Practice as not just doing but making

Those practices which are engaged with labor, which are the result of a kind of labor, constitute a kind of making. Our practices are not only things that we do, our practices are things that we make, among those things being the world.

Ross Gay, Interview for Between the Covers

And, our practices are things that make us.

Reps (repetitions)

from Let’s Not Begin/ Maggie Smith

If I list everything I love

about the world, and if the list
is long and heavy enough,

I can lift it over and over—
repetitions, they’re called, reps—

to keep my heart on, to keep
the dirt off.

Reps is short for repetitions, or the number of times that you perform any given exercise in your workout. If a fitness instructor or an online training plan tells you to do 10 reps of a body-weight squat, that means you’ll repeat the exercise 10 times.

Each rep of an exercise puts your muscles through several positions, including a lengthening phase, a contraction phase and a shortening phase, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).

Most exercises are performed in a range of 8 to 12 reps total per set. This range is best for general increase in muscle strength and size (aka hypertrophy), according to the ACE.

On the other hand, to build muscular endurance, you’ll want to keep your reps high, between 20 to 30 repetitions, according to the ACE. Higher rep ranges are excellent for runners or cyclists who need to perform exercises for long periods of time without muscle fatigue.

Generally the amount of repetitions you perform should be inversely related to the weight you’re lifting, the ACE recommends. If you’re performing heavy squats, for instance, you may want to do just 6 reps. On the other hand, if you’re doing light hammer curls, you can go for 12 reps total.

Whether you’re training for hypertrophy or muscular endurance, you want to perform your reps to a point of muscular fatigue, which is when you feel too tired to do one more repetition with good form.

What is the Definition of Reps and Sets?

Thinking about this in relation to Maggie Smith’s poem, I like this idea of needing to do exercises that make us stronger in 2 different ways: 1. that make our hearts/capacity for delight bigger (expanding to include more) and 2. that fortify our ability to persist, endure, flourish for longer periods of time, despite our struggles, the recognition that we will all die someday, and the difficulties of living in a broken world.

Ross Gay on exercising the delight muscle

It didn’t take me long to learn that the discipline or practice of writing these essays occasioned a kind of delight radar or maybe it was more like the development of a delight muscle. Something that implies that the more you study delight, the more delight there is to study. 

Ross Gay, The Book of Delights


from River Running
Rituals Routines Habits
(tankas 3-5)

Ritual. Routine.
What’s the difference between them?
Are habits mundane
always? Can’t they be sacred
sometimes—spiritual acts?

What is it they need
to be transformed? A doctrine?
Some theology?
Hymns about souls rejoicing
Kingdoms conquering reigning?

Chants about fathers
& sons? Uncomfortable pews?
Rising too early
on a Sunday morning? Yes.
Early mornings are sacred.

And the refusal
to stay in bed the act of
being upright and
alive outside by the gorge—
these are sacred practices.

from Practice! in Unofficial Student Transcripts

Why did I play the clarinet for so long? While many reasons come to mind, one that makes the most sense to me now involves my love of practice, repetition and the rituals of sitting alone in a room with a clarinet, a stand, a metronome and sheets of paper filled with notes, preferably sixteenth or thirty-second ones.


I always enjoyed practice more than any performance. Some players feel that the right performance can be religious. A deep and meaningful, almost transcendent, experience of connecting with the music and the audience. Not me. I always liked the private moments, when an intimate, almost sacred, connection with the notes, the music, and my instrument was created through repeated and habitual practice. Who finds transcendence through scales, played to the steady rhythm of a metronome? I did.

Practicing as Something that Saves You

without doing harm to anyone, including yourself

Sitting is dear to me because—at some quiet level, in certain years and moments—it’s certainly helped me not to want to top myself. People do a lot of things so as not to want to take a permanent rest from the slosh of existence’s anguish. A friend of mine, who grew up in between horrific foster homes says that skateboarding was the ONLY thing that kept him alive in those years. The ONLY thing. (He took drugs, of course, but he is clear that the skating saved him.)

This is what a practice is.

Of course, it involves building a set of skills, and eventually it can turn into some kind of accomplishment. One becomes very impressive on a skate ramp, or can make an oboe sing, or can cultivate flourishing plants in exhausted soil; one can cook as an elite sport or know the intricacies of Indian Classical Dance. But let’s be clear, a practice is something that (when you can manage to do it) may help you to pause wanting to top yourself, today, now, for a little while, and which—in itself and as its activity—doesn’t harm you either. 

Private Practice: Toward a Philosophy of Just Sitting/ Antonia Pont

The point of practicing, too, becomes with time more and more immaterial. (You start it, say… to reduce cholesterol; you keep going because you want to see the face of god.) Practicing shifts how you think about what matters. And the strengthening and steadying effect of practicing, too, is why those who would dominate you or your fellows always get straight on with diluting or forbidding the personal or shared cultural practices (including language), of whomever they’re trying to conquer or disassemble. 

Private Practice: Toward a Philosophy of Just Sitting/ Antonia Pont
Practice as an ongoing relationship

note: I’m trying, but can’t, resist the urge to mention that I really dislike the format and philosophy behind TEDtalks. But, when this one came up on my feed, I was drawn to the title and decided to watch it. I liked it, and I think it’s partly because the speaker seems to transcend the TED formula by being a good speaker who offers meaningful substance instead of empty soundbites. I think I was partly drawn in by her definition, early in the video, of practice as an ongoing and consistent relationship.

When a movement practice becomes a project

Ross Gay and The Book of Delights

One day last July feeling delighted and compelled to both wonder about and share that delight, I decided that it might feel nice, even useful, to write a daily essay about something delightful. I remember laughing at myself for how obvious it was. I could call it something like “The Book of Delights”. I came up with a handful of rules: write a delight every day for a year, begin and end on my birthday, August 1st, draft them quickly, and write them by hand. The rules made it a discipline for me, a practice, spend time thinking and writing about delight every day. Because I was writing these essayettes pretty much daily, confession: I skipped some days, patterns and themes and concerns show up. For instance, I traveled quite a bit this year. I often write in cafes. My mother is often on my mind, racism is often on my mind, kindness is often on my mind. Politics, pop music, books, dreams, public space. My garden is often on my mind. It didn’t take me long to learn that the discipline or practice of writing these essays occasioned a kind of delight radar or maybe it was more like the development of a delight muscle. Something that implies that the more you study delight, the more delight there is to study. A month or two into this project, the delights were calling to me: write about me, write about me! Because it is rude not to acknowledge your delights. I’d tell them that though they might not become essayettes, they were still important and I was grateful to them. Which is to say, I felt my life to be more full of delight. Not without sorrow or fear or pain or loss, but more full of delight. I also learned this year that my delight grows much like joy and love when I share it.

Harryette Mullen and Urban Tumbleweed

My tanka diary began with a desire to strengthen a sensible habit by linking it to a pleasurable activity. I wanted to incorporate into my life a daily practice of walking and writing poetry. As committed as I am to writing, I needed a break in my routine, so I determined to alter my sedentary, unconsciously cramped posture as a writer habitually working indoors despite living here in “sunny California.” With a pen and notebook tucked into my pocket, I could escape from the writer’s self-imposed confinement, if only to walk from home to the local post office.

This is a record of meditations and migrations across the diverse terrain of southern California’s urban, suburban, and rural communities, its mountains, deserts, ocean, and beaches.

Harryette Mullen, Urban Tumbleweed
Thomas Gardner and Poverty Creek Journal

There are 52 sections, as in weeks of the year, but also as in the number of sections in Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” a poem I dearly love. Letting poems and other bits of writing I dearly love work themselves into the on-going conversation I had with myself and the landscape and the weather over the course of my morning runs in 2012 was one of the goals of this experiment. Most of my runs were along the Poverty Creek trail in the Jefferson National Forest, just outside our house in Blacksburg, and the trail’s sequence of a pond, a series of descents, and a stream crossing becomes the constant against which the shifting surfaces of weather and memory and grief write and un-write themselves.

Thomas Gardner, Poverty Creek Journal
Other Examples Discovered

Kelly DuMar and #NewThisDay Writing From My Photo Stream Practice

 I write every day. Not poems every day, per se. But my daily blog, inspired by my walks in nature and the photographs I take, inspire my writing ritual. My blog, #NewThisDay, is my kind of shared personal journal. I frame my writing day around the influence of the photos, the feelings, thoughts, associations, reflections and imaginative leaps they inspire. This keeps me in a lyrical frame of spirit. Often, this writing produces a theme or a fragment that I will use to develop a poem. Belonging to a weekly poetry workshop makes a huge difference to me. Keeps me on target with producing or revising at least one poem, often more, per week. This accountability and inspiration are the soundest craft input there could be, as I trust my workshop peers and facilitator, and their own poems and process, and comments on mine, are hugely helpful.

I write from a photo with “heat” – the image moves me emotionally and also mystifies me, in the sense that it tugs at my curiosity. I feel I have to know something the image wants to communicate to me. I write for what I call the secret reveal, which comes from the unconscious inspiration a photo sparks in me. To express what I know I didn’t know I knew, and to engage with the beautiful drama of discovery of hidden emotions and deeper meanings.

Interview with Kelly DuMar
Practice / Carl Phillips from My Trade is Mystery

The point of practice is to repeat an action enough times that it becomes routine, which is to say, “we forget what we are carrying,” to return to Alexander’s poem [Vanishing Point/ Pamela Alexander], which links this forgetting directly to no longer making mistakes. By this logic, mistakes are the result of being overly aware of what we’re doing; once we lose this awareness, something else–I’ll call it instinct, intuition–takes over, a separate part of of the mind, presumable. It’s as if we can think now without thinking about thinking–that is, without making mistakes, without interrupting our thoughts with doubt, or pride, or comparison with others, or concerns about audience, no fear . . .


To practice writing, before fluency, means writing something on a regular basis. This can take many forms, and will vary from person to person. Here, by the way, I think it’s more important not to have art as the absolute goal, or even the goal at all. It’s too intimidating. In this regard, though I’ve never myself been one to keep a journal, a journal is definitely a good way of committing to a routine practice of putting words on a page. As I understand it, journaling just means recording our thoughts at the time, whatever highlights of a given day, the weather. The point here is a physical and mental engagement with the act of writing, until the joining of thought and writing becomes instinctive, and in turn to write becomes conducive to thinking, becomes both a catalyst for curiosity and the medium which curiosity extends itself like light–but somehow more physical than light–into the so-called darkness of what’s yet to be stumbled upon, what we call discovery.


To shape for oneself a writing practice is to commit to an apprenticeship in readiness. In order to write, we need to be ready to write, which means being in- formed, curious, fluent, patient, disciplined, and open to possibility however strange or sometimes frightening or perhaps at first not even worth writing about.

Major Jackson and documenting daily life

The next morning, at a crossroads, I woke up early and began to write down, with as much detail as possible, the previous day’s activities, a log of living. I abandoned the notion of poetic language, profound metaphors, and philosophical musing. I simply let myself go into myself, deeper and deeper. That process helped me find the real writer. Maybe he was somewhere in those depths, but maybe he was in the routine itself.

Today’s instructive poem realizes that sometimes, simply saying whathappened with accuracy is the poem, naming in such a way that we become enchanting to ourselves.

831: Panama Hat/ Slowdown Poetry Podcast