When I was forty-five, I lived in the mountains of Northern New Mexico, where I took up snowboarding. It wasn’t as hard as it might sound. I’d been a slalom water skier. As a teenager, I’d been a skateboarder. This was in the days when you and a friend split a pair of roller skates, filed down the rubber spacers so you could carve better turns, and nailed the skates to whatever wood you could find in your father’s scrap pile.
One thing I loved about the sport was that shredders and shredbetties of all ages helped each other in ways I didn’t see two-plankers do. So I wasn’t surprised when a knuckle-dragger I had seen around Pajarito Mountain caught up with me on the slope, told me my turns were getting good (“you’re starting to ride your underwear”), and offered me some advice: “You need to drive your right knee forward more.” I rode regular, as opposed to goofy-footed, so that was my back knee.
I knew he was right. I’d known for a while that my turns would be stronger and more controlled if I drove the knee. So why hadn’t I incorporated that simple technique change? Because a single change can blow up your style for a while. Your confidence collapses. You ride like a grommet (beginner kid). You start falling down again. I hated that.
But then, when you’ve finally done enough repetitions–when your synapses and muscle fibers have integrated the new technique–you ride better. Sometimes a lot better.
Fast forward twenty years to my realization that writing is the same way. I was agonizing over the opening of my memoir about the men and parrots in my life. At the behest of my writers’ group cronies, I picked up Les Edgerton’s Hooked, about writing short story and novel openings. I’d already borrowed some fictional techniques, so it seemed like a reasonable read.
Once I was thirty pages or so into it, I sat down at the computer to compose an entirely new opening, beginning at what fiction writers call the inciting incident. You would think I’d never written a scene in my life. All those new ideas hurtling around in my head–how to use them? I couldn’t put together a sensible sentence. For twenty minutes, I slogged through a dozen possible beginnings before giving up.
The next day wasn’t much better, or the day after that. But then something shifted. I’d done enough repetitions that the ideas were beginning to integrate, meaning I knew how to use them. The dust from my blown-up style settled, and I could write again. Not a lot better, but a little, if for no other reason than knowing where to begin.
Improving any skill is likely to involve blowing up your style, integrating, and moving on to better performance. The temporary discouragements are worth it in the long run. Writing is no exception.