Because You Practice It Wrong: Writing as Empowerment and How to Make It Fun
Monday, July 18, 2011 Expert Advice
By Kevin Schwandt, Dissertation Editor
Walden University’s resident writing guru Jeff Zuckerman recently related a wonderful story of music education. As a musicologist—a nutty disciplinary title (not just a Prince album) that essentially means I’m a musician who is trained to be a writer and, equally, a writer who is trained to understand music—I was prompted by Jeff’s tale to think about my own educational path, one steeped in both writing about musical thinking and thinking musically about writing. I’ve always thought that the two disciplines lived, uncomfortably, in different parts of my brain, but Jeff’s tale made me reflect more seriously on how the concept of practice can transcend disciplines.
One recent morning, Jeff—a pianist, as well as Walden’s resident writing sage—asked his talented drummer and music educator son to jam for a bit. Jeff expressed disappointment with his inability to match a particular rhythmic passage, to which his son, an educator at heart, asked what precisely he was struggling with. Jeff asked why he could keep trying to perform one passage over and over again and never get it right.
As a good music teacher, his son replied, “Because you practice it wrong.”
The repetition of ineffective actions is perhaps the most confounding, though common, aspect of skill development. We crave familiarity, even when we know we need something new. The act of writing almost perfectly reflects this fundamental truth of most people’s daily lives. Struggling writers tend to repeat patterns; developing and growing writers change them.
When I reflect upon the long history of my education, I remember one of my first piano teachers. She emphatically told me that my piano ability would be with me forever; no matter how old I grew, I would always have my pianistic skills. The abilities I was fostering would bring joy to my life. Partly because I was a very stubborn child and partly because her tendency to smack my hand with a pencil to indicate my fingering errors was irritating, I didn’t believe her.
The angry child in me wants to say she was wrong. Years later, I must grudgingly admit that she was right.
Now, working to help students improve their writing, I have learned that those piano lessons meant more than I thought. Few things in my life make me as happy as playing the piano. One of them is writing. In both cases, reaching a point where practice became joyful, not tedious, required critically engaging with what I was doing.
Regardless of the task, practice means more than repetition. Indeed, repetition can be detrimental. Practice requires careful examination of one’s actions as well as the results of those actions. That examination, coupled with the bravery to try new approaches, makes practice both fun and productive. In many religious traditions, the concept of practice is considered the essential companion to empowerment. That is not coincidental; self-aware, critically engaged practice is the essential foundation of growth, change, and improvement.
The writing process is a privilege that we as scholars need to recognize. I believe strongly that writing is a gift. Indeed, as I often remind students at residencies, many people do not have this gift; it is precious and should not be taken for granted. Walden students tend to be people who seek to do good in a world that doesn’t always produce good by itself, so this isn’t a new idea for them. Walden students often speak for those who are institutionally voiceless. Nevertheless, facing deadlines and program requirements can make people feel assaulted and exhausted. As scholars, we need to remember that we are among the most privileged of people; we have the time and energy to think big thoughts.
As scholars, we have an obligation to put those big thoughts into words; our privilege comes with the responsibility to share ideas. To that end, the articulation of ideas should be performed with the same passion that led to the ideas in the first place.
To maintain that passion, scholars’ writing needs to be as active as the higher level thinking they engage in daily. When you find yourself in a rut, when the words don’t come as easily as you’d like, do something different. Change your word order; try new verbs; see if you can say the same thing four different ways. When you feel that you can’t write something correctly, focus instead on practicing your writing creatively. Make it fun by not practicing it wrong.