“When you sit down to practice, however casually, you cast yourself as the hero and victim of your own myth.”
By Maria Popova
In her sublime memoir of the writing life, Dani Shapiro wrote: “The job — as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy — of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it.” But the sharpening-and-honing itself rarely feels like a joy when you are mid-leap into the unknown, with no guarantee of whether your daily act of showing up — of practice and perseverance — will ever amount to the development of greatness. After all, Oscar Wilde famously quipped that “only mediocrities develop.” And yet here we are a century later, heeding psychologists’ growing body of evidence that “grit” is far more important than “talent” and that practice with a feedback loop is the surest road to success. Even so, the cult of inborn talent endures — after all, it is hard-baked into our cultural mythology of genius — and continues to oppress aspiring artists. “In every musician’s mind lurks the fear that practicing is merely busywork, that you are either born to your instrument or you are an impostor,” writes Glenn Kurtz in Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music (public library) — his spectacular memoir of creative homecoming, brimming with vital and poetically articulated wisdom on the artist’s life, deeply resonant for every field of creative endeavor.
Having grown up playing guitar and working to become a professional musician as a young adult, studying at a conservatory and winning some competitions along the way, Kurtz found himself disillusioned and exasperated with his progress, with the disheartening sense that “ambition and expectation are sometimes not enough.” So he gave up the dream of becoming an artist, borrowed a book from the New York Public Library to learn typing, and got himself a “real” job as an editorial assistant in New York, to which he walked twenty blocks to work every morning, “stunned and heartbroken, a sleepwalker.”
Every day felt like the waste of my entire life. For fifteen years I had practiced to become an artist. But I’d misunderstood what that meant… Most people give up their fantasies of art, exploration, and invention. I was furious at myself for having believed I was different, and even more furious that I wasn’t.
That anguishing personal emptiness was only compounded by New York’s merciless collective cult of self-actualization, which left Kurtz even more crestfallen about the trajectory of his life:
There was more movement, more intense ambition and envy in one block of New York City than in all of Vienna. But I had no part in it. There was nothing here that I wanted. I was walking home from a boring job, lost in a crowd of blue, gray, and brown business suits, skirting oncoming cars like a scuttling pigeon, because I had given up. My fingers were not to blame; nor were my parents, my teachers, music history, or my instrument. With every step I felt more harshly how I had failed, how fundamentally I had betrayed myself. Out of fear of being mediocre, I’d listened to the wrong voices. I’d been practicing all the wrong things.
Everyone who gives up a serious childhood dream — of becoming an artist, a doctor, an engineer, an athlete — lives the rest of their life with a sense of loss, with nagging what ifs.
Only a very few loves can disappoint you so fundamentally that you feel you’ve lost yourself when they’re gone. Quitting music wounded me as deeply as any relationship in my life. It was my first great loss, this innocent, awkward failure to live with what I heard and felt. For more than ten years I avoided music. It hurt too much. My anger went as deep as my love had gone. I suppose this is natural. In the aftermath of something so painful, we subsist on bitterness, which sustains us against even greater loss.
So he did something few have the courage to do — after a fifteen-year detour from his true calling, he decided to let his life speak and face that menacing what-if head on by returning to his great love. That homecoming to music was made possible by his deep commitment to practicing — “a process of continual reevaluation, an attempt to bring growth to repetition,” a delicate act that “teaches us the sweet, bittersweet joy of development, of growth, of change” — day in and day out.
Indeed, anyone who has ever experienced the “spiritual electricity” of creative flow can relate to Kurtz’s electrifying account of this transcendent process-state and easily substitute his or her instrument of choice — the pen, the camera, the keyboard — for his guitar:
Each note rubs the others just right, and the instrument shivers with delight. The feeling is unmistakable, intoxicating. When a guitar is perfectly in tune, its strings, its whole body will resonate in sympathetic vibration, the true concord of well-tuned sounds. It is an ancient, hopeful metaphor, an instrument in tune, speaking of pleasure on earth and order in the cosmos, the fragility of beauty, and the quiver in our longing for love.
Kurtz captures beautifully the enchanting absorption and tactile immediacy of this creative flow:
I concentrate on the simplest task, to play all the notes at precisely the same moment, with one thought, one motion. It takes a few minutes; sometimes, on bad days, it takes all morning. I take my time. But I cannot proceed without this unity of thought, motion, and sound.
I play deliberately, building a triangle of sound — fingertip, ear, fingertip — until my hands become aware of each other.
In a sentiment that calls to mind young Virginia Woolf’s memorable meditation on the bodily ecstasy of music, he adds:
My attention warms and sharpens, and I shape the notes more carefully. I remember now that music is vibration, a disturbance in the air. I remember that music is a kind of breathing, an exchange of energy and excitement. I remember that music is physical, not just in the production of sounds, in the instrumentalist’s technique, but as an experience. Making music changes my body, eliciting shivers, sobs, or the desire to dance. I become aware of myself, of these sensations that lie dormant until music brings them out. And in an instant the pleasure, the effort, the ambition and intensity of playing grip me and shake me awake. I feel as if I’ve been wandering aimlessly until now, as if all the time I’m not practicing, I’m a sleepwalker.
Listening, drawing sound, motion, and thought together, I find my concentration. My imagination opens and reaches out. And in that reaching I begin to recognize myself.
Practicing in such a way, Kurtz points out, is an embodied experience rather than one that takes place in the mind’s maze of abstraction — it makes the “whole body alive with aspiration.” Indeed, these two modalities are often in conflict — in one of his many insightful asides, Kurtz issues an admonition that, like the book itself, applies with equal precision to all creative endeavors:
It’s dangerous for a musician to philosophize instead of practicing. The grandeur of music, to be heard, must be played.
And in the playing — as in the writing, or the painting, or the knitting — is where we find the gateway to mastery:
Each day … practicing is the same task, this essential human gesture — reaching out for an ideal, for the grandeur of what you desire, and feeling it slip through your fingers.
The daily showing up and reaching out is, indeed, where the crucial difference between success and mastery lies, as does Lewis Hyde’s essential dichotomy between work and creative labor. Kurtz captures this elegantly:
Together this pleasure in music and the discipline of practice engage in an endless tussle, a kind of romance. The sense of joy justifies the labor; the labor, I hope, leads to joy. This, at least, is the bargain I quietly make with myself each morning as I sit down. If I just do my work, then pleasure, mastery will follow. Even the greatest artists must make the same bargain.
Practicing is striving; practicing is a romance. But practicing is also a risk, a test of character, a threat of deeply personal failure… Every day I collide with my limits, the constraints of my hands, my instrument, and my imagination. Each morning when I sit down, I’m bewildered by a cacophony of voices, encouraging and dismissive, joyous and harsh, each one a little tyrant, each one insisting on its own direction. And I struggle to harmonize them, to find my way between them, uncertain whether this work is worth it or a waste of my time.
Quoting harpsichordist Wanda Landowska — “If everyone knew how to work, everyone would be a genius!” — Kurtz writes:
Practicing is training; practicing is meditation and therapy. But before any of these, practicing is a story you tell yourself, a bildungsroman, a tale of education and self-realization. For the fingers as for the mind, practicing is an imaginative, imaginary arc, a journey, a voyage. You must feel you are moving forward. But it is the story that leads you on.
From the outside, practicing may not seem like much of a story… Yet practicing is the fundamental story. Whether as a musician, as an athlete, at your job, or in love, practice gives direction to your longing, gives substance to your labor.
Indeed, this fundamental story of practicing is what lies beneath our culture’s fascination with daily routines, which always harbor the question of what propels the impulse to show up day after day after day in the service of one’s private creative enterprise. Kurtz offers a compelling answer:
Every day you go to the gym or sit down at your desk. The work is not always interesting, not always fun. Sometimes it is tedious. Sometimes it is infuriating. Why do you continue? Why did you start in the first place? You must have an answer that helps you persevere… Without telling yourself some story of practicing, without imagining a path to your goal, the aggravation and effort seem pointless. And without faith in the story you create, the hours of doubt and struggle and the endless repetition feel like torture.
Practicing is a story, but not one in “square time,” not a simple path to perfection. Instead, it is a myth you weave to draw up the many strands of your doubt and desire… The story you tell yourself … must embrace everything you experience when you sit down in the presence of your ideal.
When you sit down to practice, however casually, you cast yourself as the hero and victim of your own myth. You will encounter obstacles; you will struggle, succeed, and struggle some more. The story of your practice weaves all this together, absorbing what is within you and making it productive. Because when you truly believe your story of practicing, it has the power to turn routine into a route, to resolve your discordant voices, and to transform the harshest, most intense disappointment into the very reason you continue.
Unflinching belief in that master-story is also what allows us to transcend the daily rebellions of our bodies and minds, and to go on practicing:
Artistry may seem divine, but practicing is always mundane. Practice immerses you in your daily self — this body, these moods… You struggle with mistakes and flaws. The work is physical, intellectual, psychological. It can be exhilarating and aggravating, fulfilling and terribly lonesome. But it is always just you, the instrument, and the music, here, now. Practicing is the truth of who you are, today, as you strive to change, to make yourself better, to become someone new. The goal is always to bring old notes to life. Even so, while you sit down to work every day, it may take years before you know what you’ve practiced.
And therein lies Kurtz’s most assuring wisdom:
Limitation is the condition of our lives. What matters — what allows us to reach beyond ourselves, as we are, and push at the boundaries of our ability — is that we continue. But then everything depends on how we practice, what we practice.
I sit down to practice the fullness of my doubts and desire, my fantasies and flaws. Each day I follow them as far as I can bear it, for now. This is what teaches me my limits; this is what enables me to improve. I think it is the same with anything you seriously practice, anything you deeply love.
Practicing is an infinitely rewarding and ennobling read in its totality. Complement it with Dani Shapiro on the pleasures and perils of the creative life and Debbie Millman on the courage to choose the uncertain what-if.