What’s it gonna be:
Leave range to play the true game?
Stay yearning rookie?
Picture the scene: B movie from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Black and white. Noirish dark, clever staging, meaningful shadow. Shifty character approaches hero, unties trench coat, reveals bewildering array of jewelry.
That’s how it can feel when you declare yourself a writer. Suddenly, you enter colorful Oz from black and white Kansas. Gurus beckon with urgent promises. Conferences, apps, MFAs programs, books, websites, tools, blogs beguile…resources are abundant, accessible, and alluring.
The choice can seem stark and simple: study writing or start writing. However, there is another way, a way that you find for yourself, by yourself, drawing on the resources that work for you and practicing in a way that is meaningful and productive, rewarding and moves you toward your goals.
“I realized that the practice of writing the book had actually, slowly and over time, made me a better writer.” — Lauren Graham, Talking As Fast As I Can
Any discipline that you have yearned to master, that challenged and encouraged you to keep on learning, has built the inner resources you need to become a writer. What you learned in baseball, ballet, piano, hockey, gardening, or any art or sports endeavor can be used in learning how to write well. For me, it was learning to play golf and to do Pilates.
Years ago, I took golf lessons from a grizzled PGA Tour golf pro. He had learned to play golf the old-fashioned way: he played the course. When he was a kid, he and his friends would sneak onto a nearby golf course and play after the members went home. They played countless hours, sometimes sent home by groundskeepers and other times given pointers on the game. Experts advised him to keep on playing, that you only get past your struggles by going inside yourself and working them out.
This deeply tanned, courteous, and devout man went from sneaking on golf courses to playing on the PGA tour during the era of Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, and Arnold Palmer. Then, many professional golfers were self-taught, working class kids who made their own breaks while others came from privileged lives with trust funds, mansions, and country clubs. All shared a love for a gratifying, frustrating sport that no one has ever completely mastered.
Most of my lessons were spent at the driving range, on a flat mat with a perfectly situated tee. Over the years, my pro built my pivot, my long and short game, pushing me hard to visualize the shot and deliver. Sometimes I got fed up and walked away, but I always came back once I’d had a drink of water and cooled off.
The golf pro insisted that there was a little man inside each of us (yes, he was that sexist) who wouldn’t allow us to settle for anything less than our best. A perfectly decent, reliable move would fall completely apart as the little man scurried about, making the adjustments for a more powerful, accurate, and usable habit. Continually, the pro urged me to stay within myself and to play my own game. He’d tell me not to let anyone mess with it or offer unwanted, unnecessary advice. I could trust the little man to do what needed to be done as long as I stayed within myself and kept on going.
Occasionally, we played golf on an actual golf course. I remember those lessons the best, the ones where he taught me how to appraise a situation, where he corrected and advised, praised the fire in my heart, the passion to learn and to master this most simple, most difficult sport.
It was out on the course that I learned what I had to work on back at the range on the practice tee. I also learned what I did well, what came naturally and easily to me. Over time, I learned not to catastrophize any result, recognizing that a terrible mistake could set up a brilliant shot and terrific score.
The most important thing that I learned out on the course was how much I loved the game. Playing eighteen holes — or even nine — is hours spent outside in some of the prettiest landscape you will ever see. There was incredible joy in striking the right club the right way, in sinking a long, daunting putt. Golf carts are fun to drive. Walking the course can be an opportunity to notice flowering bushes, the turtle sliding off the log and into the brook.
I brought what I learned by playing the course back to the driving range, appreciating what I did well and working hard to overcome difficulties. It was essential to study when I was on the practice tee — and even more essential to take all of my game, the brilliance and the shortcomings alike, out onto the course and play the game.
Years later, I applied my hard-won golf wisdom to learning Pilates. At first, I staggered out of the studio following an hour-long lesson to sit in my car until I was able to drive. Mastery, never mind enjoyment, seemed impossible at the start, but gradually, I learned what I was doing, became stronger, and began to look forward to class.
In that Pilates studio, I saw once again how each individual has their own strengths, their own way perform a routine, as well as their unique challenges. Every person who practices Pilates regularly shares a discipline that unites us and makes our lives better, no matter how long we’ve been at it, no matter how advanced we are. Just as my golf pro did, Pilates teachers praise, adjust, challenge, and encourage me to go further than I ever imagined possible. Like my golf pro, Pilates pros are devoted to the practice themselves, many confiding that they can’t believe that everyone doesn’t do Pilates every day.
“Keep going, keep going, keep going.” — James Patterson
Both golf and Pilates came hard for me. I laughed and I cried, struggled, triumphed, hunkered down to advance. Some days were shockingly difficult and others blissfully easy. I learned to show up, do my own best, and to keep on working to improve.
In my writing life, I have been working on the same novel for more than two years. It’s been a journey of many fits and starts, glories and disasters, but it’s always been learning, advancing, and staying within myself, playing my own game.
In that time, I’ve participated in conferences and seminars, worked with professional writers, and read dozens of books, guides, and blog posts from generous, extraordinary writers. I’ve studied, practiced, leaned heavily on friends, succeeded, stumbled, failed, and celebrated— and kept on going no matter what.
Starting, continuing, and advancing in other disciplines has given me the fire in my heart, the determination to learn difficult skills, and the unshakeable confidence that I need to learn this challenging craft — and keep on learning no matter what.
The work of other writers is a valued, essential joy. I attend readings and book launch parties and dive into the singing prose that others have created.
One unexpected and delightful benefit is that other writers have faced thorny issues similar to my own and solved them in simple, elegant ways. In my current story, there are many such issues to address, including a protagonist who drives too fast under pressure (and she is often under pressure). I was horrified to discover how often she raced through intersections, took curves too fast, and checked her mirrors for police cars.
What to do?
I found my answer while reading an entertaining, well-wrought novel:
“I drove the two and a half hours to New York in under two hours.” — Laura Dave in Hello, Sunshine
Nothing you have learned is ever wasted. Just as everything is material, so is all of the things you have mastered transferrable to your writing. Stay within yourself, play your own game, discover what works for you. And…no matter what…keep going.
A genuine pleasure on this learning-to-write-my-novel adventure has been discovering the world of blogging, taking my first big leap into a fantastically rewarding habit through a tremulous start with Raimey Gallant’s Author Toolbox Blog Hop. I appreciate all she has done and continues to do to connect writers in the world.
Thank you, Raimey Gallant for organizing the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop. Congratulations to Raimey as well on her four nominations for the Liebster and Blogger Recognition awards! In the short time that I’ve followed her work and participated in the Author Toolbox BlogHop, her smart, generous leadership and wealth of ideas and resources have bolstered, encouraged, and cheered on so many of us in writer world.
This is a monthly blog hop on the theme of resources/learning for authors: posts related to the craft of writing, editing, querying, marketing, publishing, blogging tips for authors, reviews of author-related products, anything that an author would find helpful.
To continue hopping through other great blogs in the monthly #AuthorToolboxBlogHop or to join, just hop on over to Ramey Gallant!