Skillfully

shellgame
If writing qualifies as a skill, for me it’s a danged unreliable one. I experience days when flawless prose and even better poetry just seem to flow out of my fingertips, but also many days when I can’t coherently string two words together. Shouldn’t a skill manifest itself more consistently, or do all skills come and go at their own bidding like this?

That slugger in baseball only rarely ever slams one over the fence. He’s considered a master if he manages a hit on something between a quarter and a third of his trips to the plate, much less frequently homering, slinking back to the dugout many more times than his teammates ever baptize him with GatorAde. Surgeons, though, rarely fail to deliver their goods and carry onerously expensive liability insurance to cover the odd shortfall.

I have no access to the slugger’s or the surgeon’s internal state. Do their many successes feel like success or like impending disasters, too? One writer insisted that writing, done well, should feel like one continuous mistake in creation, and that the key to writing well lies in mastering that nagging, insistent sensation of failing while continuing to write. That kind of mastery
—a meta-skill, really, a fake-it-‘till-ya-make-it capability—might be the underlying ability defining every skill. Certainly with my writing, I experience no mastery more prominent than my now well-practiced ability to suspend my persistent disbelief in order to produce.

Perhaps some skills eventually transcend this uncharted territory, leaving their possessor sanguine, perhaps even confident in that skill’s reliable availability. For me, reading might have arrived there. Driving hasn’t (yet), neither has cooking. I can read without any anticipation whatsoever. I’m never confident when I set out driving anywhere that I’ll successfully cope with what I encounter along the way. I drive with one foot in the ditch, paranoidly watchful. I cook with a beginner’s mindlessness, recalling out-of-context snippets of experience along the way. Both driving and cooking represent emergent skills for me, abilities not evident to me until the result’s produced; just like writing. Was it really a skill if it didn’t show up until after the activity ended? Maybe I could call these before completion notions
shills, presumptions intended to entice my better self to engage, and so produce. I have a writing shill who hangs around encouraging me to bet that I really can tell which shell hides the elusive pea. If I’m not in the game, I cannot possibly win; gotta play to ever expect a payoff.

I’m clear that almost everything conventionally labeled skill is really a gamble for me. Consequently, my vitae most resembles a blank page. The Muse quickly, seemingly effortlessly, lists her skills, abilities, and experiences while I stare rather sullenly at an ever enlargening blank page. The more I stare at it, the huger it becomes until I seem to simply disappear in there. I cannot rightly claim most of what I do as a credible, much less marketable skill. What I’ve done before offered no guarantee it could or would return to me again. My experience seems too context-sensitive. In the unlikely event that the past manifests before me now, I’m ready. In the more likely event that it doesn’t, I leave that blank page blank.

I insist that my reaction represents neither an ego deficit nor an over-blown self-effacement, but simply acknowledgement. I admit that others seem audacious to me when I see them listing their skills, and I wonder, are their skills like reading is for me or
shills wagering on the come? I wonder because I cannot tell.

I rely upon the mechanics working on the airplane I’ll ride out of here to posses the mysterious skill that guarantees that plane will fly and even land without any difficulty. I’m grateful for their audacious gift I can hardly imagine me—someone who can sometimes reliably operate a flathead screwdriver—possessing. If I were responsible for keeping the fleet flying, that fleet might never leave the hangar, as, indeed, my own personal, internal fleet cannot always get airborne. I never, ever know. I never, ever knew, either.

I wonder if my well-worn sense of inability might qualify as a superpower or if it’s just an everyday commonplace baseline self-doubt shared by pretty much everyone. I do not know the answer to this question. I suppose it could be possible that we all pose here, feigning mastery while knowing in our heart of hearts that we apprentice still. Some days, pulling on bootstraps doesn’t seem to elevate me. The days I forget I even have bootstraps seem to somehow work out the better for me, where I forget that I was supposed to know and simply engage; not as-if, for that notion would involve some form of belief, but simply as, with no attendant ifs, ands, or buts.

Now, just having changed my address, region, altitude, and longitude, my senses ride rather closer to the surface than I’d grown accustomed to. Everything seems new right now, including the me I once convinced myself I knew. I seem to have become a mystery again. Who I am and what I do resemble nothing so much as a blank slate. My autopilot’s out and my charts remain waiting for rediscovery in some poorly labeled carton. Until I locate and unpack that sucker, I know pretty much nothing. My writing’s suffering; my life, stalled and in need of a long, long nap.

Times like these seem to be the ones calling out for me to employ the broadest range of my
shills. I circle each challenge, trying to figure out an approach first before engaging to learn that I have not figured anything out at all. I’ve been trying to get The Muse’s desk back together without the bracing originally supporting it, which remains lost somewhere in the move. I tried to improvise but found my hand drill unable to poke even a modest hole in the galvanized steel I bought to fill in for the real piece. Another trip to the hardware store, another idea floating out there as of yet unproven.

One of the notions might just work, though persistence might better take the credit if it does work. The Muse will later note that I really needed a drill press for that kind of work. (I always wondered what those things were for.) I will trial and error my way toward resolution and learn if my grand plan worked shortly after it finally does work. Until then, I will be talking myself into engagement, painfully certain that I do not yet know how, but engaging with my
shills anyway. Later, after the autopilot kicks back in, I might find self-confidence enough to proclaim some skill having been involved, but you and I will deep down know better.

©2015 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved










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