In the Zone

I did it! Finally!

No false starts. Got into the process right away, maneuvered potential obstacles, adapted my pacing as needed. Managed to keep on going in more than fits and starts. Covered quite a bit of ground, including some uphill stretches, circled back intentionally a couple of times, even executed one slightly tricky turn.

Brought the whole thing to a reasonable end, for the moment, even if I know I’ll have to revisit it later. Ended up exhausted and energized at the same time.

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I am speaking of course, about my grey-haired-lady-bike-riding endeavor. But a day of good writing can have the same effect. As if you’re suddenly over the ridge, and the Big Tomato of it all has revealed itself but you couldn’t say how you know that. You can’t always see what lies ahead but the energy expended has managed to revive you. As if there is more where this came from.

Just Get on a Slope

The lessons may have gotten off to a rare and beautiful start, but my (real-life, not fictional) bike-riding saga then proceeded to run into all kinds of setbacks this summer–travel, houseguests, plummeting self-confidence, dead household appliances, no time, questioning the sanity of the endeavor, and so on. The rest unraveled at the speed of a piece of writing coming apart at the seams. The bike sat in the garage, its presence only serving to lower my belief in the entire project.

Does this sound like writing to you?

Today I forced myself to put the helmet on, because once I have done that and wheeled the bike out into the cul-de-sac, there is no going back. It’s akin to turning the computer on and forcing myself to look at yesterday’s draft of the nonfiction work I’m in the thick of at the moment. Then I walked the bike down to the park. I confess I thought it best to get in the saddle a couple of blocks away from home, where I’d be making a fool of myself in the presence of strangers rather than neighbors.

I got on, and managed to navigate a more or less straight line to the end of the paved trail. Great, I thought. I’ll just ride back and repeat. But back was ever so slightly uphill and somehow my best efforts tanked. Several wobbles later, it was perfectly plain that things were not going well. Breathe. Handlebars. Focus. Brakes at the ready. Kick off. Nope-nope-nope. All I got for my pains was a lot of tipping and stalling.

Then the woman bagging her recycling in the house across the road called out, “It’ll be easier if you just get on a slope and ride down.”

Oh. It sounded logical. Why couldn’t I see that on my own? For the same reason, perhaps, that I can’t see the forest for the trees in my own writing.

“Let the bike roll down on its own,” she said. “Really.”

I did. It worked.

I walked the thing back to the other end. Piece of cake. Well, almost but almost was good enough. Walked up. Rode down. Again. And again. It wasn’t always perfect. Twice, I ended up on the grass. But I put in my half-hour. Ten repeats, and I felt halfway capable of doing it all over again tomorrow.

Getting back to the work in progress, I decided to apply the lessons of the day. I read my partial chapter from yesterday looking for a slope to ride down. I found the single paragraph that I knew instinctively would give me momentum. I began writing there, keeping that energy going, pedaling through while keeping my eyes on the horizon of the chapter’s vision. It worked. I made it to the end. It’s not perfect, but it’s moving along. And more to the point, rolling to the end in this way leaves me feeling capable of tackling the work again tomorrow.

It’s all in the mind, but when you harness the gravity of your own draft, you’re letting the words carry you along the natural slope of the work’s landscape. As with a swale that channels flowing water, downhill is sometimes the best way.

Look Ahead, Gain Momentum

In the category of Things I Never Managed to Learn is something that many, if not most, people, get a grip on in childhood–riding a bicycle. Yes, yes, it’s true. I was a klutzy kid and I grew into a klutzy adult and somehow, along the way, riding a bike eluded me.

So finally, this year, through a combination of persuasion and circumstance and just gritting my teeth and telling myself to get on with it, I signed up for a one-to-one lesson. My husband found the instructor through a local bike shop. I rode up and down a rollercoaster of emotions: eagerness, embarrassment, even terror (that is to say, in the old-fashioned, personal sense).

The instructor, Susanna, and I met in a parking lot by the ferry terminal in downtown Victoria. She was patient. She broke everything down for me, step by small, slow step. Until I was in the seat, and worried about falling. Minutes of accidental control and seconds of utter panic. At that point she said, “Don’t look down. Look at where you’re headed. See those flags with their pretty colours? Just head over there.”

Of course! I could feel myself sitting up straighter. Didn’t I know how to do this already? It works when I write. It is something intuitive and known, an experience that feels familiar whenever I circle back to this stage of each new book. It was also something that a former tai chi instructor used to say. Look at the horizon. Find the momentum.

By the end of the 90 minutes, I was looking at the flags at either end of the parking lot, and I was riding toward them, trusting that I knew how to stop when I needed to, that I had my fingers poised, ready to stop anytime I needed to. It worked. It worked.

It works the same way with words. I need to trust that I will know when I am done. I will know when I need to stop.

A good teacher knows when to guide and when to back off and let practice take over.