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.