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.
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