By the age of 36, I was used to doing things that I already knew I was fairly good at. It's not that I intentionally avoided new experiences or didn't want to learn new skills, but I had a pretty solid idea of where my natural talents and interests resided, and I tended to stick to those neighborhoods, which were populated with things like reading, writing, storytelling, teaching, and cooking.
Then I entered the world of Roller Derby and hot damn, this was a new part of town! I've written before about how I'd never played a sport, how I didn't like to sweat, and how I hadn't roller skated for two decades. Beyond the physical challenges, playing derby has meant some huge shifts in my mindset and perceptions of myself and what's possible.
One of those realizations has become my new mantra: You gotta roller derby that shit!
Let me explain.
Logic and experience tell me that the more I do something, the more I'll learn about it and the easier it will become. Although I knew this theory should apply to roller derby, I secretly doubted that it would hold. Every time I bemoaned my lack of skill and my slow progress, my husband, who grew up playing sports, told me that if I continued to go to practice and work at it, my skills would improve. My rational brain knew this made sense, but I just wasn't buying it. I worried that I was hopeless.
Still, I kept showing up. And then there was that one time near the end of last season when I finally had so much fun that I forgot to be afraid. This season started off better than I'd anticipated, and I could finally see that I was improving. Even my league mates commented on my progress. I felt proud, but I worried that it might be a fluke of some sort. But week after week I felt stronger, more in control, and more at home in this once-foreign neighborhood. Finally I had a realization...
Holy roller skates, it's true!
If you keep practicing -- even when you don't see immediate results, even after you've had to take time off for an injury, even when you have to leave practice and cry in the bathroom for a little while because your internal monologue won't shut the hell up with phrases like "You don't belong here!" -- if you keep showing up and doing the drills and trying the things you suck at until you suck less at them, eventually you'll make progress.
We all practice. Pianists play scales. Actors rehearse lines. Writers string together a lot of words that don't end up in the final draft. Chefs perfect techniques and dishes through repetition and tweaking. And athletes do drills and go to practice.
Of course, innate talent can make the going easier. But it can also get in the way. I seem to have little innate athletic talent, so I know I have to work hard to be fair to middling. On the other hand, I know I have innate talent as a writer, which means I don't always work at it as diligently as I should. It's easy to let myself skate by on my "good enough" setting when it comes to writing, because my "good enough" comes easier than some other people's "fair to middling" setting.
But good enough isn't great. And I no longer believe that you have to be born with the most talent to become great. I think it helps, but only if you decide to keep showing up and working at it. In other words, you gotta roller derby that shit.
I don't really expect to ever be great at derby, and I'm okay with that. I just want to be as good as I can be , and if that's just "good enough," that'll be great.
But I do want to be great at writing. And in order to do that, I need to show up and put in more work more often. I need to roller derby that shit.
This means sitting down to write at set times even if I don't feel like it, just as I go to derby practice at specific times each week, whether or not I feel like it that day. This means writing the same essay again and again, the way I keep practicing my turnaround toestops over and over. This means acknowledging the inner voice that whispers "What if this is as good as you'll ever be?", and then turning away from that voice and trusting in the magic of practice.
I've worked as a freelance writer and editor for more than nine years now. I have a graduate degree in creative writing. I've seen my words in print online and on the page. And yet I know I have miles to go in deepening my craft and honing my skills. I go through serious bouts of worry that I'm as a good of a writer now as I can possibly be, even though logic and reason tell me that this isn't true. What if I'm never any better than this? What if this is as good as I get -- and it's not great?