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Writers Talk About Writing

What a Circus Act Can Teach You About Writing

My son, who is studying to become an opera singer, must display a panoply of skills: Singing without a microphone. Learning a smattering of six different languages. Knowing how to build and strike sets. And, hardest for him, acting.

You'd have thought competing for attention at the family dinner table would have given him all the experience he needed. But, no, he also has an instructor. And, like many teachers, this person likes to share "war stories" and reports from other shows he's seen. My son recently learned from him about a French circus act that a local theatre had staged.

The teacher had found the act both surprising and impressive. It was so dangerous that performers and stagehands exercised rigorously before every show. They even adhered to a special high-protein diet and refused alcohol for 48 hours before each performance. But here was the story that captured my son's attention:

One of the performers — an acrobat — had to execute a series of dangerous and showy jumps high in the air. Then, she needed to land with exquisite poise on a balance beam that techs placed — at the very last minute — in the center of the stage. "Don't you ever get nervous about that?" the teacher asked the performer. Her unruffled answer astonished the teacher, and my son, and, ultimately, me.

"No," she replied. "That's not my job. All I have to do is point my toes. Someone else needs to put the balance beam in the right place."

Now, I'm not known for my physical ability. Give me a soccer ball and I'll immediately hand it over to my daughter who can do something useful with it. But the acrobat's attitude struck me as awe-inspiring in its focus. I even think it has applications for writing as well. How often do we spend way too much time worrying about things over which we have little control? (For example: what are our readers going to think?) How often do we fret over matters for which we have no responsibility? (For example: Where will our writing be published?)

Whether you're an acrobat or a writer, you can do only one thing at a time. And, like the acrobats who watch their eating and drinking habits before performances, writers who spend some time thinking about what they want to write — before writing — are going to be better prepared for the demands of the job. For me, sitting at a desk is the world's worst place to think. I prefer to walk, although you may favor other actions. These include: running, cycling, swimming, cooking or even (according to one of my clients) dog-grooming. The point is, if you're prepared to write, the words are going to come more easily.

Further, for acrobats, if you think about landing on the beam (or whatever other trick you're trying to pull off), you're also forced to think about not landing on the beam. You may know this as the don't-think-about-white-bears conundrum. The simple instruction not to think about something increases your blood pressure, speeds your pulse, and stresses you out. Far better not to go down that path in the first place.

Finally, attempting to multi-task is not only distracting, it's also impossible. (Technically, the best we can do is task-switch rapidly and repeatedly. Consider the perils of editing while you write. (Bad news: editing almost always wins which is exactly what makes it so painful for you to get that first draft.)

As writers we need to live and work in the moment. And here's the heartbreaking deal: you cannot get published in the moment. Here's what you can do:

  • Research when you research.
  • Write when you write.
  • Edit when you edit.
  • Leave the publishing to someone else.

In other words: all you need to do is point your toes.


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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Friday November 11th 2016, 7:35 AM
Comment by: WordyGerty's girl
This article caught my eye because my poetry mentor, Jack Ridl, who as a college prof (alas, not in my era) inspired. so many to join him in the realm of writing & publishing poetry. He often tells of his spending summers with an uncle, as I recall, circus worker for Ringling...etc. if I were not so lazily and slowly waking, I would look for title downstairs: he published book with chapters about various workers and performers. None, however, like the artist who so stunningly launched your grat article. I especially like your closing comments @ multi- tasking at my age with among multi-ailments, typing with two fingers after a fall where I broke one wrist--dominant, natch--and sprained the other. Good news is I am halfway through healing..a good 6 weeks to think@ what to write, decide to divide accumulated work into3 books which I will self-publish.
Friday November 11th 2016, 1:15 PM
Comment by: mary P.
I teach writing workshops and have a few private clients. I often suggest that writing is different from editing and they say, 'but this is how I do it.' I tend to think about my work while cleaning the barn, a mindless but also clear-cut job with a beginning middle and end, unlike other forms of cleaning which stretch on forever, and never seem to be finished. Now I have clear reference for my thoughts on pre-writing, writing and post-writing. I had forgotten how often we look in the mirror to find what others see to our detriment. Thank you for this article. I am now even freer to just put the ink on the page and trust myself. Regards, Mary P
Sunday November 13th 2016, 7:23 AM
Comment by: Keith M.
An outstanding article (as usual). Thanks!
Sunday November 13th 2016, 11:45 AM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks all, for your kind words. WordyGerty's girl: have you considered using voice activation software until your wrists heal? I highly recommend Dragon, which works for both PC and Mac. (It didn't used to work very well for Mac but recent upgrades have fixed the problem.)
Sunday November 13th 2016, 2:03 PM
Comment by: Leslie B.
"Panoply." Was that really necessary? You're overusing your Thesaurus. Use BIG WORDS only when necessary for precision. You toss them in where they stick out like sore thumbs.

As for larger issues: This has got to be the worst mess of bad advice I have ever seen. Most academics and other writers would tell you you're sticking your own poor stick up other writers' backsides. Are you honestly suggesting that we NOT consider the audience when writing? Why don't you do that, for a change? You'd be a little less narrow in your vision.

Are you really saying to spend time thinking before writing? Once an idea hits you, you've already done a lot of thinking. If you don't have an idea, watch TV, and grab the first noun that strikes you. Take thinking too far and no one would ever write a thing! Get the idea down on paper, or into your computer, then see if anyone else has ever thought of it, so you know what the arguments going around already are.

I think too much, so I excel in works-in-progress. But I taught writing for years, and had many students who were published, a couple of them after one semester in my freshman college courses for the English-challenged.

Do you honestly think that separating editing, writing and research will lead to valuable insight in the process of writing?

Well, I suppose you're right, if you want to spend your career coming up with words to express small thoughts and sound smart. Do you really think Carlyle, Fitzgerald, Twain, Tennyson, J.L. Austin, Jane Austen, Wouk, Harold Bloom, Churchill, Tacitus, Homer and all the greats wrote the way you are suggesting?

Writing is too complex a process for your methods. It takes angst. It takes irony. It takes energy. It takes strategy. It isn't really "intellectual" at all. Learning to write is more like learning to play tennis or football, or ballet; most of it is mechanical, and you need to train yourself to do a lot of things without having to think about them wen performing.

How do I use the Thinkmap? Not only to find precise words. It can be used for inspiration and insight, to open up the possibilities, rather than shut them down.

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