January 22, 2006

From Gerald R. Lucas


Sitting in the airport waiting to board a plane to Philadelphia, I can’t help but think about some advice I gave to my students this morning. Mostly, it’s the lack of a Wi-Fi connection and the realization that computers are not that interesting without a network connection that precipitated these thoughts.

It concerns an activity that I should practice more often, something that takes a Promethean effort for me to do anymore, but something that I know is beneficial, both personally and professionally. Something that only a lack of a network connection and the disappointment that the terminal bookstore did not have Dawkin’s The God Delusion and the fact that I must save my iPod’s battery for the flight and my lack of foresight to bring magazines that I haven’t already read… Yes, I’m talking about writing, one of the most painful activities I know of, more painful than a paper cut under my fingernail.

My advice to my students likened writing to any other skill that requires daily practice and devotion, like playing the piano. Like the piano, you might understand what all the keys are called, what your hands and feet are supposed to do, and even how to read music, but you will never actually play the piano unless you practice that theoretical knowledge. Daily.

Me in 1986, looking lost even with my rad mullet.

Sadly, it was this very reason why I quite playing the trumpet. I like to tell people that I was a very good mediocre trumpet player. I had an excellent tone, pretty good power, and the theoretical skills to get most jobs done. However, I think it was my second semester in college as a music major when I realized that I needed to practice more and that I just didn’t want to. Music had ceased being fun, something I related to hanging out with friends, and started to become more of a chore, like cleaning the bathtub. I give myself the credit for realizing this on my own — I had become the best trumpet player I was ever going to be. I could not devote the extra time that I needed to become better. I had, as those guys who never quite make it to the top of Everest say, but who realize they will never go any higher: “I have summitted.”

My point: writing takes practice. Daily practice, if you ever hope to get any better, but also to maintain the altitude you’ve already climbed. Like the athlete who injures her ankle and isn’t able to run for two weeks, she falls and must work to bring herself back up to the level she was before she fell. The same is true for the writing muscle: the brain. If you don’t work it everyday, it become analogous to the runner’s muscles that have stopped exercising: it atrophies and loses its edge. Practice keeps the writing muscle honed. Daily practice.

This was the pith of my lesson today. Yet, it’s advice that I don’t follow. How can I expect my Freshmen to practice their writing everyday if I don’t myself? I’m lazy. It’s easier not to write, just like it’s easier not to run four miles a day, like I used to. It seems my mind is becoming as flabby as my waistline.

To continue this equally chubby metaphor, perhaps my writing is also suffering from lack of poignant input? To keep your stomach trim, it takes more than exercise, right? You also have to consider your diet. I used to be as devoted to my diet as I was to my exercise régime, but like my physical laziness, I have become culinarily lazy, too. I can only blame my homemade pizza so much. Finally, it just comes down to practicing what I know is good for me. What I know will make me more healthy — leaner. This means I should be reading more. I can only blame cable teevee so much. I’m fond of saying that in order to be a strong writer, you must be a strong reader. I believe this. And I am a good reader, I just don’t read as much as I should. I find myself wondering if the consequences of not flexing my reading muscle is the same as not working my writing muscle. I have a suspicion it is.

These are things I know rationally are healthy for me, corresponding to the Greek logos. However, what seems to be lacking is the pathos, the feeling, or passion, for writing. I can only blame distractions so much. I have been interested in new media, photography, and other creative outlets. Surely, these activities work that writing muscle? Like reading/writing, surely photography is using similar skills: one must be able to analyze photographic compositions (reader) in order to be a good photographer (writer)? Maybe I’ve been writing more than I think?

As always, I can’t be sure my students heard anything I had to say today. However, maybe I was listening? At least I’m thinking about it, and it looks like I just wrote about 900 words… . I just heard that the plane is running “extremely late due to weather.” Crap. Maybe I’ll watch this big screen teevee for a while.