I was a swimmer in High School. We had a good team, explainable by the three plus hours of practice daily, an hour of which was before school. Prior to high school I hadn’t been on any swim team, although I spent my entire summers at the neighborhood pool two blocks from my house. My technique was good but not really good. I was, however, very comfortable in the water.
My tryout landed me in a lane with the slowest group. I vaguely recall that I might have been offended, but that was more than thirty years ago, so my recollection is suspect. I improved quickly, partly because I was growing like a bean stalk, and partly because the coach was able to help me make major improvements to my technique. We didn’t do morning practices on the freshman team, but we still swam over five thousand yards a day.
The improvements led to different lane assignments, and I ended up in a lane with Brink. A year younger than me, Brink had been swimming competitively for at least a few years. Smart and coachable, Brink had, and will always have, better technique than me. On the other hand, I was always a little bigger, a little stronger. The coach told me Brink’s technique was perfect. There was nothing he could do to ease Brink’s frustration at the plateau he had reached. Brink needed to grow.
And grow he did. A few years after graduation I ran into him again. He was both familiar and unrecognizable at the same time, as if some hulk of a man was impersonating my friend. Appendages the size of tennis rackets and snowshoes had replaced his hands and feet. I still feel a little puny when I talk to him now.
Fast forwarding to yesterday, I was reading an article on editing in The Writer. It listed ten tips for self-editing. The blurb on the front caught my attention, because I am right at the start of another round of editing on my first book. Would this give me the one thing I learn from this issue?
Unfortunately, no. All of the tips I had learned before, some in grade school. Pay attention to spelling? Show vs. tell? Use active instead of passive voice? What?
I gave my righteous indignation its head for a few moments to nourish my enormous ego, but then I came to an understanding. Articles and tips like these are appropriate for a certain level of writer. They help you get from one level to another. They need to be incorporated into your technique, but once they are, they become a waste of time to hear again and again. You wouldn’t expect more than a blank stare from Stephen King or James Patterson if you tried to emphasize the importance of watching your spelling when editing.
That’s where the swimming metaphor comes in. I was a good swimmer compared to the rest of the world when I started. Compared to the rest of the pool I was poor. I improved quickly at first, just as I’ve improved quickly at writing over the past two years now that I’m educating myself. There are a lot of mistakes I don’t have to correct, because I don’t make them anymore. When I read how not to make that mistake it’s like being back in the beginner lane. A big part of what I’m trying to say here is how important it is to be in the right lane. Find the education that’s appropriate to your level.
So what happens when and if I end up in Brink’s shoes? What if my skill exceeds my size’s ability to express it? In swimming, both size and technique add to speed. Having a lot of one helps, but having enough of each helps more. Writing is the same way. Technique is obviously important, but what is size? Size is wisdom and experience. I can be great at technique, but if I never step outside my door and talk to people my dialog will suffer. If I never feel the rough bark of a tree, my poem will seem two dimensional. If I never experience love and lust and happiness you won’t care if my girl gets her boy.
It’s not so much an issue of balance. Both of these things are on the same side of the equation. Size times technique equal good writing. Increase either and your writing improves. Increase both and your writing improves faster. Size gives you raw ingredients for your creativity, and technique gives you the culinary skill to turn them into something delicious. Ignore either and you run the risk of creating something inedible.