“I’ll go and I’ll finish this book. I have to. My whole damned life is tied up. Most people would like it tied up. And maybe I do. My many weaknesses are beginning to show their heads. I simply must get this thing out of my system. I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. I wish I were. This success will ruin me as sure as hell. It probably won’t last, and that will be all right. I’ll try to go on with work now. Just a stint every day does it. I keep forgetting.”
– John Steinbeck (from a journal entry during the writing of The Grapes of Wrath, winner of the Pulitzer Prize)
When I think back on how I, a short, self-obsessed, headstrong kid, started playing football in high school, it’s undeniable I owe my first coach a debt of gratitude.
I didn’t know the first thing about what I was doing. And even after all the practice, I’m not sure I ever saw what it was truly about.
This learning to write sort of feels like that. I stumble around and often have no idea what I’m doing.
My football coach, Ron Kellner, took 15 unruly boys and made us a scraggly team.
I was a scared, frustrated kid but his influence on me was profound. He had to watch and learn what each of us needed, and then focus his training on that. Of course, to start and the whole way through our training, we needed to commit, so he inspired us and got us to see how discipline built our strength and skills.
And to play well, we had to learn to see what really mattered, who the real opposition was. Though I’d learned to do hard things before, I didn’t have much patience. I’d practiced piano daily for years, and memorized tons of scripture. But those weren’t by my choice; they were forced by parents (thank God). I had faced some fears and learned some things, conquered long books, but those weren’t hard; I’d wanted to do them. And I wanted playing football to be easier like that.
I couldn’t see the opposition was only me and that any benefit I might gain would only come if I was patient enough to learn.
And had I gained that knowledge, I might have matured, learned something useful for life. As it was, I endured practice so I could play, but it would take many years to realize that to succeed at anything requires patient devotion.
No less with the writing skill.
Annie Dillard writes, “The secret of seeing is, then, the pearl of great price. If I thought he could teach me to find it and keep it forever I would stagger barefoot across a hundred deserts after any lunatic at all. But although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought. The literature of illumination reveals this above all: although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise… I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam. It is possible, in deep space, to sail on solar wind. Light, be it particle or wave, has force: you rig a giant sail and go. The secret of seeing is to sail on solar wind. Hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail, whetted, translucent, broadside to the merest puff.” (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)
The secret, Dillard says, is to wait for it and “hone and spread your spirit.” To realize that we can only put ourselves in the path of the light, the knowledge we seek. We don’t make it happen.
But like frustrated kids, we won’t do it. We say we understand that this involves making choices and putting in the effort. We say we know we have to be intentional to gain and apply specific skills. But we’re stubborn and impatient and demanding and we just want to play football.
What do we need to gain the patient devotion to practice?
On the field, Coach Kellner would have us consider real-life situations and determine what to do. Slowly, we learned to anticipate what might happen in a given scenario and we started seeing what we needed to do.
And practice with applying the right response was the only thing that made that happen.
Most days, I don’t want to practice writing because it’s hard. I want it to be good right now. Just like then, I’m starting out weak and I’m my own worst opponent. I write fine when it’s easy and life is good, but when it gets challenging, I clamp down and stop. Slow work has helped me improve. But I still listen too often to my feelings (“I don’t feel like it,” “I’m busy,” “I’m tired”).
Will I forever let my success be forfeit to my feelings?
My devotion to this isn’t even primarily about me. Sure, the healing writing has brought has helped me stop fighting myself. But learning to write well is also worth the cost for what it produces for the world.
On the football field, I first faced this truth that when I was impatient, it cost the team. But I’m only realizing its significance now. I see my same old weaknesses, but I also see how important that training was for learning what Annie talks about, for making all the necessary changes to become a sail and catch the solar wind.
Patient devotion to making the tiny changes is how to improve the way I write. It’s how to improve the way I live, the way I think of my work and all my relationships… What’s more worth my investment than this?
Recently, Sheri accompanied a high-school choir on piano for a performance. Everyone did great and afterwards, she said she had had to practice daily in order to find all the possible places she could mess up and get them right.
That made me think of Ray Bradbury’s “million crappy words” and how he says nobody starts out wanting to commit to that kind of work. But eventually, with maturity, we realize it’s not an option. To progress and achieve what our gifts require of us, we must dedicate to it as if our lives were meant solely for this.
And if we’re to be real writers someday, maybe that’s all we need to know.
“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”
– George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman