Practicing with Purpose

I recently read Marion Roach Smith’s The Memoir Project. It’s full of great insights, advice, and frameworks for memoirists (and, I’d argue, fiction writers, too). But one point she makes got me thinking:

To write, you have to ignore the weather, which is made up of every manner of distraction you know, including those books of writing exercises.

And then she goes on to get really down on writing exercises. All of them. In her book (pun intended), they’re a complete waste of time.

Me? I think a prompt can be super helpful in getting us warmed up or breaking us out of a rut. But I hadn’t looked at them from Smith’s perspective before, and while I don’t agree with her entirely, I do think she has a point.

Some writers—and I’ve certainly been guilty of this myself—have a tendency to use exercises as a crutch to avoid the real work of writing our stories. "Just one more prompt!" "Just 10 more minutes of free writing!" And before you know it, you've filled pages and pages with a whole lot of not very much. You’re no further along in your story than you were yesterday, and you may or may not have put in much work to hone your craft. In that case, I’m with Marion. Your writing exercises aren’t getting you anywhere.

But what if you were to start practicing with purpose? That is to say, what if your writing exercises were tailored to the story at hand. Maybe you’re free writing about the problems you’re working through in your novel or responding to writing prompts in the voice of your main character.

Then, you’re moving your novel forward by working in its world, opening yourself up to new character discoveries and new ways through tricky chapters. And as a bonus, you’re coming that much closer to a long-term cure for your writers’ block.

So this week, I challenge you to approach your usual prompts and exercises with purpose, as targeted efforts to jumpstart a stalled story or get derailed chapters back on track. 

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