Saturday, September 12, 2009

Stretching Ourselves

I suck at tennis. I'm not being modest--I'm really bad. My kids are good at it, but they learned early that they didn't get their tennis skills from me. While they'd tap the ball over the net to each other, I'd miss it completely or hit home runs over the fence. Too bad, really, because I've seen some way cute tennis skirts. Also, what if I get an agent or an editor who is totally into tennis, and he or she wants to play a match before a very important business lunch? I'll have to hire a stunt double for our court time then switch places before the food, drinks, and talk. Yes, these are the things that concern me about my future life as an author.

While tennis skirts and tennis business lunches are excellent reasons to learn to play, I wasn't really inspired to hit balls around until a few weeks ago. The kids and I were at a t
ennis court with my friend Sheila because the three of them wanted to play. Before leaving, I demonstrated my lack of tennis skills. I thought Sheila would just laugh, but looking back, of course she wouldn't. Sheila, who is also my writing mentor, used to coach tennis.

When she told me I don't have to throw my leg spasmodically into the air when I hit and she demonstrated how to move, I was able to tap a couple balls. It reminded me of the "wax on, wax off" moment in THE KARATE KID when the karate guru is having the boy do things that
will later help his instruction. It really was nothing like the movie because I'm never going to play in a tournament, let alone kick ass and bring down tennis bullies. Still, I felt like I was having a moment with my personal guru, though it may have just been temporary insanity brought on by dehydration. Call it what you want, but it planted a seed in my brain: just because this doesn't come naturally to you doesn't mean you can't benefit by trying it.

I asked my son for a tennis lesson later that week. He was adorable, knowledgeable, kind, and patient. He taught me forehand and backhand basics then fed balls right to my racket. He had me practice my serve, and since I don't technically
have a serve, he had his work cut out for him. We did drills and ran around like crazy, using a full basket of balls. (We also decided that we'll have to invest in one of those little tubes that makes ball pick up easier.) I missed a ton of balls, but I hit more than I
ever have in my life, and there was only one over-the-fence-homer.

Am I good now? No, I still suck. But I suck a little less. The best part was having fun with my son and feeling proud of what a great guy he is. Another really cool part, the part I'm emphasizing today, is how good it felt to stretch myself and see I could do something I never knew I could: hit tennis balls and have a few land where they should.

As writers, we have "specialties", things that come easy to us. That's all good--great even--but I never want to limit myself. We have to challenge ourselves. That soun
ds ridiculous, in a sense, because lots of us are aspiring authors, and what's more challenging than signing with a great agent and getting published? Not much. And those who already are published have a whole new set of challenges. But what I'm talking about is growing as a writer.

For example, I wrote animal stories throughout my childhood. Then, as an adult writer, that's what I started out doing. For some reason, writing animals seemed more natural to me than writing humans. Unfortunately, the market for anthropomorphism could have been a lot better. I had to stretch myself to write people as my main characters. Now that's what I enjoy doing best--writing YA (and middle grade) with human characters.

Please understand that I'm
not saying animal stories are easier or somehow "less than" people stories--I still love animal stories. And for someone to succeed at getting any published--wow. But for me, animal stories were within my comfort zone. I needed to push myself to exp
and upon my strengths.

Which brings up another point: play to your strengths. It might sound like a contradiction to what I just wrote, but I don't mean it as one; we need to do both. An agent told me to play to my strengths and that mine is humor. Humor is something that feels natural to me, something I love reading and writing. Will I abandon it to stretch myself as a writer? Of course not. But I want many strengths. Don't we all?

I recommend reading Jane Yolen's book TAKE JOY: A WRITER'S GUIDE TO LOVING THE CRAFT. She touches beautifully on stretching ourselves in a section labeled
Be Careful of Being Facile (pp. 71-72 in my copy). It's a wonderful book by an author I've long admired. about you? What are some of your writing strengths? What are ways you hope to grow as a writer? Also, if you know anything about tennis, how good do you have to be before you're allowed to get a skirt?


Strange Fiction said...

LOL—great post Dawn! Hang on to your humor—I find it all too rare these days. If a book makes me laugh out loud once I’m happy.

Your son sounds like an awesome kid! Now go buy yourself that cute little tennis skirt—I’m thinking you’ve earned it!

Lazy Writer said...

This is a great post! It is so tempting to stay within our comfort zone. I am absoultely terrible at tennis, so I admire you for even trying. I agree with Strange. Go get the skirt; you've earned it.

Dawn VanderMeer said...

Thanks, D.L.! Yeah, my son is a great guy. :)

Thanks to you, too, Susan! If you play anything like I do, you'd be one of the few people I wouldn't be ashamed to encounter on a tennis court. Hee! We could be horrible together.

Regarding the skirt, I love that I got support to buy one! Yay bloggy friends! Realistically, I won't allow myself to buy one unless I start getting my butt to a tennis court on a fairly regular basis. Maybe that's what makes someone worthy of The Skirt. ;)

Cindy said...

Great post. I completely agree that we should play to our strengths but more that we should take risks here and there to stretch ourselves.

I just started writing a short story. I DO NOT write short stories--and never have! But you know what, it's been a stretching process for me and one that's be a learning process. I recognize the necessity for concise wording--gotta get to the point! And it's helped me with my longer fiction, to help cut where I need to cut and tighten my writing.

Dawn VanderMeer said...

Cindy, good for you, trying short stories! What a great example of stretching yourself! I can totally see how that could help a writer tighten his or her longer fiction. Thanks for sharing. :)

FictionGroupie said...

Based on my critique group's and beta readers' feedback, my strengths seem to be humor/sarcasm and building sexual tension.

You're right about pushing yourself from your comfort zone. My cozy place is YA. However, when I decided to branch out and write a romance, I found that romance actually comes easier to me. And the positive feedback from my readers is much stronger with this new WIP than with my YA, so maybe by taking a risk, I found my thing.

Good luck with the tennis, I'll be no help to you. But the skirts are super fly. :)

Dawn VanderMeer said...

Roni, it's good to be aware of your strengths. What a good combination, too--I bet your manuscripts are super fun to read!

That's really interesting about the YA/romance. Maybe an advantage to being "pre-published" is it gives a writer elbow room to identify his or her thing, you know?