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Vaulting ambition March 3, 2015

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, childhood, memories.
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An alternative title for this post: Why Gymnastics Is Exactly Like An MFA Course (Sort of. Mostly).

Yes, this is another response to that article by (thankfully, former) MFA professor Ryan Boudinot. See also Foz Meadows, Laura Lam and Chuck Wendig for some further context. At first glance, I might seem an odd person to be adding my voice to the mix. I’ve never done an MFA (and don’t plan to), I’m not a writer of fiction and have no intention of ever being one in the future.

However, I was a gymnast for ten years.

You might be forgiven for wondering what the hell that has to do with Ryan Boudinot, creative writing courses or this whole kerfuffle, but allow me to explain. Gymnastics left me with a collection of bizarre anecdotes, excellent time-management skills, very good balance in certain contexts, and messed up feet and ankles. It also provided me with a clear example of something many people – including, it seems, Ryan Boudinot – fail to understand: nobody is born so talented at a skill that they cannot improve with practice and teaching. The myth that innate talent is enough to get someone awards, acclaim and success is profoundly damaging. It gets applied to creative pursuits all the time, but they are skills like any other, and if I extend it to gymnastics, the ridiculousness of the myth becomes apparent.

I started gymnastics when I was seven years old, encouraged by my mother, who had noticed that I seemed to spend every waking moment climbing trees, turning cartwheels and doing handstands against the walls of buildings. My initial classes were an hour a week, squeezed in on Saturday mornings after swimming lessons, and their aim was simply to get the children who attended moving, building up a collection of skills of increasing difficulty. By the time I was seventeen, I was training twelve hours a week, in three four-hour sessions which began with an hour of strength and conditioning, followed by three hours spent practicing the same skills again and again until they were consistently perfect, stringing the skills together into routines and repeating those routines until they could be performed with the illusion of effortlessness. The goal of all this was to perform those routines in annual regional and state-level competitions, and hopefully get good scores and win lots of medals.

I started with what might be considered the baseline requirements to get by as a gymnast: I was small, I was slim, I was able-bodied and physically fit. I was at a disadvantage in that I hadn’t started as a four-year-old, and because I was extremely inflexible. In other words, the potential was there.

But without lessons and training I wouldn’t have got anywhere: I would have been just another child turning cartwheels on the school playground. I got better because I practiced, and I got better because of teaching. Whether it was for one hour a week or twelve, my execution of various skills got better through repetition, and the difficulty of those skills increased over time because I was able to build on the basics I’d learnt to begin with and apply the same principles to more complex skills or combinations of skills. And I was able to improve because my coaches knew what to do to make me better.

I had multiple coaches over the years, but the best ones combined excellent communication (that is, they were able to convey with words what I needed to do with my body to make a routine look effortless) with a good feel for each of their coaching charges’ strengths and weaknesses, ensuring that we didn’t just work on the apparatus we liked or the skills that came easily to us, and creating routines for us that covered up areas of weaknesses and emphasised areas of strength. (For example, my lack of flexibility made certain common elements of floor routines really difficult and inelegant for me, so my coaches substituted them with moves which highlighted my upper-body strength.) And with coaching and practice, I got better every year: stronger, with the ability to do harder skills, and a more intuitive sense of what to do with my body if I wanted it to tumble, flip, twirl or leap in a specific direction. In my first ever competition I leapt up onto the beam, promptly fell off, climbed back on, only to lose my balance and fall off again. By the time I quit, I was learning how to do backflips on that same apparatus. I am profoundly grateful to the series of patient, perceptive coaches whose hard work helped to get me to that point.

I was never going to set the world on fire as a gymnast. I would never compete in the Olympics – the height of my ambition was a handful of apparatus medals at the annual regional competition. But I learnt a really useful lesson at a very early age: with practice and, crucially, proper training and support, I could start as an absolute beginner at something and show constant, steady improvement over a month, a year, or a decade. My point in all this is not to demonstrate that every able-bodied child who starts young enough is born with the talent to become an world champion gymnast. My point is that practice, repetition, and, above all, the support of teachers will lead to improvement in just about any skill. And writing is a skill like any other.

Nobody springs from the womb as a fully-formed, award-winning fiction writer. Writing is a skill that needs to be taught. It is improved by practice, and by working with teachers who can recognise areas of strength and weakness. Bestselling, award-winning novels don’t just fall out of a writer’s brain and onto the keyboard. They are honed and shaped by critique and training. Maybe that training takes the form of an MFA. Maybe it doesn’t – maybe a writing workshop, writers’ group or critique partner is more your style. And maybe you still won’t win awards or sell millions of copies of your novel, but your writing will be better. I’m tired of this almost mystical reverence for creative endeavours, whether music, fiction-writing or visual art. It’s a lazy justification for avoiding collaboration, training or criticism of your work. No, we do not start on equal footing when it comes to writing, even when you take away structural inequalities such as wealth, gender, race, disability and so on. As with any other skill, some people are going to find writing easier, some are going to find it more fun, and some might have a better sense of where the money and/or acclaim lies than others. But the fact remains that anyone who writes is going to get better through a combination of practice and the support of good teaching. I learnt that by doing gymnastics as a child and teenager. It’s a shame Ryan Boudinot didn’t get that same teaching.

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