Last month, I published my first novella in over 10 years. The last time I released a novella, I worked with a small publisher and was required to do a bunch of promotion, such as hawk it on social media, do a blog tour (remember those?), beg for reviews, and waste money on swag to give away at a conference I attended.
This time around, as an indie writer, I hit “Publish” and went grocery shopping.
My bio on my website contains the phrase “enjoying my obscurity.” I haven’t had a social media account since 2015, and I don’t kid myself expecting that anything I write will draw tons of readers, but I’ve stopped caring because I’ve learned to value the process more than the results. With no imagined audience to perform for, I’m free to experiment, practice, and create on my own terms.
Austin Kleon has a great message for recent graduates about the advantages of obscurity:
There’s no pressure when you’re unknown. You can do what you want. Experiment. Do things just for the fun of it. When you’re unknown, there’s nothing to distract you from getting better.
. . . .
You’ll never get that freedom back again once people start paying you attention, and especially not once they start paying you money.
Enjoy your obscurity while it lasts.
So if you’re struggling with “what will people think?” in your creative projects, it might be a good idea to turn off social media for a while, or even delete your accounts. I know it’s hard because we want people to care about our work, but acknowledging the reality that few people care resets your expectations and makes you truly appreciate any attention that you do get. Best of all, you can focus on the one thing that actually matters: practicing.
Last month, my guitar teacher held a group class/recital where all of his students play two pieces for each other and receive feedback. As you can imagine, in the weeks leading up to the group class, all four of us freaked out to varying degrees. At the last group class in December, one student even refused to play and attended the class only as an observer. Did I mention we’re all adults?
It doesn’t work that way at all. I understand why people do it, though. Actually practicing a skill, as opposed to simply reading about it, smacks us into our real-world limitations, and that can be too humbling an experience for some people. We’re learning–of course we’re not going to be perfect. We never will be. Yet we put so much pressure on ourselves that we either shy away from the challenge or we overthink the challenge and end up sabotaging ourselves.
Overthinking and getting in my own way
I’m no exception to this. In last December’s group class, I didn’t exactly choke, but I played scared. I chose tempos that were too slow for the pieces and overthought each chord change and right-hand fingering. Sure, I didn’t make too many mistakes, but my playing was robotic at best. My teacher often tells me I’m a control freak (guilty) and I need to trust my ears and fingers more. Think in phrases and the piece as a whole, not the individual notes and chords. Perform and communicate emotions rather than simply execute what’s on the page.
He’s right, of course. As Met Opera timpanist Jason Haaheim says, the job of a musician is to vibrate air at people and make them feel a thing. If I play something note-perfect but don’t make listeners feel a thing, I missed the mark.
Turning off my critical brain
So for the June class, I purposely chose two pieces with wildly different styles. One was a romantic, moody piece and the other was a playful piece called “Danza del Gatto” (“Dance of the Cat”). After the usual hours of practicing, I made up my mind that the group class was simply another thing to practice. I have very little experience performing music as an adult, and the group lesson would be a good opportunity to get more used to it.
So when it came time for me to play, I turned off my critical brain and focused completely on the music and the emotions I wanted to convey. I managed to forget that I was even playing in front of other people.
My teacher said it was the best he’d ever heard me play those two pieces. I finally got out of my own way. The new challenge: remembering how I did that and repeating it.
There are no end goals: it’s ALL practice
People who play sports understand that overthinking ruins performance. Overanalyzing causes players to choke, I think people in creative fields can learn a lot from sports psychology in this area. Everything is practice, including things we consider THE end goal–big games, job interviews, auditions, performances, published stories. We believe that a particular event is the be all and end all capping off our hard work.
Nope, it’s just another practice session. I think that’s a healthier way to approach whatever we set out to do.
Discipline is choosing between what you want now and what you want most.
– Often attributed to Abraham Lincoln, but there doesn’t appear to be evidence he ever said this.
I do a good impression of a disciplined person, but more often than not, I lapse into slug mode. Inertia is no joke when I try to kickstart myself into action from a dead stop.
I’m at a dead stop often. I’ll have a burst of productivity for a day or two or a week and then nothing. Burst, stop, burst, stop. Interval training works for exercise, but in other areas of my life, I prefer consistency.
It doesn’t help that the things I want most feel so far away. Mastering anything takes decades of sustained effort. Getting over the initial “I suck” hump alone can take years. I’ve taken classical guitar lessons for a year, and while I’ve improved a lot, I still struggle with chord changes and knowing what notes are where on the fretboard. And writing? Oh jeez, I’ve been writing all my life, sold my first short story in 2006, and I still consider myself a newbie–I have so much to learn.
Sitting down to practice writing or guitar is difficult even though I love both. Perhaps that love is what makes it tough. I’m feel like I’m climbing a mountain and have made it only 3 feet up, or like I’ve hit a plateau thinking I’ve made good progress and see that the mountain is even taller than expected. Some people find big goals motivating, but I find them demoralizing.
No wonder I’d rather read or surf the web or snuggle the cat or take a nap than practice. Practice takes effort. It might be why there are people who spend more time shopping for guitars than playing them. (This is so common it has its own acronym: GAS, for Guitar Acquisition Syndrome.)
But yeah, I’m dealing with an old-fashioned discipline problem, and I suspect it’s because I’m thinking too long-term about where I want to be. I need to force myself to put my head back down and focus on daily processes and systems for my practicing instead of distant end results. My brain can wrap itself around a single day. Any longer than that, not so much. I have to trust that if I stick to a solid daily system, good results will happen as a byproduct.
And I have to remember that checking the internet yet again is simply what I want now, NOT what I want most.
I picked up a guitar for the first time a year ago. Because my hands are small, I followed the online advice to buy a smaller instrument and ordered a Taylor GS Mini. Even though it’s a 7/8-sized guitar, it felt like holding a coffee table in my lap.
The first few months were a struggle. Stringed instruments have always intimidated me, and the guitar was no different. It took me a few weeks just to figure out which tuning pegs went with which string and what direction to turn each peg to make the string go sharp or flat. I memorized “Eddie Ate Dynamite. Good Bye, Eddie” to tune each string, then couldn’t remember which string was the top string and which one was the bottom string.
Then came the actual playing, or “playing.” I buzzed every note, and each chord shape brought a new finger contortion. I took some online group lessons, and stretching my index and pinky fingers across four frets for the exercises was a no-go, even on the higher frets (which are closer together). I even gave myself tennis elbow from squeezing too hard on the neck. Chord changes were (and often still are) a mad scramble to get my fingers from one position to another.
Then three months later, as if I wasn’t challenged enough, I decided to focus on classical guitar. I found a local teacher and, on his recommendation, bought a full-sized classical guitar (an even bigger coffee table on my lap). I was such a newbie to all things guitar that I couldn’t start on Book 1 of the workbooks he uses–I had to start on the PRE Book 1, and even that was a struggle. Although I can read music, I had no idea where the corresponding notes are on the fretboard, so every single note required a few seconds of mental buffering. My tone was so bad my teacher joked it sounded like a trombone.
So if you told me a year ago that I would be working on this Book 3 piece a year later, I would’ve suggested maybe backing off your dispensary purchases.
Can I play it perfectly yet? No, but that’s not the point. The fact I’m working on this at all is a miracle to me. I didn’t think I’d be near this kind of music for years. My classical guitar now feels comfortable and my GS Mini feels tiny. Who knew?
I don’t practice every day, although I’m getting closer. If I take missed days into account, I average about 45 minutes of practice a day. I’m now at the point where incremental improvements are harder and require more practice time, but I’m thrilled that I got over the initial hump. Most people who attempt guitar quit within the first year, and I can understand why. Learning anything new is incredibly frustrating, and when people say you have to practice 10 hours a day to get better, it’s discouraging as well.
But improvement doesn’t require heroics, especially not at first. Even if you set lofty goals and fail, you’ll fail upward. Want to practice 2 hours and get only 15 minutes? That’s 15 minutes you didn’t have before, and my teacher tells me that even 15 minutes of practice, when done with concentrated focus, can make a big difference. Want to write 1000 words but get only 500? That’s 500 words you didn’t have before. And so on.
The key is consistency. You’ll improve faster with 30 minutes of daily practice than 3.5 hours once a week. What I’ve also found is that doing a small amount of guitar practice or writing each day makes me want to do more. A win all around.
New Year’s resolutions tend to fall apart this time of year, so I hope you go easy on yourself, reassess, and get back on the horse. Small, consistent habits aren’t glamorous, or even noteworthy, but they’re incredibly powerful.
If you want more information about building habits, James Clear has a great book called Atomic Habits and an excellent weekly newsletter (he’s much less wordy than I am, in case you’re concerned). Good luck and have fun!