On Reading Well

Finally got around to reading Malcolm Gladwell’s fantastic little book, Blink. Highly recommend, and want to share this one bit with you. Made me howl with vindicated glee: I KNEW IT!

I mean, I didn’t know this factoid at all, but I’ve always suspected—well, I’ll tell you what I’ve always suspected in a minute. This is a long quote, but bear with. It’s interesting:

One of [Vic] Braden [one of the world’s best tennis coaches]’s digitized videotapes is of the tennis great Andre Agassi hitting a forehand. The image has been stripped down. Agassi has been reduced to a skeleton, so that as he moves to hit the ball, the movement of every joint in his body is clearly visible and measureable. The Agassi tape is a perfect illustration of our inability to describe how we behave in the moment. “Almost every pro in the world says that he uses his wrist to roll the racket over the ball when he hits a forehand,” Braden says. “Why? What are they seeing? Look—” and here Braden points to the screen— “see when he hits the ball? We can tell with digitized imaging whether a wrist turns an eighth of a degree. But players almost never move their wrist at all. Look how fixed it is. He doesn’t move his wrist until long after the ball is hit. He thinks he’s moving it at impact, but he’s actually not moving it until long after impact. How can so many people be fooled? People are going to coaches and paying hundreds of dollars to be taught how to roll their wrist over the ball, and all that’s happening is that the nunmber of injuries to the arm is exploding” (pg 67-68, my emphasis).

Interesting, right? The world’s best tennis players might be able to ace it every time, but they sure can’t tell you how they do it. They just do it. Their bodies and subconscious minds just know. By years of practice and some innate awesomeness, they just know.

The reason this thrills me is because I’ve always sort of avoided those ten thousand books on how to write well that people are always foisting on you when they hear you want to write.

Don’t misunderstand me: there’s a lot of good advice in writing books. Especially the really factual ones about how to format a synopsis, how grammar works, and what the difference is between a “crime novel” and a “mystery.”

And, sometimes they’re just interesting or fun. Like Stephen King’s book On Writing. Or Daphne Du Maurier’s autobio. I had a lot of fun in those pages.

But that shelf in Barnes & Noble with ten thousand titles on writing fiction and plot techniques and how to make your writing SEXY… Yeah, I go to that shelf like I go to the funeral home. It’s not exactly a cosy hang out spot for me. Seems sort of vampiric, actually. I mean, if they knew how to write a bestseller every time, don’t you think they’d be writing bestsellers? Surely there are more beach readers than frustrated novelist readers? I sincerely hope?

Writing books can be helpful, but when it comes right down to it, even listening to Andre Agassi all day might not necessarily make you a better tennis player. He might not even really know what makes HIM a better tennis player.

I’m not saying there’s not a measure of laziness or self-justification or ego in my opinion. I’m just saying:

Malcolm Gladwell thinks I’m right.


2 thoughts on “On Reading Well

  1. LOL. I love it.

    Interesting side note: I took ballet from the student of a woman who did with ballet what Vic Braden did with tennis: slow video way down, and look at what the greats were ACTUALLY doing, rather than what they thought they were. And, yeah, it was pretty different there, too. We’re funny beasts, unable to even analyze ourselves.

  2. I kind of love that revelation…even though reading M Gladwell and relishing his words is a very A-like activity and therefore un-me, generally….but there you are. He will chuckle with deep glee when I tell him. *grin*

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