I’ve told this story before.
I grew up in a midwestern town. Maybe a little more ‘western’ than ‘mid’, but we still fell into the correct geographic zone, and like most towns in the midwest, we had a small school in which all the students pretty much signed up for all the extra-curriculars they could reasonably schedule; if we didn’t, then that year the school didn’t have a football team or something, and it was a point of pride that that sort of thing Did Not Happen in my home town.
Result: when I was a kid (and into high school) I pretty much did everything. Rehearsed dramatic readings. One-act plays. Oratory. Band (marching, concert, pep, and jazz). I wrote for the school paper and the yearbook. I did wrestling (once), and basketball, and track (for awhile), and (of course) Football.
I don’t know if I was any good at football, but I liked it. I was a starting lineman, and… well, our team did okay; in my senior year, we were ranked third in the state for our division, so we weren’t awful, by any means.
But in no way was I a natural.
So – this was back in junior high, probably, around the time when the coach was getting in trouble with the school board for telling us that we were the next Great White Hope for the school’s football program – and it’s late summer, probably a month or so before school actually starts, and practices have started up.
My mom worked (and works) in town, so she was usually the one to pick me up after practice, but on this particular day my dad was in town to drop off a load of grain or something, I don’t know, and he had dropped by the field, leaning on the fence with some of the other dads who stood along the fence and muttered observations about their kids. I didn’t notice him until about halfway through the practice, and when I did I suppose I must have amped up my performance a bit — I remember knocking a buddy of mine down a couple times during the blocking drill (man was he pissed) — but that was about it.
After practice, I was amped to talk about The Football on the drive back home.
Now a bit of context: Dad is not one of those guys you see on Friday Night Lights, trying to relive their glory days through their kids. I believe very firmly that he wanted nothing more than to see his kids succeed at whatever it was that they were into, even and especially if it had nothing at all to do with what he had been into in school. He took that suicide scene in Dead Poets Society to heart, is what I’m saying.
That said, I knew that Dad had played football. I know their team had been successful, back when everything was black and white. I was a lineman. Dad was a lineman. Moreover, I think Dad weighed an even 150# as a senior – at 185, I would have been some kind of mutant monster thing on his old team.
I was keen to hear a little praise.
The ride was pretty damned quiet.
“Did you see the blocking drill?” I asked him, and laughed.
“Yup,” he said. And that was it.
“Coach said I was probably going to start left tackle,” I said.
“Yep,” he said. “You’ll have to watch the ball out there, for the hike – it’s hard to hear the count when you’re that far out.”
More silence. More driving. Our farm was thirty miles from town, and Dad wasn’t in much of a hurry.
About five miles from the driveway, he said, “You’ll have better games if you have better practices.”
I didn’t know what to say. In my mind, I’d rocked that practice (at least the second half). I told him as much.
“The drills were fine,” he said, “but — ” He waved it away, which over time I’ve come to realize is what he does when he thinks there are so many suggestions to make that he’d run out of time.
“It was a good practice!” I protested. I went for the exclamation points pretty fast back then.
“I think the coach would just like to see you try harder,” he said.
“I’m trying hard!”
“If you were really trying,” he said, “you’d be falling down more.”
And that was that, as far as conversations go. Those of you who’ve known me a long time know that I try to keep that particular observation close at hand. It was the tagline on my first blog for a really long time. It’s the border on my twitter page now. It’s a marqee banner in my head, and in all my thinking about it, it boils out something like this: you have to try, and you have to fail, in order to get better. If you’re afraid of the part where you fall down (which you inevitably will), you’ll never get better.
I’m trying to teach that to my daughter now. She doesn’t like riding her bike, because she’s afraid of falling over (which she never has). I’m afraid of her falling over too, but I kind of wish she’d actually wipe out for once, so she could see that it’s not nearly as bad as the good parts.
Earlier this year, I ran across a good post at a site I never read. An excerpt:
Your $x (whatever your $x happens to be) is not some fragile vase that is going to shatter the second you $y. It is as strong as you decide it is, and the boundaries are where you set them.
I’m sure that this is obvious to other people, but it is not obvious to me: it’s okay if I’m not perfect. Really, it is. My writing is not some fragile vase that is going to shatter the second I split an infinitive. — Alison at bluishorange
There are lots of things we stop doing, and while there are lots of reasons we stop doing them, one of the most prevalent and recurring is the fear that we won’t be… good. That we won’t do those things perfectly.
“I can’t do a great blog post today, so I’m just going to leave it to [tomorrow/next week/next month/later].”
“I don’t have time to do justice to a story right now.”
“I don’t have time to get good at playing sax again.”
Or this one.
“This project isn’t going very well at all – I’m going to leave it for now.”
I can’t do anything perfectly. Half the time, I can’t even do them well, but if I only did the things I knew I was going to do well, every time I did them, I wouldn’t do anything. Ever.
I would suck.
I would suck far, far worse than anything I might try and fail at.
The more we try — the more we step outside our comfort zone — the more inherently creative we become.
We’re in the wastelands now, with this NaNoWriMo thing. It’s a barren, quiet, scary place, and it’s where we start to get scared that we’re going to get to the end of the story, and it won’t be as good as we’d always thought Our Story would be.
Get bloody, and get back up smiling.
The falling down is never as bad as the good parts.