I can still back out, he tested himself. I can go to school, tell them my story, and no one will know any different. I got to see the stained glass at least. Maybe that’s enough exploring for one morning. But the words fluttered harmlessly back to the ground as soon as they materialized, and once a gap in the rushed morning traffic presented itself, he stepped off the curb and jogged across the street, his backpack jarring into him as he trotted. When he safely got to the other side, everything immediately felt different. It reminded him of when he had to stand up in front of the class and work out a math problem, or give a book report, and everything looked simultaneously familiar and alien. He knew where he was, and where he was going, but he was used to only seeing this area from the other side of the street, or the backseat of his mom’s car, and it took a moment for him to get his bearings. If he stayed on Mill Road long enough—past his destination—it would cross over the old railroad tracks before merging with County Road 217, so he knew he wouldn’t miss the turn.” –The Lark
When I first learned to fly fish, I started out looking like most people do when they decide to undertake such a humbling sport: awkward and frustrated. When my rod, reel, and the thick nylon line that carried the fly gently to the water arrived, I assembled the parts and went into my back yard ready to master the cast in an afternoon. I wasn’t a complete novice – I had watched several YouTube videos and read a couple of books authored by those considered to be leaders in the field of fly fishing, in addition to being a lifelong angler – but I also knew how maddening many people said the sport was for them in the beginning. Determined but cautious, I walked into the middle of the yard and pulled the bright yellow line from my reel, letting it pool in loose hoops at my feet like the professionals on my computer screen had done. Within minutes I knew that I was in trouble; this was a lot harder than they made it look.
While the men on the screen had effortlessly rocked their rod forward and back like a metronome, their line flew aloft in wide, graceful loops, unrolling overhead in front of them, first ten feet, then fifteen, then twenty, and on and on, until their line floated to the front and rear in an impossibly slow and fluid movement. In contrast, my own line sped forward like a runaway stagecoach team —like me, its driver not equal to the task—cracking like a bullwhip as it ended its wild run just short of my neighbor’s fence. Within minutes I had made two decisions: I was going to master this, at least to the degree that I could actually fish, and I wasn’t going to step on the water until I had. A couple of weeks later, as I walked along the banks of the Chattahoochee river for the first time with a fly rod in hand, while I in no way resembled a professional angler, I was able to actually fish; I even managed to bring a couple of small panfish to shore.
Today, many years later, I don’t think I could replicate my shoddy casting from those early days if I tried; such is the magic of practice. When I first decided to try writing as a profession, my approach wasn’t much better. Unlike learning to cast a fly rod however, there were no landmarks along the way with which to gauge my progress – or rather, the quality of my progress. Unlike my line tangling around my rod, or wrapping in an unnoticed tree limb, my entry into freelance writing was more accommodating. Almost immediately I landed a gig ghostwriting for a parenting blog. The lady who served as my editor was incredibly merciful; just how much so I wouldn’t realize until I had learned to recognize truly horrible writing, which mine was. The articles were the common parenting blog sort: what vitamin to choose, why to go jogging as a family, where to take the kids for vacation; to name a few. Looking back again, the money was surprisingly good—especially considering the amount of editing my articles required. Like many people who find themselves churning out low quality work, whitewashed as it were with “SEO Optimized” jargon, I burned out. I closed my computer, buried my articles in a series of desktop folders, and walked away.
While I was on my hiatus from writing, I continued to read. I re-read books that I had once loved and forgotten and I read books suggested to me by friends and strangers. When I finally came back to writing I brought the cadence of the words those books had with me. Why was their writing so good, and mine so bad? I poked around the basement of my computer until I found my old articles from the parenting blog and some other work I had managed to land. When I read them, I was horrified and embarrassed – they sounded so crude and unrefined. Whatever subject I was writing about wandered around the pages like an untended puppy. Prepositions ended sentences as though I received a bonus for doing so. This wasn’t the type of writing that I was passionate about, and it wasn’t the quality of writing that I felt I was capable of.
I started from scratch, determined to re-enter the literary world as a semi-legitimate writer rather than the imposter that I felt I was. I wanted to learn why someone else and I could write the same thing, but in their version it sounded concise, confident, and pleasing, whereas mine would come out wordy, fluffy, or ambiguous. When I started writing again, this time for myself only, I scrutinized every paragraph, every sentence. Armed with my dictionary, thesaurus, and marked-up copy of William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, (which, if you don’t own a copy, you’re needlessly handicapping yourself), I learned how to better re-write, which for me was a far more difficult and important task than simply writing. I would write a paragraph and then go back over it, removing redundant adverbs, replacing lazy adjectives, making two or three words do the work previously done with five or six, and then later I’d come back to it and do it again. Like a manager of employees, I no longer set my workers to task and walked away. I came back to supervise their progress: replace a loafer here, send in a crew to bolster a shaky sentence there. I asked people to read what I wrote, nervously awaiting their feedback as I’m sure we all do. It didn’t happen overnight, and I’m not out of the woods yet, but I’m finally beginning to enjoy reading what I’ve written.
The paragraph at the opening of this post embodies that process, so new to me. I’ve lost track of how many versions there were of this sentence or that. It started as a windy volume spanning nearly half of the page. It was then whittled down to a few sentences that absolutely needed to remain before being built back up again, only supported by a few crucial lines. No longer preoccupied with the bounty of pennies each word would bring, my writing relaxed and I was able to adopt a smoother and more efficient writing style that not only looks readable, but now takes less time to write and edit.
Don’t mistake my newfound confidence for hubris. I have never compared my work to someone else’s, unless it’s to judge my own worthy of even being called by the same name. I can spot truly bad writing of course, but I don’t consider my own to be “better”—some good ideas get poorly executed and some stories get buried under the burden of bad style. My own grammar still carries the little errors that allude to my educational pedigree. I still miss typos, even after reading them five times. I still wander off on storyline tangents, only to come back and delete entire pages later that day. I still cringe before posting articles on my blog, afraid someone will accuse me of trespassing where I don’t belong. Believe me when I say: my only competition is the last thing that I wrote. But, I would rather aspire to be a great writer and fall short than aim to be a mediocre writer and succeed.
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