asked.
Here's what I told him (and what I would tell you): Write anyway. Act like a professional. Treat this like a job, not a hobby. Until you do that — until you start training for something — you're only kidding yourself.
Of course, you don't have to do that. If you're okay with your words never getting read and never seeing your work published, then by all means, continue. Otherwise, it's time for a change.
It's time to stop practicing and start training. To quit screwing around. It's time to write for real.
This is habit-forming: start small and build. Begin with a blog. Then a guest post. After that, submit a few pitches to websites and magazines. Before you know it, you'll have a portfolio, maybe even a book in the works.
Perhaps without even realizing it, you'll be doing what you've always wanted: writing for real. As you do this, you may find yourself questioning your identity less.
You may discover that you are, in fact, a writer. Not someone who talks about writing or dreams about it. But someone who actually does the dirty, nasty, wonderful work of writing.
What do you say? Isn't it about time you started writing for real?
By the way, if this resonates, check out my eBook: You Are a Writer (So Start Acting Like One).
*Photo credit: woodleywonderworks (Creative Commons)