The Diving Board

May 13, 2012 at 12:34 pm (Writing) (, , )

Writing is a lot like swimming.

There’s the spark- you don’t just randomly go swimming. You get the idea to go swimming. And when you get that idea, you turn it over in your head to see if it’s something you really want to do. After all, there are lots of other ideas. You could go bowling, watch TV, hang with friends. Is swimming really what you want to put your time and effort to?

So you decide, yes, you want to go swimming. You want to go with that idea. But again, you don’t just jump into the pool. You make preparations. You get into your bathing suit, you get a towel, sunscreen if you’re into that. You have to actually get to the pool, whether that’s in your backyard, across the complex, or across town. If it’s going to be an all-day thing, you pack things to take with you, like a book or toys or music. In other words, you’re gathering the tools you’ll need.

You arrive at the pool, set out your things just the way you want them. Now you face a choice: shallow end or deep end?

There’s something exhilirating about the thought of plunging into the deep end right off the bat. No worries, no holding back, just SPLASH. Just jump in and see what happens next.

But sometimes, you know, that water is really frickin’ cold, and when it closes around your head, there’s a moment of panic. Suddenly being in over your head isn’t just a literal sense. You flail and struggle, and sometimes you manage to paddle to the edge and pull yourself out, and it’s going to be a little while before you try that again.

Which is why most people start out at the shallow end. They test the water with a foot or a hand, to make sure the temperature is something they’re comfortable with. They ease in, a bit at a time, acclimating themselves, and when they dip under fully, it’s with the comfortable assurance that they know exactly where the surface is. There’s no panic, no sudden shift. They’re fully in control. So, when, they’re ready, they can either swim slowly and steadily into the deep end, or they can head to the diving board.

That’s my favorite part.

When I was younger, I was someone who would just run alongside the pool (usually to a chorus of “No running by the pool!”) and hurl myself into the deep end with gleeful abandon. And at first, everything would be fine. With swimming, it stayed fine. With writing…not so much. I’d jump into a new project and then suddenly I’d be flailing. I didn’t know where I was in the story, didn’t know who the characters were, had no idea where I was going. It was like being underwater with my eyes closed and not knowing which way the air was. When I finally broke the surface, I was confused and discouraged, and I’d set it aside and sometimes it would be a little while before I’d try again.

How stupid was I to try the same thing time after time after time and expect different results?

(Isn’t that one definition of insanity?)

Now I come at things from the shallow end. I write notes to make sure I actually have a grasp of the idea. I do research beforehand, I make outlines- even if they’re just lists of the big things that happen (it varies from project to project). When I fully submerge myself in the project, coming up is the realization that I’m as ready as I’m going to be.

Which is when I go to the diving board.

As a kid, pools with diving boards were infinitely cooler than pools without. There was something about standing on the very edge of the board, toes curled over the lip, bouncing up and down and feeling the springiness as it bounced back. That moment- that bounce- has infinite potential. After all, who knows how high you can jump? Will you do a straight dive, a swan dive, a jackknife? A cannonball? A flip? A flop? But no matter what you were going to do, standing on the diving board was a deliberate thing. You had to choose to do it.

Standing on the diving board after prepping a new project is wonderful and terrifying, and for me probably the best part. You have all this potential ahead of you for amazing things. There’s also a lot of potential for literary belly flops. You’ve done your prep work, you know you’ll be okay in the water, it’s just the entry that’s a point of dismay.

At any given pool party, there was always one kid who was scared of the diving board. He’d go up, stand on the edge- but just couldn’t jump. Sometimes one of the other kids would get impatient and just push him in, and then he’s struggle and cry and it kind of put a pall over the whole rest of the party. Other times, the kid would stand there forever, until finally he gave up, walked back down the board to the deck, and went to sit in one of the chairs for a while, totally discouraged and embarrassed.

Sometimes, when I’m standing on the edge of a new project, I feel like that kid. I know there’s nothing to be scared of. I do. I know that. I know how to swim, I know there are people on the side who will help me if something goes wrong and I start to flail, I know that. Still. There’s that moment of paralyzing panic.

Every now and then, it’s okay to back away. To go back to the shallow end and get comfortable for a bit before trying again.

But at some point, you HAVE to jump in.

Enjoy the splash.

Until next time~

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