Try 101

Practice — Process — Projects

Month: February, 2013


by tjbeitelman

[Above, you will find the scene from Spike Lee’s Malcolm X biopic in which Brother Malcolm takes up the dictionary and, thereby, begins his true education — one weighted word at a time. What follows is an excerpt from the final installment of the Try manifesto (so-called) I’ve been working on here of late. These two things are related. I swear they are.]

Practice: The Noun.

Lawyers and doctors have practices. So do priests and yogis. A practice is a vocation. It takes time, study, reflection, all in the context of a range of experiences, many of which are quite unpredictable. It’s not just work but a life’s work. One that often involves answering a call to something larger than yourself.

Practice: The Verb.

Practice is the act of teaching yourself. Other people can help you do it, but it works best if it’s focused, intentional, and self-directed.

Self-taught Teachers.

When we practice — noun + verb — when we teach ourselves our life’s work — we’re also developing an extremely effective method of teaching others. A lot of this sort of teaching happens symbiotically and unintentionally. We practice in relative proximity to others who are doing the same or similar things and, thus, we teach by example and we learn by osmosis.

In my experience, this is usually the most powerful, integrative way to teach and learn.

As-salam alaykum (السلام عليكم).

Labor of Love

by tjbeitelman



I’ve spent the last two weeks falling in love with someone. I am happy to report that this someone has spent the last two weeks falling in love with me. I am at least as happy to report that she’s a storyteller. A good one.

A few things make this pertinent to the Try 101 endeavor:

  • This fundamentally human experience — falling in love with someone — makes me want to create something.
  • Such fundamentally human experiences are — in themselves — creating something.
  • Listening to — not just listening to but investing in — somebody else’s stories nourishes the creative spirit.

Then there’s also this:

The effort it takes to love someone well is the very same effort it takes to create something — anything — worthwhile. They both require bravery and faith. Optimism. Focus. Immersion. Patience. A commitment to the now of the process. A delight in gestation. A willful ignorance of everything and anything that can go wrong. A willingness to change and be changed.

It’s not called a “labor of love” for nothing.

All Those Senses

by ajanefountas

“Anything bearing the moniker ‘literary’ has a duty to make readers see, feel, touch, smell, and taste the worlds it describes. ‘Represent’ means to make something present, to place something before the eyes of readers, to make it immediate: homes, entire towns, open spaces, single individuals, the community to which those individuals belong and with which they enter into conflict. It’s not a question of banal attention to detail, to background, or to setting. An individual’s story comes from adhesion to a specific world, the world from which that individual emerged and with which she is in conflict. Narratively speaking, without the concreteness of the world that he carries within, and that pushes against him from without, a character is only a hollow shade.”

–Elena Ferrante, author of the brilliant My Brilliant Friend, from a rare Q&A in Publishers Weekly

The Source Is Somewhere Else

by tjbeitelman


Where does the imagination come from? I don’t know. I bet you don’t either (and if you say you do, I won’t disabuse you of that notion, but I will kindly choose not to believe you).

I bet, too, that you’ve had the same kind of dream I had last night. Mine was very vivid: it was a classroom, of sorts, but one whole wall was open to the world, and the world was an Ansel-Adams-y landscape. Breathtaking. There was a bracing chill to it. Sculpted, hulking clouds navigated their way across the gray-ish sky. And all of us — I didn’t know who all of us were exactly — were looking out at it. The teacher was a woman, salt-and-pepper hair, kind eyes; contemplative, reverent. She, too, stared out.

Then she said something and I didn’t hear her. Or I almost heard her and what I almost heard — it’s lost now to the ether of dreams — was profound. I needed her to repeat it, so I asked her to, and she did. But I still couldn’t make it out. This seer-woman was saying something important in my dream and I couldn’t access it.

Something beyond my mind — some other kind of intelligence that is and is definitely not me — knows something important. And it says it sotto voce. In my general vicinity. Just loud enough for me to know I don’t know what she’s saying.

It’s for her to know and me to find out.

How Do You Remember It?

by ajanefountas

It’s Tuesday, so why not write a short piece of prose or poetry (with line breaks or in paragraph form). I mean, after all, Tuesday’s child is full of grace.

First, read “This Is How I Remember It” by Betsy Kemper.

Then, pick a scene from childhood that has always stood out to you. Something vivid. A run-in with a friend or family member. Your preschool teacher. Your first crush. Write in first-person. Play with voice by using very little punctuation. Let the story run on and into itself. But keep it all in the present tense, like this one. Write it like it is happening now.

And keep it short. And post it in the comments section, pretty please!

Bridging the Gap

by tjbeitelman


Here’s a pull quote from Clay Shirky’s TED talk above:

“The stupidest possible creative act is still a creative act….The gap is between doing anything and doing nothing.”

And here’s Ira Glass on being a beginner:


At first, these two statements don’t seem to be very different from each other. But maybe they are. Maybe by a lot.

One is egalitarian and leaves it for the marketplace of ideas to decide what’s “good” and what’s not. Make it, share it, don’t worry about it.

The other is craft-oriented, self-centered: the individual artist’s ambition and creative vision is the ultimate arbiter. Trust your taste and honor it, hone it.

One says the gap exists between inertia and effort — between nothing and something. 

The other says it’s between what you can imagine and what you can actually make — between good and not (yet) good enough.

Effort’s a component of both, yes, but it’s a different kind of effort. One is a short burst and the other is a slow burn.

In my experience, both approaches work. (And full disclosure: both don’t work, too. It all depends on the context.)

They’re different but they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. They can actually be mutually supportive.

The question I have to keep asking is which attitude works best for me right now?

I don’t always get the answer right at first. The answer can change on a dime. But it’s good to know there’s another approach to try.

Mind Lock with Tolstoy

by ajanefountas

Words of wisdom for the (young) writer from the Q&A after George Saunder’s reading in Seattle last night.

“There was a story I heard once that Robert Frost went to some college and he was talking to students and one of the students had this very kind of involved question about the sonnet and Frost said…he said, ‘Don’t worry. Work.’ Which you kind of want to kill him, right, like thanks, Bob…but on the other hand there’s a deep wisdom in that…

“The other thing that I think is kind of, it would have been news to me when I was young, which is that it really is about entertainment. Or you might say engagement or you might say charm, but for me the big breakthrough was when I thought, there’s somebody sitting across from me, maybe that person’s a thousand miles away, but we’re in an intimate exchange and I have to respect that person and the way I do it is by assuming they’re as or more intelligent than I am and that they got better things to do…

“And maybe the last thing you assume, and this is the thing, is that there is something in you that’s vital and very, very interesting, you know, in other words after a certain point you really do know something that should be transmitted…

“I think when you think about Tolstoy in War and Peace he has that incredible description of birth, of a birth scene, and when I was a young father, I went, ‘Holy shit, Tolstoy was a real person,’ you know, and we were in temporary mind lock. I was in temporary mind lock with a guy who’d been dead for 160 years who spoke only Russian…so it’s a deeply hopeful thing and I think for the young writer it starts with the sense that you know things. You know, you’ve loved, you’ve lived, you’ve lost, it’s valid…”

Listen to the reading and the whole Q&A.