One of my dad’s favorite stories about me is in regards to one of my first “I can’t!” rants…I am not sure what this says about me – that this is one of his most frequently told stories about me…told so often it is like an favorite book with frayed edges, and dog-eared pages, and a cover worn from so many times opened for re-reading. But, I digress.
One of my first (and, yes, not the last) “I can’t!” rants was when I learned to ride a bike.
As a kid, I think you have some sort of understanding that riding a bike isn’t a skill we’re born with, per se. I mean, otherwise, Mom and Dad would have given us a bike much earlier and set us loose. So, we have at least a fractional awareness that it might not be instinctual, but when you look at adults riding it looks so ridiculously simple that we underestimate just how challenging it will be to learn.
When I was old enough to take my training wheels off, Dad* took me to my elementary school parking lot to learn. I was nervous, but thrilled at this right of passage into “big personhood”. This was a sign of arriving at maturity, and I was ready.
Except, I wasn’t.
Even though this outing had been framed as a “learning” exercise, I wanted, and expected, to not only be able to ride the bike successfully on my own upon a first go, I wanted to be a master of the skill before even giving it a first go. Ridiculous, I know, but there it is.
Most of my memory of this is well-fused with Dad’s constant retellings, but the plot flowed out something like this: Dad sets me up on the bike (helmet, elbow pads, and knee pads affixed), Dad holds me in balance from the back of the bike seat, Dad tells me to start pedaling, Dad jogs behind me for a few steps until I have momentum, Dad lets go of the seat, I feel the absence of his enforced balance, I internally panic, I fall over. Repeat. Repeat and repeat and repeat. I couldn’t get the mechanics. I couldn’t get my balance right.
I don’t know how many times I fell down before my frustration erupted in tearful self-loathing with the declaration “I can’t!!!”. I believe somewhere around this point I abandoned my bike, never wishing to look at it again, and stomped – STOMPED – back to the car. I wasn’t angry at Dad, I was furious at myself for being such a failure.
As I’m now in the beginning stages of writing my PhD thesis, I can’t help but think that learning how to write is very much like learning how to ride a bike.
Before I’d committed myself to learn how to research and write, I think I had some sort of understanding that writing wasn’t a skill we’re born with, per se. I mean, otherwise, we’d all have by-lines and book contracts. So, I think I had at least a fractional awareness that writing might not be instinctual. But, when reading the published works of others, they made it seem so simple that I underestimated just how challenging it would be to learn.
When I committed myself to the PhD program, it was time to take my “training wheels off” – it was time to write in a manner that would constantly be scrutinized, edited, and reviewed. I was nervous, but thrilled at this right of passage into “writer-hood”. This was a sign of arriving at rhetoric maturity, and I was ready.
Except, I wasn’t.
Except, there is no being “ready” for any new thing.
Much like with the bike, I’m currently having difficulty finding my sense of balance. With a history thesis you have to establish equilibrium between primary source evidence, contextual support, original analysis, and a clear argument. In addition you have to stabilize your writing within a bigger picture of history, sign-post throughout your narrative to make the journey through your evaluations easy for your readers to follow, and also have an eloquent writing style. But, to even get to the writing itself, you need to first read loads of primary and secondary sources, and that is something you have to continually return to even as you are writing. You have to bounce back and forth. You also must step back every once in a while to see how your current ideas are matching (or diverting from) your central argument. Or, do you even have a central argument? Are you even answering a historical question here?
As you can see, it is quite a challenge to find a center of gravity, and to then get all your functioning parts in sync in order to get the mechanics in operation. At the moment, it seems like this machine will never run – my writing “muscles” don’t speak this language of motion, so there have been a LOT of falls (I might actually be currently laying on the ground a bit bruised).
It is amazing, however, that once you know how to ride a bike, you can depart from the activity for months (if not years) and then simply get back on and ride as if you’d ridden yesterday. Such is the fantastic phenomenon of “muscle memory”. Writers seem to have this too in some form…not that they don’t get writers block once they’ve written their first major work, or even first chapter, but there appears to be at least a bit of “muscle memory” involved. Perhaps, like with a bike, once you’ve gotten your initial center of gravity, had all the parts sync together for that first successful write (ride), your “muscle memory” will make future writings (rides) easier, or at least less of a foreign exercise? I’m too inexperienced to say at this juncture…but here’s to hoping.
Returning to my battle with the bike – after stomping back to the car, Dad patiently followed me there, pushing my bike along with him. He quietly got into the car and then I exploded in a series of determined assertions that I “could not” do this. I was a failure, it was impossible, and I’d never been more certain of any truth in my life. Dad sat there and let me run out of words. Then we sat in silence for a bit and then he said, in a loving smugness that boiled my blood, “Are you finished?” I hated him for that. I love him for that now.
We got back out of the car, and I got back on the bike, and fell many more times. I grew callused to these failures, almost to the point of numb familiarity. My job became to not let Dad be smug…so I’d just keep trying. As a result I acclimatized to the repeated falls. In this state of resignation, I realized suddenly I had not fallen down at the typical point in this failure routine…and I could feel that Dad wasn’t holding my seat. I was riding! It felt like flying. I turned and rode back toward Dad and saw his face – a smile so strong it seemed to emit light, and it was a reflection of my own delight in discovering I was capable after all. Who knew? I certainly didn’t…
As I alluded to, the bike incident was merely my first “I can’t!” rant (for additional colorful episodes see: “Rollerblade Ruination” & “Manual-Transmission Mishaps”). This thesis business is the newest such occasion. I rant internally these days (a sign of “big personhood”) but I can still see Dad’s slow smile and hear that infuriating (but beloved) question “Are you finished?” And, of course, I’m not. Part of what keeps me from giving up on this push to learn to write (beyond the simple fact that I want desperately to be able to do this) is this memory of the “I can’t!” rant. It reminds me (and I hope it to reminds you, in whatever new thing you’re trying to do) that our job in newness is to try. Our job is to embrace the sequence, in seemingly endless repeat, of falling and getting back up. This is how we eventually learn to ride…and perhaps this is also how I’ll learn to write.
*Note: Mom, bless her heart, has an understandable struggle in seeing me struggle…so Dad has mostly been the one to teach me things that are likely to cause at least a bit of frustration.