Absolute Beginners: The Joy of Being a Dilettante

In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to describe a specialty in their lives that has nothing (or very little) to do with writing. Join us as we discover what draws authors to their various hobbies, how they fit into their daily lives, and how and they inform the author’s literary identity!

One of my early T’ai Chi teachers explained their equivalent of belt colors: a scale starting with “I think I’ve almost got it” and going all the way up to “I have no idea what the hell I’m doing.” By that standard, I am absolutely brilliant. Many people glide through this meditative martial art with jaw-dropping grace and diligence. I am not those people. I’ve managed to keep my form shoddy through two decades of sporadic practice. This is not entirely an accident.

There are advantages to being bad at something…

Authors tend to learn a lot about a lot of things. Or maybe it’s the other way around. If you happen to know all about Weird Fiction and psycholinguistics and Cold War History and cooking, writing a novel may be the only way you’ll get to use everything in the same package. Or maybe expertise and authorship grow from the same place: the sort of sticktoitiveness that results in putting 100,000 words in a row also tends to result in things like PhDs (I have one) and running marathons (never in my life).

But I have a secret: my favorite part of learning is the very beginning, the moment of movement from knowing nothing to knowing how little you know. There’s freedom and promise in that initial incompetence. When you’re just starting out, you have permission to be bad. For me, it has the same pleasant heft as sitting down with a really good, really long book, knowing there are hundreds of pages of discovery ahead.

These moments of early learning are so delicious that they’re sometimes all I do. Life’s too short (unless you’re a Deep One, getting your 50th degree at Y’ha-nthei University) to learn everything about everything. But in between putting in your 10,000 hours on your limited quota of expertises, you can learn a tiny bit about a lot.

I’ve been skiing exactly once, and hang gliding exactly once. The difference was instructive. After a day of falling down on the bunny hill, I was cold and my ankles ached and I swore that I would come back and try again until it got fun. One of these days. No hurry. It does seem like an expensive way to fall down, doesn’t it? After a day of hang gliding, on the other hand, I was hot and my shoulders ached and I had actually managed to get off the ground for approximately ten seconds. It was more expensive than skiing and involved more falling, and I was determined to try it again as soon as I could afford it. (Which hasn’t happened yet. Anyone wanna buy some movie rights?)

Somehow the momentary hint of flight caught my desires in a way that the brief swift slide downhill couldn’t. I’ve learned, over years of learning, that universal willpower is a myth. We have this idea that the truly virtuous Puritan should be able to apply themselves to anything. But proclivities are real. The thing that catches your imagination, that’s worth doing badly, invites application. And it’s worth doing many things badly, twisting the mirror of beginner’s mind this way and that, to find the things that bear repetition.

Other try-once things at which I’ve retained basic-level incompetence include: riding a horse, shooting a gun, making jewelry, forging iron, rock-climbing, knitting, and playing guitar. From each I’ve taken a few sensory details to feed into the compost from which novels grow, and a better understanding of what’s in the mirror.

It’s possible to find pockets of incompetence even in the midst of my most practiced skills. I’m a pretty good cook: on the T’ai Chi scale I’m up to having only a vague idea of what I’m doing. So I particularly enjoy trying to figure out recipes for things I’ve never made before, and every once in a while I’ll set aside an “experiment day.” I have a partner in this risky research: my householdmate Nora, who most recently helped me play Innsmouth Test Kitchen with a few recipes from Winter Tide.

During our lab days the rest of the household hangs out in the dining room, eager for tasty successes but on their guard for the inevitable spectacular failure. Our record-holder remains chocolate mousse: we once tried to make it three separate times in the same day, each effort resulting in a different variety of unpleasantly grainy chocolate soup. Don’t ask about the cheese fondue, either.

On the other hand, we did manage to get the traditional Innsmouth honeyed saltcakes working on the third try.

I thought about this while I was editing Winter Tide—like chocolate mousse and cooking, a place of unanticipated difficulty hidden on the far side of my comfort zone. I’ve spent more of my life practicing writing than any other skill, and yet novel revisions terrified me. It took rather more than three rounds to get an edible final product. But all my practice being bad at things paid off. Like cooking, writing requires a cheerful willingness to make a mess, screw up, and occasionally throw out whole batches of what started as perfectly good chocolate.

Top image: The Matrix (1999)

Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian stories “The Litany of Earth” and “Those Who Watch” are available on Tor.com, along with the distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Winter Tide, a novel continuing Aphra Marsh’s story from “Litany,” is now available from Tor.com Publishing. Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and her blog, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.

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