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.