On Saturday it was five degrees here in Minneapolis. “That’s warm enough to go cross-country skiing, right?” I asked my fiance, Paul. We’re both from the south, and we’ve only been living in Minnesota since September, but already we’ve learned that if you wait until temperatures are above freezing to go outside, you’ll be a hermit until mid-April. And it turns out that anything above zero is “not that bad” as long as you’re wearing a couple pounds of clothing and some really good boots.
So we suited up in long underwear, snow pants, double socks, double gloves, parkas, and hand warmers. Underneath our hats we wore these ridiculous babushka things that were given to us by family and friends, and which I thought I would never wear until I realized that they do a good job of keeping the skin from freezing off my face.
And so we were ready to spend a few hours outdoors.
We’d been told that we didn’t need cross-country skiing lessons. “You’ll figure it out,” people said. And yeah, I’d seen people on TV do it. It looked pretty easy. I thought it would be serene, gliding around on woodsy winter trails.
Um. Wrong. It is not easy, nor is it serene. It is an intense workout, and to the people around here, it’s more like competitive racing than a stroll through the woods.
Anyway, Paul and I went outside with our rented skis. Already my toes felt numb, which I felt was a bad sign. We put on our skis and got in the pre-formed tracks (the deep grooves created by other people’s skiis) because we’d been told this was easiest for beginners.
Once we got in the tracks, Paul and I were able to shuffle along at a pace that was obviously annoying to the many people who passed us. When we tried to get out of the tracks and glide on the smooth snow, however, we flailed around like rag dolls on ice. Paul fell, then I fell. Then Paul fell again. We got back on the tracks. At least the tracks helped keep us somewhat stable and heading in the right direction.
Then we started going uphill. All around us, native Minnesotans were practically sprinting up the hill on their skis. Paul and I, in the pre-made grooves, were scooting forward inch by inch, trying not to slide backwards.
“I must be doing something wrong,” I huffed. I felt awkward and winded and my legs were already sore. I kept watching other people, trying to learn their technique. They made it look so effortless!
As I was huffing up the hill, I thought, as I always do, about writing. Despite the fact that I have my MFA and I now have an agent, I still consider myself somewhat of a beginner. Sometimes I still feel like I’m doing something wrong. Like I’m shuffling inch by inch up the hill, trying not to slide backwards.
And I realize that as a beginner, as much as I want to ski off on my own path when it comes to writing, it’s often easier to follow in the tracks that others have left for me. That’s why I try to read craft books and look at author blogs. That’s why I go to conferences and listen to the advice of published authors. These are the pre-made tracks that can help beginning writers like me stay stable and headed in the right direction.
After an exhausting hour of skiing the trails, Paul and I went inside to get warm and to meet up with two friends who are old pros at cross-country skiing. When the four of us went back outside, I asked them to watch my technique and tell me what I was doing wrong.
“Nothing,” they said. “You’re getting the hang of it.”
“But I’m so slow.”
“It just takes practice,” they said.
“And when I get off the tracks, all bets are off,” I said. “Paul and I have fallen a couple times.”
“It’s good to fall,” they said. “That means you’re giving it your all.”
After another hour, I was done. Paul went on to try the “double black diamond” trail, but my butt and thighs were sore, my nose was a snot factory, and my throat was raw from gulping in freezing cold air. But I felt good over all. I had gotten some strenuous exercise in the outdoors. I knew that like anything, cross-country skiing would take practice, and I was excited to go back another day and try it again.
And as for writing, the same thing goes. Some days I might feel like things are going frustratingly slow. Sometimes I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. Like I’m barely making any progress. But most days I’m practicing, and I think I’m getting better. I’m learning from others who have taken this trail before me. When I fall, I get up, brush off the snow, and congratulate myself for giving it my all.
And one of these days, when I’m strong enough, I’ll be able to step out of the tracks and start gliding up my own path. Until then, I’ll make my way inch by inch.