During a gymnastics workout when I was thirteen years old, my coach sent me away from the larger group on the uneven bars to practice on my own on the balance beam. I was trying to perfect my side aerial (cartwheel with no hands), by starting out on the less-terrifying floor beam (before making my way to the totally terrifying high beam).
On the floor beam, I attempted aerial after aerial but was completely unable to stay on the beam after the landing. I’d get my left foot on solid, then my right foot behind the left, just as solid. But as I lifted my chest up, arms over my head, I would lose my balance in this very sudden, jerky way, and fall off. It was such an irregular pattern of movement you’d think it could not possibly repeat itself. But each time, after each landing, my body would do the same motion, and I’d fall off on the same side of the beam every time. Watching it must have been like rewinding a video and hitting play, rewinding again, hitting play. Same thing with no variation.
I did this until my left leg was weak, until my face was red with frustration, until I was flipping in mid-air with tears streaming down my face. I was appalled with myself and couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. My solution was to forge ahead, to not stop, to go and go. I was determined.
During this whole episode which lasted about 40 minutes, my coach would yell over now and again, telling me to “go work on something else,” “go to floor, work on your standing back flip,” “get some water, practice your leaps.” I ignored him. I pretended I couldn’t hear him. He finally walked over, took me by the forearm, and led me to the water fountain, then sat me down. “You need to learn when to take a break,” he said, looking right into my eyes. “Now go practice your leaps. You can come back to beam after that.”
I am now forty-two years old and on day #9 of my writing residency. It was only yesterday, after toiling away at a chapter in my memoir that I’ve been toiling away at for almost an entire week, that this memory surfaced. As I organize and reorganize, copy and paste, move this paragraph there and that one to the end, I know that I’m not getting anywhere. Yet I want to keep forging ahead (which really means I just want to keep forging, there’s no “ahead” about it), to go and go until I have devolved into a mess behind a desk (or maybe curled up under the desk).
I have not yet devolved, but I have been nursing a ball of anxiety in my stomach every time I sit down at the computer and open the file. Another resident and new friend here at VCCA calls it “the sick place.” Here here.
As counter-intuitive as it feels, I know I need to take my coach’s decades-old advice. I need to take a break. Get a drink of water. Go practice my leaps. If I’m not careful, I could spend my whole month just moving paragraphs around, never finding a stance solid enough to stay on the beam, so to speak.
Incidentally, when I returned to the balance beam back in 1985 and tried my aerial again, I stuck it the very first time. I glanced over at my coach who was setting up mats for our end-of-work-out tumbling passes to see if he’d caught it. He smiled at me and gave me a thumbs-up. I half-smiled. Only half because I was embarrassed he’d been right. Again.
I don’t have a coach anymore, but I have creative friends and mentors who I talk to in times of distress (and success). And they have to remind me that we can get into unproductive grooves that are impossible to get out of except by simply walking away, distracting ourselves with something else, returning to the task at hand only after we’ve had some time to find ourselves again. Do what feels good, they tell me. Enjoy the views of the landscape where you are. Read and rest and rejuvenate. Whatever I produce, they remind me, however many pages this month turns out, will be just fine.
Pictured above is, of course, the Romanian legend, Nadia Comaneci.