When I was little, my mother and I lived in a rental house three doors down from a windowless tavern. Drunk men sang and fought in the alley behind our place, the people across the street parked their vehicles on their lawn. But when I was eight my mother remarried and we moved into a bungalow three miles away where the previous owner, an ancient widower, left an upright piano.
I was stunned that someone would leave a piano to a stranger. But there it was, dusty, brooding against the wall. And so of course I sat down at it, when my stepfather wasn’t around, and began creating all sorts of noises. After a year or two I started taking lessons, and the sounds grew less alarming.
At this new house also, I saw from the dining room window that the neighbors across the street had a large brick wall that bordered their back yard. I was a shy kid in many situations, but my love for soccer drove me to summon enough courage (a process that took a few weeks) to walk across the street, knock on the door, and ask if I could please use their wall for kicking my ball.
To their eventual piercing regret most likely, those dear neighbors said yes. So I was out there in all kinds of weather. Hard shots, bending shots. Right foot, left foot. Whap. Whap. Hours out there, tormenting all human beings and other animals within earshot.
I understood from the age of eight that if I wanted to get better at piano then I needed to practice. If I wanted to get better at soccer, same thing. Focused, steady practice. When it came to writing, though, I didn’t make the connection. As far as I could tell, you could either write or you couldn’t. You had talent, or you didn’t.
Not until I was twenty-six and began sitting down at my desk for three hours every day and working did I realize how much practice writing takes. Dedicated, stubborn practice.
I teach writing workshops in public high schools, and to the first session I often bring one page from a novel manuscript. Cross-outs, words in the margins. When I put the image of that page on the screen, an electric stillness usually fills the room. Kids stare.
Every book you’ve ever read, I tell them, once looked a lot like this. It takes practice, no shortcuts. And so that’s what we’re going to do, all right?
Get out some paper, then. Each one of you cheeky rascals. Here we go.