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Peripheral Vision

August 9, 2010

"Juggling Coffee" by Drew Dee via Toothpaste for Dinner

I learned how to juggle long before I learned how to write. At first I wanted to watch each ball as it rose and fell, moving up and down from hand to hand. Problem: three balls, two eyes. Over and over, it was toss, toss, drop. Toss, toss, drop. I only really began to make progress when I stopped trying to shift focus rapidly from one ball to another, and let myself focus instead on the middle distance. I began to trust in the half-seen flashes of color in my peripheral vision, trust in the muscle memory of my hands. Seemingly by magic, the balls would go up, fall into my hands for the next throw.

Does being able to juggle make me a better writer?

It can. I don’t mean I’m going to have a character in my next story who juggles, although I could sketch her with some technical verisimilitude. Rather, I bring that sense of trusting myself to my writing.

Anytime you try to learn how to do something tricky, you’ll fail. It takes practice to acquire specific skill sets, and anyone who’s done it knows what it’s like to try, fail and try again. I think back and ask myself, what was I feeling the second time, the eighth time, the twentieth time I missed the catch and the balls fell out of the air? What did it feel like when I finally got it, and the balls seemed to move themselves through the air?

When you fight with the words… writing is a struggle. When you relax and let the words flow… they flow. Beginning to type is enough to trigger those literary analogues of the muscle memories. Keep the middle distance in the center of your focus, and peripheral vision is enough to note the sentences to be revised, the plot holes to be filled in, all the editing to come later. Keep the balls in the air, keep the words flowing.

The analogy isn’t perfect, of course. Unlike with writing, where I’m learning and using more and more advanced techniques, learning the basics of juggling was enough for me. Once I learned a basic three ball pattern, I didn’t try to go on to four or five balls, nor did I pick up clubs, knives or flaming torches. Instead of developing technical skill with the juggling, I focused instead on having a good patter and line of jokes to go along with the basic juggling tricks.

There’s a lesson there, too, also useful for writing. A good juggler isn’t necessarily someone who’s merely adept at throwing balls around. It’s someone who’s good at entertaining the audience, and that takes more than dexterity with the purely technical stuff.

Tony Noland likes to write about people and their emotions–hopes, fears, regrets, confusions, joys–the whole range of what makes life vibrant. From a genre standpoint, this tends to put him in the box marked “literary”, although his zombies, sex robots, mutant cows and reluctant wizard apprentices might disagree! Tony’s story “Nearer Comes the Moon” is included in the anthology “Inhuman” and “Dogs of War” will appear “Chinese Whisperings: Yang Book” in October. Read more of Tony’s literary adventures at Landless.

3 Comments
  1. adampb permalink
    August 10, 2010 12:00 am

    I like the analogy; it works for me. Keep the words flowing and fix it up later. I can remember quite recently where it felt that to write was difficult and cumbersome. And there are other times when the flow felt natural. Now to work on the banter.
    But clowns, that’s a whole other matter.

  2. August 11, 2010 12:52 pm

    And you can juggle too… man I’m jealous.

    Good post, Tony. The analogy, while perhaps not a perfect fit, is pretty good. The good thing about beginning jugglers is they know when they don’t get it right. The ball falls. With writing, there is no out and out physical sign that you dropped the ball, so it’s critical you find someone who will give you honest, even if painful, feedback. They you try again, and again. As with juggling, practice makes perfect (or at least better and better).
    ~jon

  3. August 11, 2010 12:53 pm

    Same goes for practicing posting comments, evidently. :p
    ~jon

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