Friday, June 10, 2011

On being ready

My children are taking swimming lessons at the moment. My husband is an academic, and we often move in the summers, and swimming is one of those things we’re a bit behind in. We’re finally in a place with a) a pool and b) an affordable swim lesson schedule and c) we are not currently moving. So we are jumping in with full force. They are all at the same pool at the same time, and I watch them every day as they struggle to learn what their teachers have planned for their particular groups each day. And it makes me think of writing.

The younger kids are in the more beginning levels, but they are more likely to listen to their teachers, more likely to jump in without fear, and less likely to worry about consequences. I was excited to see one of my younger kids throw her head and shoulders all the way in and really swim today—as opposed to the jerky, gasping, one-move-at-a-time action she’s done until now. That struck me as significant—if you’re going to swim—or write—you have to throw yourself all the way in. You have to immerse yourself in the story, and you can’t be self-conscious or worry about failure or things not working. You have to be all the way inside.

The older kids are having to play catch up, which isn’t easy. They are more conscious of their shortfallings, and it’s harder for them to throw themselves all the way in. They want to, but letting go and submersing themselves completely, letting go of some control, letting the water take them—those are hard things. They’re old enough to know that water can hurt you. They’ve had longer to learn and practice bad habits. They’re less likely to really internalize what the teacher says. Even as they desperately want to follow the instructions, their bodies have a harder time mimicking the right steps. Their minds want to take shortcuts, fill in things they know from past experience, instead of really looking at what they’re doing.

On the first day, my oldest woke up a little cranky, and said something like, “Mom, I already know all the swimming strokes. I just need to go to a pool and practice. I don’t need lessons.” While I agree that they all need more practice time, I don’t agree that he already knows everything. But don’t we feel that way as writers sometimes? We’ve been writing for so long. We KNOW to “show, don’t tell.” We KNOW to ditch the adverbial dialogue tags. We KNOW how a plot works. And yet…we get in the pool, and all the million things we know still don’t add up to effective swimming. Despite all our work and knowledge, it’s like we’re treading water. The individual parts of the writing are nice, but as a whole, they still don’t add up. Something is missing. Meanwhile, other writers swim right on past. I watched my older kids’ class spend two solid hours on surface dives. Two hours of belly flops. Thank goodness for patient teachers, because I would have been very frustrated after all that, and no change.

But here’s a beautiful thing. After all of that knowing and trying and failing, my oldest finally leaned over today and dove in perfectly. Somehow, all that knowing finally meshed inside him. All of those loose bits of knowledge finally connected, and he dove. It worked. And it will work with your writing, too, if you just keep at it.