Friday, September 23, 2011

Free throw

Writing, I think, is like riding a bicycle. No, that's a cliche (which one avoids in writing), and it isn't true. Riding a bicycle requires a little bit of balance and a willingness to just let go -- two qualities writing shares -- but, ultimately, you learn to ride once and never forget. With writing, you get rusty. You forget and need to relearn.

So, then, a comparison as simple but more accurate: Writing is like shooting free throws. It's the easiest thing -- well, it's certainly the easiest shot in basketball -- and it's beautiful when you get it right. The audience hushes when you take aim and exhales only when you nail the point. Still, it takes lots of practice to get good at it, it's impossible to be perfect, it's frustrating when you miss, and if you spend enough time away from the line, you need to relearn the process. Back to the practice court for many, many hours of bend the knee, flick the wrist, release. Bend, flick, release. Back to the practice court just to get into the habit.

I am back on the line after some time. The hardest thing for me right now is listening to students and noticing: ah, I can do something interesting with that.

Lucky for me there is email. This morning I noticed a student had written at around midnight. Here's his message:
I am writing to you at this hour because I simply want you to know that I suck at managing my time. Please help me manage my time better. I had a week to read the book, but due to misplaced concerns and laziness, I was not able to read the book. I would like you to help me improve my time managing skills.
There's a quiz on Part 1 of the novel this morning. Let's see, he has class at about 11 a.m., so he still had almost 12 hours to go. But it was late, he was sleepy, and so he sent a last-ditch email to, what, get some sympathy? This guy's a basketball player, so maybe he'll appreciate the metaphor. He threw a last-second full-court shot, hoping for that elusive three-pointer at the end of the half. My response, though, is that the full-court shot isn't really a proper play. Sure, you hope it goes in, but it's not really a strategy for winning. A coach doesn't say in the locker room, "Let's fall behind by a point or two; then, at the end of the half, we'll pull out our secret weapon -- the full-court bomb for three points!"

A winning strategy is practice. Want to be a better writer? Practice. Every day. The same can be said of reading. You can't think that when you open a book for the first time that you'll just absorb the information. You need a quiet room with no one around, and for 30 minutes, you bend, flick, release. Bend into a comfortable position, flick through the pages slowly, and release your mind.

Ah, crap ending. I'm out of practice, you see.

So, let me finish this way: Ultimately, it's really disappointing that this kid didn't read. More so than any other. Because last week, when I handed out the novel, he stuck around after class to tell me that he remembers this book from when he was a kid. "I remember my family sitting around and talking about this book. For many days." That story blew me away. He actually has this childhood memory of people being so excited about a work of literature that they spent several evenings in deep conversation about it. And now he has the chance to read that novel and join the conversation.

He needs to get into practice. If he wants to nail that simple, single point and win the game, he'll need to practice.

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