I had a moment the other day. After spending several hours working through feedback from my editor, I was struck by the number of kind, supportive comments that she included. Things like, “great line” and “keep this. It’s LOL funny.” Don’t get me wrong; these were sparingly sprinkled among the other comments that constituted the meat in her praise sandwich, but I digress. As I kept reading, I realized that these comments generally regarded lines that had come to me on the fly. They weren’t the lines that I’d plotted out or spent much time revising. These were lines I’d pounded out quickly, in an off-the-cuff, even slapdash manner. This got me to thinking about other times in my life when I felt like I was winging it.
Like it or not, I’ve done a lot of that over the years. I can be a wretched procrastinator. In college, I used to have to download Tetris onto a floppy disk (yes, and don’t ask), delete the file on my hard drive, and give the disk to my roommate with strict instructions not to return it until I showed her my finished paper. In grad school, I remember beginning to read Angela Carter’s Wise Children at two AM so that I could write a paper due at nine. I banged out an essay on Toni Morrison’s Beloved in three hours, and another on Poe’s “Sonnet to Science” by the pool in Vegas while accompanying my husband to a trade show. Each of these efforts were met with successful feedback, praise, and grades. Lest you think I procrastinate only on writing, I’ve also done it (occasionally) while teaching.
I always endeavored to be an overly prepared classroom teacher, but there were days—here and there—on which Life happened and prep did not. The year I returned to teaching after having my second baby I was split between two schools, teaching four different preps to five classes of students each day. I taught four novels simultaneously for 180 days in a row. Between mothering, sci-fi lit, Dickens, Shakespeare, and reams of grading, sleep sometimes won out.
One such occurrence was on the day of my first administrative evaluation by my new principal. She arrived at 7:20, unannounced, to “ask” me whether she could do my evaluation. While by contract I had the right to say no, I didn’t feel comfortable going there. And so she sat in on my sci-fi class, the one for which I had the least background and not one thing planned; no great questions, no lecture prepared, nothing but me, my 31 seniors, and our tattered copies of Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. In the seconds before class started I decided how I’d approach the day and set about orchestrating the learning activity. Once my students were off on their tasks, the principal asked me some follow up questions. She wore a big smile and patted me on the shoulder. “That was great!” she whispered. She glanced back over the classroom before turning back to me. “They’re all so engaged. Do you mind if I share that strategy with the faculty at our meeting this afternoon?”
This is not a humble brag, but shared to illustrate a point. Sometimes, our gut guides us down the right path. Our ability to make good decisions stems from experience, practice, and the errors of the past. And don’t get me wrong, I hate the feeling of being unprepared and I work hard to avoid feeling that way very often. But doesn’t it feel as though the universe is sending mixed messages when we get away with less than diligent work? If I get praise and love when I am unprepared, or for lines I’ve tossed off like a torn sweater, why bother to edit, to prepare, or even to work at all? What’s a girl to do? After much (over) thinking about this, I have come to believe that I’ve misunderstood the message.
One of the benefits of having taken a few spins around the sun is that I have become more familiar with myself; my faults, my strengths, and quirks. I am a terrible multi-tasker. My brain simply fritzes out when I get over-stimulated by loud noises, bright lights, even strong scents. I’m terrible in the kitchen. I can’t tell you how many pots I’ve boiled dry. I get distracted and burn stuff All.The.Time.
I think the secret to my successful winging of things lies in knowing what I’m good at—and owning that shit. I’m a good teacher. I wield words effectively, and I can outline the big picture in a variety of situations. My superpower, to borrow a phrase from Elizabeth Gilbert, is my (admittedly spotty) ability to get the hell out of my own damned head.
Overthinking is the battle shield in the war we wage against our fear of failure. But at some point, this analysis keeps us from connecting with the deep well of knowledge and experience that guides our intuitive thinking. We get in our own way. Winging it can help us rise to the next level of our success (and sometimes it just means you’re a slacker, but that’s a different post). In the process of working with my editor, I have learned that when I listen to that little voice in my head—the one that whispers words to my fingers—is, seemingly, when I do my best work. My new goal is finding out how to tune into this “finger whisperer” more often and let IT write the next damned book.
I challenge each of you to post, tweet, or send a smoke signal in which you publicly share a wing it moment, a time at which, despite your best efforts to get in your own way, you plumbed the depths of your own success. I’m hijacking the #wingitwednesday hashtag from the chicken wing industry and using it instead to proclaim awesomeness.
P.S. Please feel free to share and tag friends. They deserve to embrace their ability to wing it.
P.P.S. It’s ironic that it’s taken nearly three weeks to write this post.