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Conversations on Practice

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I was in a New Haven bookstore a few years back, browsing through the new bestsellers when I came across Glenn Kurtz's "Practicing". One glance at the table of contents and I was hooked; the book promised- and delivered -- a meditation on the technicality, psychology and emotionality of the adventure that is developing a beloved craft. Delivered with candor and intelligence, I came away with new insights into the creative process as well as admiration for the author.

That author has since become a friend, one who brings as much passion for contributing to the community as to his readers. The result? "Conversations on Practice", a series of panel discussions with best-selling authors on their creative processes, held at the McNally Jackson bookstore in SoHo. Unlike many panels and interviews, these conversations (thus far, with Rebecca Goldstein, Jennifer Egan, Richard Sennett, and Dani Shapiro, among others) open up a truly rich and in-depth space of vulnerability and honesty that seems to serve both the authors and those of us fortunate enough to listen.

Glenn's fall season began Sept. 28 with Laura Miller, co-founder of Salon.com and author of The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia, and will continue with Daniel Mendelsohn, award-winning critic, essayist and translator and author of the international bestseller The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, as well as How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken on Oct. 18.

Learn more about Conversations on Practice here and enjoy my conversation with Glenn, below.

Tell us a bit about your background.

I've had a few different lives. I started out as a classical guitarist -- pursuing a concert career and managing to make a living into my mid-20s. When that didn't work out as I'd dreamed (the subject of my book, "Practicing: A Musician's Return to Music"), I ended up in graduate school at Stanford, studying comparative literature. After graduating in the mid-1990s, I taught at San Francisco State University's Multimedia Studies Program, which was a hotbed for the emerging dot-com industry. I taught there for four years, then joined a company that was integrating television content and internet functionality. It was very exciting, until it crashed. So after being a musician, a professor, and an entrepreneur, I finally arrived at my real vocation, writer. "Practicing" was published in 2007 and tells the story of returning to music many years after having quit. Really, it's the story of a love lost and regained, an experience I think every person who practices shares (regardless of the field), often every day!

Writer and host extraordinaire! What made you decide to start 'Conversations on Practice?' Particularly given that you're busy with so many other projects?

I had given a lot of readings from "Practicing" and was tired of talking about my own experience in the practice room. I thought it would be more interesting to learn about how other people practice -- and to broaden the focus from music to all the arts, particularly writing. The same questions I asked in the book motivate these conversations: how do you develop your ability? How do you deal with difficulties, technical challenges, self-doubts? What is the nature of your relationship with yourself and your materials while working?

How has making this contribution to the community impacted your work, your perspective, your spirit and your writing?

One of the most frequent comments I received in response to "Practicing" was that it showed musicians they were not alone in their struggles in the practice room. Practicing music--just like writing -- is a very solitary activity, and I think it has the potential to make you feel very isolated -- even to drive you a little crazy. It helps to know that others share similar experiences.

The Conversations have been wonderful for me, because they are in-depth explorations of how people I deeply admire go about their work. I'm less interested in whether someone writes early in the morning or late at night than in how they work with their ideas; what they do with the time they spend working; above all, in how they manage themselves in the course of this very intense, concentrated, and demanding work. I think the Conversations remind me, over and over, to have patience with the process -- and to have courage.

What have been some of your favorite moments in the Conversations?

As in any conversation, the best moments are when you feel you connect deeply with the person you're talking to, or when something unexpected happens that opens up a whole new dimension in how you think about writing or a particular writer.

I suspect if you asked people who have attended the Conversations, they will give you many different answers to this question, depending on what has resonated with them. For me, the Conversations with Arthur Golden (author of "Memoirs of a Geisha") and with Jennifer Egan (author of "A Visit from the Goon Squad") were especially exciting. In both cases, we struck a kind of conversational nerve, and I had the feeling we could go on talking all night.

What wisdom or advice would you like to share with readers?

I think a lot of young and aspiring writers come to the Conversations in the hope that a famous, successful, or just great writer will tell them how to be famous, successful, or great. It always surprises me to see people taking notes, as if one person's wisdom were wisdom for another.

That's my wisdom: you have to find your own wisdom. What makes the Conversations so interesting to me is not the advice writers give, but rather the stories they tell about how they stumbled onto their own wisdom, their own practice. No one can tell you how to become a writer or an artist. The only path is to do it, to think and feel deeply about it, and to persevere.

To hear how different people go through this process is always fascinating. It shows how many different paths there are to meaningful, creative work. And above all, it gives you -- and me! -- courage to have patience with your own path and faith in your own work.