I’ve always talked the talk when it comes to being ‘process oriented…’ “Just get it down,” I regularly say to my workshop participants. “It’s your job to do the work, not judge it!” The phrases have become second-nature mantras to me, and yet, they are so incredibly difficult to practice…
I came a little closer to understanding the power of this idea recently, when a good friend convinced me to take up tennis again, after 20 years of not playing. With some reluctance, I dusted off my old racquet and soon remembered what I love about the sport–it requires you to stay present. After a three-month tennis honeymoon, I also remembered what is so damn difficult about the sport–it requires you to stay present. As I played more, I expected to improve, to actually remember some of the stuff I learned in my lessons of 20 years ago, and maybe even win a game or two. But alas, the more I tried to remember my technique, the worse my game became. I wasn’t evolving as a tennis player with time and practice–I was devolving. In desperation, I signed up for lessons with a talented local coach, Mike, who kept telling me–surprise surprise–that I needed to relax. He was trying to teach me to loosen my shoulder and create a more fluid stroke, with more follow-through, but I was afraid of hitting the ball outside the court–my signature error. “Every time you worry about making a mistake,” he said, “I can see your shoulder tense up, which means your stroke gets truncated and then you hit the ball out of the court!” Week after week, I tried to ‘loosen up’ and week after week I got more tense and frustrated. Finally, one Tuesday afternoon, Mike said something that clicked for me: “I want you to really and truly let go of the outcome,” he said. “Don’t worry if you hit the ball into the net or out of the court or all the way to the moon. Really. All you need to think about is relaxing and breathing through the stroke. “If you worry about the outcome, I’ll be able to tell.” All of a sudden I got it: I had to breathe. I had to loosen my whole body and forget about how good (or bad) I was. The less I focused on the outcome, the more fluid my stroke became. Staying in the process, in the rhythm of the dance, my game suddenly improved, but as soon as I got too focused on that improvement, it fell apart again.
I realized, of course, that this could all be applied to writing, or to life in general. When we worry too much about whether we’re good enough–when we fixate on who will like our work, whether it will become the next great American Novel–we tend to clench and cramp up… I see it in my students all the time: their shoulders start creeping up around their ears and they get that squinched, worried look on their faces: then I know they are focusing too much on the outcome and that their writing is not flowing. I recognize it because I do it myself.
Of course, it’s not always possible or even desirable to be completely process-oriented. We do want our writing to eventually make sense, and hopefully, to be read and enjoyed by others. But in order to get there, we must first tap into that wild and fluid energy that is only truly accessed in surrender. Each time I write now, or play tennis, I try to breathe, reminding myself how it feels to really let go.