Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Endless Repetition (self-help, part 3)

The main difficulty of self-help practices is that they are just that: practices. They require constant effort of will to continue them. Inertia will tend to carry you away from these practices. But the more you spend your time and effort getting these practices ingrained in your life and in your body, the easier it is to perpetuate them, and the greater the inertia that exists for continuing them.

Exercise is an obvious example of self-help along these lines: the more you work exercise into your life, the more you miss it if you don't get it.

But this is true for other things as well.
All sorts of habits are amenable to work of this sort: if you practice the habit you desire, it becomes part of your life. The word "practice" has, in one sense, a meaning of preparation before the real thing: teams practice before their games. But I like to think about another sense of the word in which "practice" means to perform: doctors, lawyers, architects and others practice in this sense. Actually, I like combining the senses of the words: each act is preparation for the next; we practice both to accomplish our best in the moment and to improve our ability to perform in the future. We are always striving to both act on our abilities, and improve our abilities.

This is the endless repetition: we're always practicing in order to be able to practice better. We're always striving for improvement. You can take that as you will. The pessimist will take that to mean that all life is a burden with no respite. The optimist will take it to mean that we can always hope for better. The two do not appear to be mutually exclusive; they both appear to be true.

I waver between the two points as my confidence rises and falls. Some days the thought of the Sisyphean task is daunting; others the light at the end of the tunnel is appealing. I try to focus on the light because, while I think both perspectives are equally true, I think that the perspective of optimism is a lot easier to carry around from day to day.

When practice--the endless repetition to hone a skill--seems divorced from practice--the performance of the skill at the highest level--you can get into a difficult space. But being open to the endless repetition helps. Repetition need not be a bad thing.

I partly titled this "endless repetition" because I feel like my blog is generally a rehashing of things I've said before--perhaps with a slightly different spin. But also because this endless repetition is part of what makes a successful writing process. Some things have to be repeated. That's a big deal if you look at the act of writing like Sisyphus's boulder. But if you reign yourself to the willingness to rewrite, then you open yourself to a greater ability to put your thoughts on paper.

If you try to get it right the on the first try, then you sit with a blank page trying to make something perfect. And you sit with a blank page for day after day. One of my former clients shared with me a quotation she had found that said something like "you stare at the blank page until your forehead bleeds" or something unpleasant like that. Well, you can try that if you want. I recommend writing whatever you can write--see if you like it, and then try again. If you take the approach of writing as a practice--writing down thoughts and seeing if they came out right, and then trying again--then you can conceivably write several drafts in the time it would take you to write one while trying to get it right on the first try. And is it more work to write and rewrite or to stare at the blank page until your forehead bleeds? I grant the possibility the a draft quickly written will not be as good as one carefully written, but if you go through successive drafts, then it's not unlikely that the last of the sequence will be better than the first.

The more you practice trying to put your ideas down in writing, the easier it becomes, and the greater your chance of getting a good first draft. I believe this because it matches my experience. I can see how my facility with words improves, and how it becomes easier to formulate an essay.

So, the question is: do you look at the endless repetition as a burden or as an opportunity? If both perspectives are true and they are not mutually exclusive, which one do you choose to focus on?

No comments: