#7: Letting Go
In my packet-three letter, Doug wrote the following: “But as a parting shot, I want to re-emphasize the need for you to stop PLANNING quite so much…I’d be even more pleased if I felt you letting go of the reins a little bit, surprising yourself, not seeing the ending before you get there.”
Doug’s words remind me of my golf game. I played a fair amount of bad golf in my younger days. I had a long-standing, but modest goal: to break 80 for eighteen holes. It was a marker for me, a personal goal that lent some credibility to all the hours spent on the links. Every time I would come close to that score, I’d screw it up. I shot 82 a bunch of times, but my scorecard was littered with bogies (or worse) on the final four holes. The better my opening holes were played, the worse my finishing holes. A demon lived in my head, a demon defying me to break 80. The closer I got to that score, the louder that demon shrieked.
A few years ago, my wife bought me golf lessons at the course near our house. My golf instructor, Paul, recognized right away that I was a head case. I told him that my goal was to shoot in the 70’s.
Paul asked me a simple question. “What’s the enemy in golf?” he said.
“My putter?” I said.
“The enemy in golf is par,” he said.
Paul told me that the problem was how I approached the game. Every time I hit a bad shot, it messed with my thoughts because I was doing math, measuring how a few bad shots would kill the chance of breaking 80. He said to stop counting my score and to start counting my pars. He said if I focused on par, and not on scores, I would start playing better and that I would break 80 before the summer was over.
I played miserably for weeks and was convinced that my wife wasted her money. Right before summer ended, I went to the course and played a round by myself. I enjoyed playing alone. There was a calm, peaceful feeling being on the course with no one around. And I began to play well that day, too. I was striping the ball and putting purely, confidently. The holes hummed by and I was happily counting my pars. I racked up fourteen pars before I arrived at the 17th tee box.
The 17th hole was a short, downhill par 3 with a green surrounded by water. Until I stood on that tee, I had not calculated my score; I had only been counting my pars. Sure enough, I did some quick math and a knot formed in my stomach. If I finished with two pars, I would break 80.
The demon woke from his nap and began to laugh. My legs stiffened, my palms began to sweat. I switched clubs twice, and checked the calm breeze three times. I took my stance, a practice swing, addressed the ball and swung.
Now how does any of this relate to writing and Doug’s advice? That golf demon has a twin brother, and every time I sit down to write, that demonic twin visits. He loves to mock me, to point out how poorly I’m writing, to remind me of better writers, to tell me that I’ll never make it, I’ll never publish.
I fight back by studying the craft. I’m a craft book addict. My previous advisor actually told me to knock it off for a while. She said all the craft book reading was getting in the way of my writing, and she was right. But I was convinced that the key to unlock my writing potential (and quieting the demon) existed inside those books, and that some piece of the puzzle would fall into place if I just read the right one. The problem with all this advice, of course, is that it paralyzes at the point of putting pen to paper. The demon reads the craft books too, sitting over my shoulder, and he loves to expose every flaw in every sentence. He mocks my attempts to write better, to experiment, to finish a story.
I hit the worst shot of the day on the 17th tee. I popped up a seven iron and watched it soar toward the water. The demon raised his arms in victory. But something happened. Rather than splashing in the water, the ball bounced on a railroad tie at the edge of the green. It ricocheted straight up in the air and hovered a moment, out over the water, then touched down on the green. The demon let out a roar and disappeared in a puff of smoke. I two putted for par. On the 18th tee, I smashed a drive straight down the fairway and hit a long three wood to the edge of the next green. I birdied the hole and shot a 78.
I learned two important things that day: The first was that by giving my demon purchase, by counting my score on the 17th tee, the tension shot straight up. It ruined my shot. Only luck saved me. But the more important lesson happened on the 18th hole. I felt no tension on 18. The pressure should have been even greater, because any number of bad shots would have ruined my chances to break 80, but the tension was simply gone. How I can explain this? The answer is simple: the previous hole’s meltdown had caused me to stop thinking. I had let go.
In writing, like in golf, there are so many technical aspects that require study and mastery. But anyone who’s ever tried to swing a golf club thinking about keeping weight balanced, arms straight, head still, hips turning, grip loose, etc., knows how near impossible it is to make contact with the ball.
I never did learn how to let go this semester, but it remains a goal. The only solution that worked for me was to write more. Writing stories that failed seemed to help me get out of my own head. Experimenting with techniques helped too, even if the results were less than stellar. In the end, the demon still chides me, but I hope to find a way to quiet him. Writing a good, complete story remains a whole hell of a lot harder than breaking 80, but the underlying concepts are the same.
Up Next: #6: Letting Characters Speak the Truth