When I was in first grade I played tee-ball, and because I sucked at running and every other kind of physical activity I always had to play outfield—the worst possible position for a first-grader with a limited attention span. The experience directly contributed to my lifelong aversion to organized sports, but that’s not the point of this story.
I’ll never forget one practice where I had to make a really long outfield throw. For whatever reason, this throw felt a lot more important than other throws to my first-grade mind: this was a throw I wanted to succeed at, and I knew it had to be good.
With an abrupt turn of my head, I wound my arm all the way around and lifted my leg like the pitchers I’d seen on TV—except I wasn’t pitching, I was making an outfield throw, and even if I was pitching it wouldn’t have worked because I was a fucking first grader and didn’t have those skills yet, so the ball flew several feet and landed well short of the target.
The coach probably found this pretty funny (or at least saw it as a teachable moment) because he gave me some advice I’ll never forget even though I haven’t picked up a baseball since:
He said, “Ian, don’t worry about looking like a pitcher.”
Copying Others Only Gets You So Far
That’s the only sports-related story I’ll ever tell, but I’ve always remembered it because it was the first time anyone ever called me out for poorly copying what professionals were doing instead of trying to make a process my own.
As a kid, I didn’t know how to throw a baseball, so I copied the players I’d seen on TV. The problem was that because I didn’t really understand how throwing worked and didn’t know the difference between pitching and outfield throwing, I could only copy the most superficial parts of the process. For me, lifting your leg when you threw a ball = a great throw, so it made sense to follow that equation—except that’s not how outfield throws work at all. (Here I could probably do a quick Google search to find out why pitchers lift their legs when they throw, but I’m not going to because I’m a busy guy and that’s not the point of this metaphor.)
Copying more established people you admire is a great way to learn the basics of what you want to do, but it’s not the only component for success—if you want to succeed at something (and this is where I start talking about creative work), you not only have to practice it in that Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours way, you have to completely, entirely, 100% understand how that process works, whether it’s writing, drawing, acting, playing music, or yes, even throwing a baseball.
It’s not enough to just blindly do something over and over because that’s how the experts do it. You have to be actively working to understand the process as you practice, asking the difficult questions and identifying the little things that make that process work. You have to understand every in and out of why people in your field do things a certain way and what effect these choices have, so you can make these choices yourself instead of blindly following the pros like I tried to do with TV pitchers.
Making Your Own Choices Makes Your Creative Work Yours
Another, more recent moment I’ll never forget happened after I showed a friend my Japan novel a few months back. This particular friend hadn’t seen a lot of my writing and wasn’t a big reader, which was why his reaction struck me so hard.
In short, he’d enjoyed the novel greatly and it had made him laugh a lot </plug>, but mostly he’d been surprised that my novel had read the way it did. “It really sounded like you,” was how he summed it up.
Looking back, my friend may have been surprised because he expected my writing to sound like a Theodore Dreiser novel or maybe some boring academic fiction that nobody reads because he thought that was how all novels sounded. He didn’t expect that a novel I’d written could sound like, well, me.
This ties into the tee-ball story because when people first start out doing creative work and don’t quite have the skills to make their own creative choices, they start off copying what the pros are doing, like first-grade Ian did with pitchers on TV.
Creative work’s a bit more complicated than throwing a baseball, though, since it can take about a bajillion different forms. Compare Casablanca with A Clockwork Orange—both are great movies, but both accomplish their greatness in different ways, and relied on the filmmakers making their own choices about how they wanted the movies to look, feel, and sound. Both movies were possible because the filmmakers chose to do things that had never been done before, with no copying involved.
Making creative work shouldn’t be about copying the pros because you think that’s the way it’s meant to be done—it should be about making things that you genuinely like and want to see more of. Knowing what kind of person you are is a pretty difficult challenge, but even more difficult is matching your personality to your creative work so that the choices you make during creation match what you’re naturally drawn to. That’s how you make the things that you most enjoy in the world.
I’m pretty certain that a lot of people never figure this out because it’s so incredibly difficult, whereas copying other things that have worked before is comparatively easy.
Doing This With Writing is Hard
For a long time, none of my writing sounded at all like me because when I wrote I was always trying to make my writing sound like what the pros were doing, and because I wasn’t good enough to really even copy them, everything I wrote just sounded like puffed-up garbage. Writing what I really wanted to see on the page took literally years of figuring out what worked and what didn’t.
Now I feel a lot more connected to my short fiction, my novels, and especially to this blog because each of these things embodies what I’m interested in, the way I look at the world, and the way I engage with the people around me when I’m being honest.
The thing I love most about writing is that when you really, really engage like that, other people can see it and are naturally drawn to it because it’s real, and it resonates more strongly than some generic piece that sounds the same as everything else.
Making your creative work sound like you involves not only making daring and difficult choices, but understanding how those choices affect your end result. You’ll know what this feels like when you get there because you’ll be in complete control, and won’t just be copying anymore.
And in a lot of ways, all those arduous weeks playing tee-ball were worth it so I could learn that lesson.
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