Learning to Fly

Since I posted last week, my schedule has focused mostly on writing, so much so that my fingers were flying on the keyboard and I busted my target word count almost every day. During a break, I perused old e-mail and came across a message from the middle of December from iFly, saying “Don’t forget to redeem the voucher you already purchased!” I purchased a voucher? When? I called the Virginia Beach iFly center to verify the e-mail was legit. It was. Not only that, it was good for six one-minute flights or three two-minute flights, plus all equipment rental, three free photos and two free videos.

Now if you know me, you know I love to fly. But neither Bobby nor I bought this. I checked. iFly staff could not tell me where it came from. I’d love to thank my benefactor, but for now their secret will remain intact. More importantly, I couldn’t let this gift go unappreciated. That would just be rude, so I scheduled a flight for last Saturday.

It’s been a little over a year since I last flew. Thankfully, I remembered (at least intellectually) all the right moves, though I still sat through the beginner class for a refresher. The thing is that once in the chamber, all that intellectual knowledge counts for very little if your muscle memory doesn’t kick in. I had to mentally remind myself to make small movements, to reach forward to move back, stretch out to go up, relax to go down, and so on. That two minutes in the chute goes so fast! My flight time was over before I knew it. All the way back to the car, my feet never touched the ground.

That night, as I lay chasing sleep, it occurred to me that there are parallels between flying and writing. Just in case they strike a chord with you as well, here they are in no particular order.

  1. Most fliers are like the majority of readers we write for: there for a one-time ride. They remember the basic moves (characters, settings, plot twists) long enough for one or two flights (reads), then go about their lives and soon forget the why.

Committed fliers and writers do what they do for joy, true. But there’s more to it. Lots more. The fliers thrill to feeling air beneath them, rather than the ground, and come back to the chamber again and again and again, some until they become instructors or sky divers. They fly to challenge their abilities, to learn new skills and to hone the ones they already have. We writers know our stories’ worlds inside out, and can tell you each character’s favorite color or least favorite food without hesitation, whether or not that information ever appeared in our work. We read the works of others for inspiration, to discover another storytelling technique, to envision the skeleton beneath the narrative and to advance our own understanding of the craft. What’s more, writers are just as comfortable (if not more) in our created worlds than in this one.

  1. Almost no one gets it right the first time. Sitting outside the chute, watching other fliers before my appointment, it was easy to tell who had flown before. First-timers are almost always as gangly as newborn foals, arms and legs flailing around in the chamber, bodies more often bumping against the wall or sinking to the bottom net rather than hanging mid-air. They don’t understand that every small gesture in body posture brings sharp and sometimes sudden movements that are difficult to control. Large movements by untrained fliers are inadvisable.

I started my current novel-in-progress years ago and saved those first attempts in my archive. Whenever I am tempted to think it’ll never be good enough to publish, I go back and read those bits. Each time, I am reminded of my first flight – all flailing adverbs and plot-falls, and gangly character development and wild, unfocused movement with no particular direction. In the flight chamber and on the page, I am not as good as I will be many flights (novels) in the future, but there is no comparison between then and now. It’s encouraging to have come so far!

  1. Practice makes better. Each time I step into the chute and feel that blast of air pushing me up and up and up, each time I remember to reach forward to move back, or to straighten my legs to go up or relax to go down, each time I manage a controlled turn with small hand movements, I program my muscle memory to fly better, faster, higher. Experienced fliers can do so much more—spinning around the chamber, face out and grinning at the audience, or flying upside down with their legs bent as if sitting in a chair on the ceiling, or shooting up to the top of the chute and diving back to the net only to pull out of the dive in the nick of time. Their aerobatics are amazing and so much fun to watch. I always point at the instructor showing off like this and tell my fellow fliers, “I wanna do that!

Each time I put figurative pen to paper and crank out a story or a scene or a chapter, each time I review and revise a draft of my work, I program my writing muscles to tell better stories with stronger plots and more relatable characters. I don’t get it right every time, but it comes easier with every draft. It’s like watching the flight instructors and trying to figure out how they do the things they do, based on what I already know. The more books I read—and I mean good books, ones I want to emulate—the more I understand about the craft. Because I wanna do that too.

  1. Always take the class. No matter how many times I fly, I always sit through the beginners’ class. It’s a good reminder for me, especially when I can’t make it to the chamber more than a couple times a year, and I never know when a first-timer will ask a question that will prompt helpful answers from the instructor. Besides, it helps the fliers to bond, which makes the flight more fun.

I take as many writing classes as I can, because I don’t know all there is to know about writing and because other writers always have a new and interesting perspective on the craft. I learn something new every single time. I especially love the fiction workshops where I can bring in a piece-in-progress and have others in the trade read and critique it. Critical feedback is essential to the process, not just when reviewing my own work, but the works of others too. Just as when I am watching another flier for good and faulty technique, it’s incredibly helpful to see how or why something in another person’s submissions works (or doesn’t), and to discuss it with others who are seeking the same sort of education as I am.

  1. It’s way more fun when you relax and just let it happen. Yes, you have to learn the “rules” of flight so as to not injure yourself (or your instructor) in the tube, but staying relaxed is so important that the hand signal for “relax” is one of the first things the flight class teaches first-time fliers. Stiff limbs, head and back will suck the joy out of any flight experience, not to mention it will impede the flier’s technique and keep them from learning. Granted, the first time I stepped into a flight chamber with the wind going over 100mph, staying relaxed was the last thing on my mind. I was so stiff with trying to remember the three hand signals (including “relax”) that I probably flew like wooden sculpture—straight to the net. Only the instructor’s intervention got me in the air that day.

Writers need to have an idea of their goal, true, but even plotters have to acknowledge when the story needs to diverge from their plan and allow themselves (and their characters) to go with the flow. Otherwise, the story ends up with stiff, flat characters, contrived settings, and shallow plotlines. Not only that, but part of the joy of writing fiction (for me at least) is the surprise of where my characters sometimes take me. One might think that the writer knows everything that is going to happen (we know favorite colors and least favorite foods, right?). but that isn’t always the case. What’s more surprising is that when I relax and let my characters lead me away from my carefully wrought plan, the story often turns out better than what I had I mind.

For me, writing is my daily flight. I can’t always step into the flight chamber at iFly—would that I could!—but I can step onto the streets of New Canaan or into the cloud forest of Guatemala anytime I want. I find myself on a park bench in Boston or northern Maine, or arising from a torpor chamber on an explorer-class spacecraft or hoofing trays full of food to whiney diners in New York at the drop of a hat. Any hat. Even when I’m slumping, my head is full of worlds that bump up next to this reality. And that keeps my feet off the ground, even when I’m not in flight.