REV YOUR PENCILS: On Writing and Racecars

ryan-gosling-drivingI once thought I’d make a pretty good racecar driver. This isn’t like my other delusions, kickboxing or ice-carving, as I had a reason to believe in my driving skills. After all, my brother is a talented semi-pro racecar driver, and we spent our childhood racing each other on snowmobiles and motorcycles and horses and even lawnmowers. Everyone says he’s a natural. With both nature and nurture on my side, I figured I couldn’t be that different from him. I drive all the time, don’t I?

Then I went to the Bondurant Racing School in Phoenix where my expectations finally met reality. Who knew, for example, that racecar driving schools had so many attractive instructors? Who knew that’s where old cop cars with their hopped up engines go to die? Bondurant also had bright orange cones. And every damn time I hit one of those cones, the instructor made a slash on a chalkboard. The cones presented a verifiable measure of driving ability which resulted in me, with both genetics and training on my side, winning the session’s cone-killer award. I even got a special commendation for making the instructor crawl under my car to unstick cones a record number of times, the explanation for which surely involved my subconscious motive.

Writing, though seemingly worlds apart from racecar driving, perhaps isn’t so different. How many times at a cocktail party has someone expressed shock and surprise that you take writing classes? Don’t we all know how to write? Doesn’t everyone have a good story in them? In most pursuits in life, we find out pretty definitively that we can’t do something. The nude you sketched in eighth grade that your teacher thought was a still life made it clear that art wasn’t for you. By high school, you knew you’re weren’t going to pitch in the Majors. But because we can floor it to Home Depot, we maintain our fantasy that we could win Daytona. Because we all text, we continue to believe there’s a bestseller in us at retirement.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for delusions. I prefer to believe in the possibility that I could be a brilliant ice sculpture artist rather than ever pick up a chainsaw. In writing, though, what happens when we try for that first draft and it’s awful? What happens when an agent/teacher/other professional tells us our talent simply isn’t enough? We wouldn’t expect to be able to pick up a piece of clay and shape a masterful sculpture and yet we seem to think we can write something brilliant with no training whatsoever. How many simply give up rather than find a way to express themselves through the beauty of language?

Writing is practice and drudgery and growing thick-skin. Writing is studying masters of the craft and constantly learning how to do it better. Writing is breaking down a scene fifty-eight different ways until you get it to about half of what you envisioned it to be. Sure, there’s probably some natural talent involved if you consider a love of words a genetic predisposition, but it is mostly training no matter what that hirsute hipster said last week in seminar. To not appreciate this fact for both ourselves and for others who are trying their hand at writing is a recipe for discouragement.

I once saw someone I respect deeply as both a writer and teacher sitting in a lecture at a conference. The lecturer wasn’t well known, certainly not as well-regarded as the teacher. I thought surely the teacher was just showing up as a favor. But no, when I peeked over her shoulder I saw a pad full of notes. She was listening closely to the craft lecture so as to improve her own writing.

So I guess we are all still learning and seeking ways to use whatever so-called natural talent we might have. Thinking about it like that keeps discouragement at bay, doesn’t it?

On the last Bondurant day, I took to the track. There I was, behind the wheel of an avocado green Ford LTD. I hit the accelerator. The pavement flew past. The car began to shake. I was going at least a hundred, I had to be. Here I was, fulfilling all of my speed demon expectations. And then I looked at the speedometer: fifty-three miles per hour.

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