As I played my third tennis match in the space of three days this week and was just lining up to serve the ball, I was suddenly struck by the similarities between tennis and writing, and that elaborating on them would make for an instructive blog post.
Actually, initially I was struck less by inspiration than by guilt: Here I was playing tennis yet again, and not writing. I was neither writing a blog post nor working on my new book or translating the existing one. I was playing tennis instead.
I’ve actually been playing quite a bit of tennis lately. But that’s fairly new. I didn’t use to be a tennis player. I’d taken occasional lessons in the span of many years, played a few matches with friends here and there, and wasn’t much good. I’d have an occasional brilliant shot just to keep me from giving it up altogether, but many, many frustrating mistakes in between. Tennis, most of the time, seemed like too hard a nut to crack.
Theoretically, it shouldn’t be that hard. It’s all about physics, really, and angles – how you angle your racket, how you angle your body to the racket, how you twist your body as you make contact with the ball, how you create spin by following through. I’ve known all this in my head for a long time. I’ve had coaches tell me, I’ve watched the pros, I’ve even read a book (I’m a writer, what do you expect? I read everything I can get my hands on.)
But in practice, using what you know and applying it correctly is hard. You need countless tries, during which you make countless mistakes. And here is the thing: The more you practice, the more you plough through your mistakes and just keep going, the better you get. It’s slow going, and there are many days when you feel like you’ve actually gotten worse, not better, when you’re ready to give up. But if you just keep going and practice more and more and more, you will eventually get better. You will build that muscle memory that only thousands (precisely 10,000, if you’re to believe Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers) of hours of repetition can build. You can take lessons and watch the pros and read books till the cows come home, but you can never replace that muscle memory that is only earned by painstaking practice after practice.
Have you noticed how we’re not really talking about tennis anymore?
Because it’s totally the same thing with writing. And with everything else you might want to master, for that matter. Yes, you can learn about grammar, about plot, characters, spelling, about showing, not telling, about the power of the editor’s pen and that less is often more. Yes, you can learn from the masters, you can read everything under the sun to see how others do it (and you should!), and yes, you could go to a writer’s workshop to be taught more tools. But if you think for one second that you can then turn around and write your first book and it’ll be brilliant, you are deluded. Or perhaps you’re Harper Lee and you’ve proven to the world that you can come up with To Kill a Mockingbird just like that without ever writing anything else. Okay, so it turns out even she wrote something else, we just didn’t know about it, and the jury is still out. How about Fifty Shades of Grey, then? That appeared out of nowhere and took off, didn’t it? Well – I did read that she wrote a ton of fanfiction leading up to that, and that it eventually led to the trilogy. So my point still holds. You need practice to get better. (Although I’d argue that E. L. James’ writing is pretty much as far from brilliant as it gets. It’s just a sad reflection on people in general that the average reader is satisfied with so little. I would argue that this is yet more evidence to support my point – most Fifty Shades readers haven’t read nearly enough books to become more sophisticated than that. Or maybe they just like to learn more about kinky sex toys. In any case, we’ll just have to swallow our disgust and get over the fact that Miss James occupies 3 spots in the top 10 list of all-time bestsellers, together with the literary greats of this century.)
It’s so frustrating that you have to go through all that practice on your quest to improve, isn’t it? It costs time and sweat and pain. It’s especially hard as a writer. In tennis, you can just put all your embarrassing games behind you and move on. In writing, you leave much more of a trail. You can go back to what you wrote on your blog three years ago and cringe. Did I really say that? Did I really use such clunky grammar? Yep, I did, and people read it back then and told me it was good, and now I know that they were either lying or not very seasoned readers who didn’t know any better. And yet there is no other way to improve your writing: You have to practice, practice, and practice!
If you’re reading this blog because you are a budding (or struggling) writer, I urge you to drop whatever you’re doing now, and start writing. You can begin with a comment down below:-)
Oh, and in case you were wondering about that tennis ball I was about to serve? I barrelled it down the line perhaps twice as fast as three months ago, impossible for my opponent to reach and leaving her speechless (and leaving me smug), to win the game. That’s how many hours I’ve put into my tennis game the last few months.
Sadly, those same hours were lost to my writing. Which you can probably totally tell by the ramblings of this blog post. But I did manage to tell you about my awesome serve in a roundabout, phony, here-I’m-giving-you-writing-advice kind of way.
And I got my 1,000 words in today.