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Learning How to Fall is Easy

Dad fell out of an apple tree one time when I was a teenager. After Mom finished scolding him for having climbed up there in the first place, I have a vivid recollection of him grinning and telling us ‘falling is easy. Learning how to land well, that’s hard.’ I was driving my daughters to work today, and reassuring one of them that her new role at work will get easier. “I stutter through talking to customers,” she told us, “I’m probably making them wait too long to hear all the options.” Practice, I told her. And then I watched the two of them walk together through the fog into their store to work, and contemplated their dedication to the one job people ridicule most. The store got a two-pack, and the girls are doing good work. The worrier in particular is always there, shift in and shift out, takes extra hours beyond what she should, and comes in whenever they call her. Her managers know who I am, and rave about them to me when I come in. She’s doing good. She has the potential already to move into leadership – both of them do.

But I didn’t come here to talk about my kids, although I could happily do that for hours. They both make me crazy and very proud. No, I came here to talk about faking it until you make it. I was chatting with my friend Amanda this morning, and I told her I was having a crisis of conscience. “Who am I to writing about writing? Half the time I have no idea what I’m doing, and the other half I’m winging it.” So write about that, she told me. I thought about it, and I drove the girls in for a 6 am shift, and I came back to stand at the desk and write this:

You can stick the landing. 

But first, you have to fall down a lot. 

Just like I tell my kids, you can’t be good at something until you practice it for a while. And sometimes practice at home in front of the mirror isn’t enough – actually, like my daughter’s case, that would probably be worse than just standing there and doing it live. She’d get self-conscious and lock up. Having to do it in front of people makes her just do it. Stop thinking, and act. Which is what I’m doing right now. I stopped thinking, and started letting my fingers move over the keyboard. But here’s the thing. I’m not starting from a blank slate.

LSAjputtgnjat;htphbwae’jgr’;

That isn’t a word. Or anything. It’s not pronounceable, which is how we approach language in spite of the true underlying medium most common in today’s parlance being the flow of electrons in bytes transcribed as 1011101000. That’s not readable, either. But if I simply rest my hands on the keyboard and wiggle them about, I get that… whatever that is. So simply being able to form words as I type is a huge step toward communication. And then, further, I have experience at writing essays. I’m trying to teach that self-same daughter who is learning a new role at work that essays are neither useless, nor boring for writer and reader alike. And it’s hard to break down for her, because at this point I can sit down and pound out a few several  many hundreds of words in something that is usually cogent and coherent. It’s not always five paragraphs, and it’s not always highly structured, I told her. I’ve assigned her an essay on something she’s passionate about, and I am trying to break through the hard crust teachers have left on her ability to let go, and just write.

Breaking through that crust is hard if you are coming in cold. When I am passionately interested in a topic and have opinions I want to share, I find I can write at length on it, effortlessly. But writing cold? Trying to come up with a topic and just putting words in order? That’s harder, and if I am not careful, comes across stilted and overly formal. Although I’m fairly certain no one would ever accuse me of being a formal writer. It’s not just the essays for my blog and this one, it’s my fiction writing. I know I should treat the writing like a daily chore. I find that very difficult because pushing out words when the muse is giving me the cold shoulder feels unnatural. Hence my complaint about trying to write something today. I wasn’t feeling it.

So how do you fake it until you make it in writing? Or, as I chose the metaphor for this post, how do you learn to land? Not like a sack of potatoes, or with the elegance of a thrown brick, but with that effortless grace of a gymnast sticking the landing and bowing to the crowd? Practice. You do it, over and over and over. You read things that make you happy, and stow the beats of that story, essay, or whatever in your mind to pull out later on a completely unconscious level and influence how you write. Dancers watching other dancers perform fire off neurons in their brains – mirror neurons of the same brain activity as the one doing the dance. They can do this because they remember how it felt to do that. They have the memories. Writers form those memories by reading, and by writing. I’m not faking this essay. I’m really writing it, and I will get real feedback in comments that will allow me to correct my poor form. When I send out fiction to a critique group, I’m learning how to land. When I get reviews and incorporate the useful bits (it’s not all useful) I’m learning. Continually improving my writing doesn’t mean I’m bad, now. It means I can get better. I can always get better. No one is perfect.

I’m not jumping out of a tree, though. I’m terrible at that kind of landing.

header image: Herding Asteroids by Cedar Sanderson 

30 Comments
  1. And, per Douglas Adams, if you manage to forget to hit the ground while falling you’re flying.

    June 1, 2019
    • well, if you master that, can you teach me?

      June 1, 2019
      • Jeff Greason #

        It’s the best description of orbit ever written. “You throw yourself at the ground and miss”. The trick is to push sideways fast enough that by the time you’d hit the ground, the Earth isn’t there any more.

        June 1, 2019
  2. It’s not the fall that’s the problem. It’s the sudden stop at the bottom.

    June 1, 2019
  3. Chrisfromsweden #

    Those wandering fingers of yours? I am afraid you just invoked Nyarlathotep.

    June 1, 2019
  4. Teach the stuttering daughter the old programmer’s trick: Talk to the rubber duck. Or the teddy bear, or the stuffed lion, or… well, you get the picture. Have an object to practice on, but preferably not one that looks human.

    For programmers, this trick provides the same mental exercise as trying to teach someone to do something: it makes you think about it in different ways, which helps to unblock the process. For public speaking, it gives them a non-judgemental focus who doesn’t care if they stutter, or forget words, or whatever, and they can practice in peace.

    June 1, 2019
    • “We’re to go to play the ‘Orvan is Stupid’ game. I am going to explain this to you until I understand the problem.” (Yes, that HAS happened. More times than I care to think about.)

      June 2, 2019
  5. Draven #

    “its not pronouncable”

    don’t challenge us.

    June 1, 2019
    • “LSAjputtgnjat;htphbwae’jgr’;”

      …I admit I tried when I read it. “Lh-SAAJ-phut-nyJYAT(rising tone) ht-ffhbuwae*click tongue*jegrr (rising grr)”

      June 1, 2019
      • If Kaiju rise on your doorstep it’s not my fault! Lolol

        June 1, 2019
        • If one does, we will take it in, put a ribbon on it and call it NyarNyar.

          It’ll be Jaenelle’s first pet. Also, can you imagine her riding it to kindy?

          June 1, 2019
          • Draven #

            pocket shoggoth?

            June 1, 2019
            • Shoulder shoggoth maybe.

              Or at least a Mr. Trashbags ❤

              June 2, 2019
              • Draven #

                eat toes?

                June 2, 2019
                • Tickle them.

                  June 2, 2019
                  • I think Draven was referencing a snippet of Monster Hunter Guardian which Sarah posted on Facebook, and I am not sure if she posted it either here or on ATH, so you may not have seen it.

                    In it, Julie tells the mini-Mr. Trash Bags to eat the toes of the people who kidnapped her baby.

                    June 2, 2019
                    • Draven #

                      shhhh… spoilers!!!!

                      June 2, 2019
                    • (“But Mooooom”-like voice) But it was already posted!

                      June 2, 2019
  6. BobtheRegisterredFool #

    Steven Denbeste, Eric Raymond, and Richard Fernandez are among the essayists I’ve greatly enjoyed over the years. Why? They are often a worked case study of a thought process reaching a conclusion. The conclusion alone may be pretty cool, but you can also learn thinking techniques from the example.

    Thinking is one of the big joys in my life. (I may suck at it.)

    Turning a thought into an essay is doing it again, slowly and carefully. With it all nailed down on the page, I can check my work and look for mistakes. Edit it a little, get it singing, and I’d hate not to share it.

    Essays are finding a really cool thing and wanting to share it.

    June 1, 2019
  7. Mary #

    Nothing beats practice.

    June 1, 2019
  8. “I’ve assigned her an essay on something she’s passionate about, and I am trying to break through the hard crust teachers have left on her ability to let go, and just write.”

    Ah yes, the hard crust. Mine is like battleship steel, I needed a cutting torch to burn myself some air holes. Prevention is better than cure, you ask me.

    I tell all the young relatives to go forth and boldly get a zero on tests and assignments in high school. Getting more than a zero means you put more effort into it than it deserved.

    Which sounds -INSANE- right? Kids are supposed to EXCEL! They are supposed to come home with A++ report cards! They are supposed to Conform, and Work With The System, and be Team Players and all that great stuff. Right?

    I don’t think so. Me personally, I think its not good for them. Nuh uh.

    The problem as I see it, if you tell the kid to do GOOD in school, and the kid is smart? The kid will actually figure out all the stuff they need to do to get marks in school. Which is mostly the exact opposite of creativity and personal integrity. Memorize talking points, work the system, suck up to the teachers. And above all regurgitate what they’re told verbatim, never ever ever admit to having an original thought. Ever. Or any thoughts at all, really.

    That would be a Normal kid. If you have one of those square-peg weirdo kids, they’ll just be miserable.

    How miserable are we talking here, Phantom?

    Well, about that: Young Relative informs me that a girl puked up straight vodka in Home Economics class the other day, at about 9:30 AM on a regular day. Not a “piece of human wreckage” girl either, just one of the girls. A Normal Kid.

    Kids come to school drunk, and stay drunk all day, and go home drunk. Other kids are getting wasted at lunch time doing “whip-its.” That’s snorting the nitrous oxide propellant out of a can of spray whipped cream. Other kids just smoke weed all day, which is a problem because they’re not getting the nice safe medical-grade weed from the Official Legal Weed Store. They’re getting the black market shit that’s sometimes actually weed, but sometimes its basil (or lawn clippings) with fentanyl in it. And they die from it, and then it is not in the newspaper. Because the powers that be don’t want people to know kids are dying from black-market weed and other dire shit AT SCHOOL.

    This is farm country Ontario, folks, not the Detroit ghetto or the Jane/Finch corridor in Toronto. White-bread Christian Conservative territory. This is small town rural stuff. And the really nasty part is, the local school is considered pretty good for safety, school spirit, sports teams and all that high school stuff. They’ve got a winning football team, they’ve got a school band, it all looks pretty straight.

    The school is divided into two realities, basically. There’s the academic stream, and the smokers stream. The smokers spend their time getting wasted and trying to get laid. The academic kids see how f-ed the smokers are, and never touch anything. Except sometimes they fall off the wagon and it runs them over. Hence the kid barfing vodka at 9:30am on a random Thursday.

    So anything that lowers a kid’s stress level and lets them maintain some personal pride and integrity, that’s the way to go. If proudly writing an essay that contradicts the Feminist Theory BS of the week will get the kid a zero, then I tell them to get a zero.

    What’s the worst that could happen? They flunk English and become a welder who makes six figures, and they write fantasy on the side for a laugh. Beats having a PhD in English Lit and working at Starbucks for minimum wage.

    June 2, 2019
    • There is far too much truth in that. Far too much.

      June 2, 2019
      • Thank you, O Minotaur.

        I’d like to say its gotten worse over my lifetime, but looking back I don’t think it has. What’s happened is the esteem in which teachers and schools are held has descended to the level they richly deserve.

        One-size-fits-all factory schools are a bad idea. They’re a blight on all our lives. Just one more way in which socialism is an abject failure.

        June 2, 2019
      • Brett Baker #

        Agree.

        June 2, 2019
    • BobtheRegisterredFool #

      Ghettos weren’t originally ghettos.

      Yeah, there are moderns who say systemic institutionalization of historic poverty. There were contemporary sources, from the ACW to the 1960s, who thought that the slaves and the descendants of the slaves were moving up in the world.

      One alternative model is that they were simply poor, vulnerable, in the big cities when and where the modern regulatory fad had the bureaucratic leverage to inflict that sort of social damage on them. If so, the good people of Ontario might simply be vulnerable in the same way.

      My thought before bed was “and that sounds like a story.” I like doing fanfic with Mahouka, whose backstory has some absurd elements that would make such easily done without much need for invention.

      Last night’s dreams were a rather incoherent mess of road trip hijinx.

      Which this morning turned into musing on a future evolution of Star Wars, about long distance car races transposed onto Coruscant. Sounds like a funner story than last night’s future Canada nonsense.

      June 2, 2019
      • “One alternative model is that they were simply poor, vulnerable, in the big cities when and where the modern regulatory fad had the bureaucratic leverage to inflict that sort of social damage on them. If so, the good people of Ontario might simply be vulnerable in the same way.”

        The reason I even said that thing about the ghetto is that there are people out there, most of them Leftists, who think black people live in fucked-up neighborhoods because the poor dears aren’t that clever and can’t really help it. Breeding will tell, you know.

        This is because they can’t imagine white kids in wholesome small-town Canada getting hooked on drugs and having crack babies at 14. The soft racism of low expectations.

        News flash, Caledonia high school has daycare for the students, and all the 14 year old day-care moms did not come from the 6 Nations reserve. Not even most of them. Not even half of them actually, I checked.

        What does this mean?

        I take it to mean that the same pressures and damage that fucked over the Indians on the reserve and the black people in Detroit for 100 years are spreading to the farm families. And what are those pressures? Prejudice, welfare and cheap drugs. You can’t get a job because you’re white from a Christian family and work with your hands, you get just enough welfare money to keep you miserable and depressed in a run-down shack, and fentanyl is three bucks a hit.

        Which is all fine and dandy, but one of these days the Starbucks on Bay St. in Toronto is going to run out of milk for all those lattes, know what I mean? It isn’t like the farmers can be replaced if you drive them all crazy and kill their kids. Who’s going to do that job? Immigrants? They’re all in Toronto!

        “Which this morning turned into musing on a future evolution of Star Wars, about long distance car races transposed onto Coruscant.”

        Yeah, I would go with that one, the Coruscant 1000. Fun! The future of Canada one sounds like a Hugo Award nominee, and we don’t want that.

        June 2, 2019

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