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 tennis 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 sounds 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 expand 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.
So...how 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?