When I was in high school I spent some unforgettable afternoons jumping off the cliffs at an old abandoned rock quarry in my hometown. The sky was blue, the sun was bright, the air was warmir hands went together and into the water with the precision of an artist. Amazing.
, and the water was nearly frozen ice cold. The cliffs were forty-feet of jagged granite edges and boulders, and there were some spectacular dives. Some were spectacularly good dives. Others spectacularly bad.
I was one of the not so spectacular dive guys. My style was to run hard to the edge and jump without stopping to think about it. Off the cliff, into the air, loud scream, and then splashdown. No frills. No spills.
Every once in a while someone would dazzle us with a beautiful swan dive. How they could become airborne with arms spread like wings, and then (this is the part that amazed me) they somehow got their body to move in the exact arc that at some point they aimed perfectly straight towards the water was mind boggling to me. At the last moment, the
The divers the most fun to watch were the newbies and the show-off’s. The newbies would jump with their arms sticking straight out into the air hoping the move would help them maintain their balance. From a hundred yards away, you could hear their arms slap hard against the water. A few seconds later the instant red sunburn on the bottom side of their arms looked like some sort of strange red tattoo. The typical show off’s mistake was classic. First they came to the edge of the cliffs, looked around to make sure all of us were watching, and then they leapt into the air showing their perfect swan dive. They would go airborne, spread their arms like wings, form the perfect arc to head straight for the water, but then more often than not, their dive kept arcing and before you knew it, they landed flat on their backs in the water from forty feet above. Anyone watching couldn’t help but cringe. It wasn’t a mistake the same diver would make more than once.
In a lot of ways diving in the quarry wasn’t that much different than writing. First, we prepared. We got beer and ice and took the journey up the mountain. In writing we get pen and paper or laptop and journey off to wherever it is that we write. Then we would climb to the edge of the cliff and look at the water below. In writing we sit down and look at the blank page. And then the most important step. We either leapt into water or we didn’t. And once we leapt, there was no guarantee of the results. Something amazing or horrible were both possible, but the only way to find out was to step off the cliff and give it a shot.
Far too many writers look for the perfect moment or perfect phrase or perfect word to start their writing. But writing is like cliff jumping or cliff diving. It just won’t happen if you don’t take the first step. Flannery O’Connor once said, “I write to discover what I know.” In some ways I suppose he is saying he didn’t know exactly what he was going to write before he wrote it. With an idea in mind, a swan dive or a cannonball, he stepped off the cliff and began to write. Only time would tell what the results of the first big step would be.
The first step can be the hardest step, but the only way to guarantee the results is to not take it. The tragic or beautiful swan dive will not happen without the first step off the edge of the rocks. The page will remain blank if you don’t write the first word. And the only way to improve is to have some bad results along the way. Take the first step. Jump off the cliff, scream loudly, and write something amazingly good or amazingly bad or somewhere in between. But write.