Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Having A Practice, Part Two

By Steven Pressfield | Published: April 7, 2010

Over the past couple of weeks we’ve talked about Shame and Habit as allies in the struggle against Resistance. Shame motivates us to face our fears, and habit helps keep us in the groove once we’ve gotten started. Momentum is another powerful ally, along with ritual, love, enthusiasm, aspiration, patience, selflessness and greed (the good kind.) Put ’em all together and we can really get some mojo going. We can be working hard, having fun, contributing to the planet and actually getting somewhere.

Which brings us to what, to me, is the highest plane of creative endeavor–doing it as a practice.

The art of a practice can be very humble

What is a practice? A practice is a regular, daily application of intention. We might have a yoga practice, or a martial arts practice; we could have a practice in calligraphy or tai chi, or flower arrangement or Japanese swordfighting. Have you read The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura? The brewing and serving of tea can be a profound practice.

A practice isn’t pursued for money. It’s not an ego trip. Humility is a prime virtue in entering upon a practice. But a practice is not for cream puffs.  A practice requires fierce intention and the relentless commitment of a warrior. A practice needs killer instinct.

A practice is spiritual. Its technique is to use a simple physical act or skill as an avenue to access the higher aspects of the self. In Hatha yoga, the various poses are meant to take us beyond our bodies, into our breath and ultimately into a state of consciousness where we’re present in our flesh but are, at the same time, looking on from a higher, more detached plane. That’s the payoff (beyond easing our aching backs).

Practices take place within a sacred space. When we enter our martial arts dojo, we dress in traditional garb that shows respect for the discipline and its history, for our instructors and for our fellow students; we take off our shoes; we bow to the sensei. We’re quiet. We turn off our iPhones. We stop texting.

The great part about a practice is it can be learned. There’s a syllabus. It’s not a mystery. The teacher starts us at Square One. He guides us. We practice; we get better. Our understanding deepens over time. We had thought, when we started, that we were teaching the calligraphy brush to do what we want, but now we see that the brush is teaching us. It’s teaching us patience. It’s humbling our ego. We finally produce a masterpiece and our instructor throws it into the fire. We’re learning. The end is nothing. The act is everything. The practice is everything.

But let’s get back to the real world–to us struggling artists and entrepreneurs trying to do our work. Us trying to overcome fear, self-doubt, arrogance, procrastination. How can a practice help us with that?

Our art can be a practice. Yeah, we may still have to make money at it; we may be serving a client or a marketplace; we may have to take commercial factors into consideration. But we can still make our work a practice. In The War of Art, I talk about how each day before I sit down I say a prayer to the Muse out loud. This is no joke. It’s not an airy-fairy conceit. The work we do as artists doesn’t come from ourselves but from some source we can’t see or touch or command, but that we can serve and we can invoke. Homer paid respect to that source. So did Musashi Miyamoto.

"Where Women Create" ... terrific!

I stumbled onto a wonderful book in Hennessey & Ingalls called Where Women Create by Jo Packham and Jenny Doh. It’s a photo book about women’s art studios. There must be a hundred or so workspaces illustrated–studios for weavers, potters, decoupage artists, sculptors, carvers. What struck me was the sacredness of all these spaces, each one created by a different artist following only her own instincts and the requirements of her craft. Yeah, I’m sure the ladies spruced up their spaces for the camera, but still … these places are powerful; they’re charged with intention and love and the highest form of aspiration. It makes you proud, just to look at them. And it psyches you up.

To have a practice, you must have a space. But it’s the practice that makes the space. The daily application of intention, the seeking of excellence over time saturates the studio with power and energy. It casts out Resistance like a priest chasing the devil.

We started off speaking of Shame and Habit. These are grunt-level elements, nothing exalted about them. But they’re the good red bricks that underlie steady, strong work over time. They’re the foundation stones of discipline and perseverance. When we make our art a practice, when we make our workspace sacred and enter it daily with respect and high intention, then we elevate our actions (even if they’re taking place within the profane arena of commerce) beyond ego and above gimme-gimme ambition. At that point we might, if we’re lucky, touch something inspired. But even if we don’t, our practice centers us and strengthens us. It gives us a core that can’t be buffeted.

If you haven’t seen Where Women Create, I highly recommend it.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

7 Responses to “Having A Practice, Part Two”

  1. April 7, 2010 at 6:28 am

    Wynton Marsalis has written some great content on practice, or sheddin’ as it’s called by some jazz musicians. He emphasizes the humility and discipline that’s required to enter practice. We have to face our human limitations, experience failure and battle routine and monotony.

    Thank you for shining light on the sacredness of practice. I have battled the frustrations of learning and practicing modern poetry for 15+ years, with very little publishing success. Despite that, I can’t stop pursuing this art. I keep returning to the “workshed” to face the next skill I can’t do. Having a space in which to do this has been instrumental.

    Thank you for your ongoing generosity through posts like this. They are very encouraging.

  2. Holly
    April 7, 2010 at 8:27 am

    I’m stunned to see “Where Women Create” getting a plug from a hard-shell Marine, but I am delighted! A copy on my bedside table right now. The photos of the artists’ sanctums are indeed fascinating. The Muse will furnish the Girl a lovely space in return for habit and devotion.

    I’ve not seen the Okakura book, but I will add it to my wish list.

  3. April 7, 2010 at 4:15 pm

    Oh what a lovely post! I can’t sleep and stumbled upon this whilst reading tweets in the dark! I’ve had to turn on the light to respond lol! Yes indeed in the “instant” or “on demand” world we live in ‘practice’ and patience are the two essentials we are forgetting the power of.

    These days I wake up early to write a journal which is more like a stream of consciousness. I do this daily for about half another, it sets me up for the day and helps the creative juices flowing. The practice called “the morning pages” which is talked about in a fantastic book called The Artists Way by Julia Cameron. In doing the daily writing exercise and the tasks set in the book one can be cured of writers block. Seriously! It has done me. Worth looking at.

    Also will make a note of your recommendation, my environment is so important to me so I am entirely understanding of the need for a creative space.

    Look forward to your next post :)

  4. Tricia
    April 7, 2010 at 5:06 pm

    Thank you mucho for this one. It got me back to the writing process after being too focused on struggling with ideas of structure/theme/blablas for far too long. And I had lost that feeling of rootedness that comes from the daily practice … which is a horrible feeling, much more horrible than struggling with the writing itself. But so easy to slip into when one recedes into an oblivion of chasing reckless thoughts all over the map of uncentredness. You are so right — the practice of writing helps one to get centred, and ultimately, for me, to feel normal again (if that’s possible!).

  5. April 8, 2010 at 5:11 am

    I just found out that a new version of Where Women Create was released on Tuesday – here’s the Barnes and Noble link: http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Where-Women-Create/Jo-Packham/e/9781600595646/?itm=1&USRI=where+women+create

    Great post as always – loved your War of Art and can’t wait for each Writing Wednesday.

  6. April 9, 2010 at 10:22 am

    It’s easy to practice every day. To become one who practices every day however, isn’t.

    Great post!

  7. April 12, 2010 at 6:54 pm

    I think you would find my book “The Bliss Engine” of great interest. It deals with exactly the same concepts as “The War of Art” see: blissdietbook.com/ for the text of “The Bliss Engine”