Recently, I was volunteered to do some photography that I really did not want to do – in a setting where I have little practice and typically produce poor images. I don’t mind admitting my inadequacy in this area, and if anyone had asked me, I’d have said no. I couldn’t bow out and – well, it was every bit as bad as I thought it would be. I tried to take it as lightly as I could, but the promise someone else had made on my behalf added a solid 5 pound brick of awkwardness to my camera kit.
No skill improves without practice — a fact more painful in some domains than others. Musicians (followed by dancers in an intentional pun) take the most pragmatic attitude – at least in my observation – to the necessity of formally facing the gap between what they know and what they can do. They meet in private places to caterwaul and mis-measure time and no one is allowed to complain about the distasteful noise — unless those complaints result in improvement. Indeed, in some sense, practice is really the only thing that distinguishes musicians from non-musicians who tried. If you are not willing to endure the pain of repetition, instruments will not reward you for very long. I’m not saying that sour notes aren’t often taken personally, and musicians have plenty of other screws loose – a topic we can compare notes on another time.
At some point, practice may become play — but you can’t count on it. Red Smith — or Gene Fowler, depending on where you cite your attributions — asserted that “Writing a column is easy. You just sit at your typewriter until little drops of blood appear on your forehead.” It doesn’t matter which of them said it, because both men published well crafted words by the millions — and for money — enough to authenticate this observation for the likes of me.
Most of us must practice in the open — and almost all of us with an internal audience of the undead scolding and scowling over every letter or pixel or gesture. We bring this audience with us wherever our hearts and eyes and pens and ears may take us. This makes the wounds we experience due to these mean onlookers seem self-inflicted — but that is true only if we can’t some how manage…and it is very hard…to learn to practice while they watch. We are complicit only if they succeed in stopping us.
For almost 7 years, if I’ve done nothing else with my camera, I’ve practiced in the open — and for the most part, I’ve played hurt, to paraphrase Steven Pressfield. If I’d had to cheer up first, I’d have nothing to show for this time. But I do. I do have something. I have here to show for it, where if you want to know what is true in me, you have only to look and read.