Creative Nonfiction: Practice; or… by Aaron Burch

Photo by Aaron Burch

Practice; or, a series of anecdotes I sometimes remind myself of and other times tell my students when thinking or talking about writing (plus notes for a/some future essay(s))

The other day, on a walk with my girlfriend, we passed a young girl hopping up and down in the grass on the side of a church. She’d pause for a moment between each hop, anywhere from a couple seconds to a full minute, and then up she’d go again—her arms and legs flailing, the whole motion incredibly herky jerky, her body, trying to describe it now, reminding me a little of a fish flopping around out of water. My girlfriend had no idea what she was doing; she didn’t even notice the girl at all. I recognized it all immediately. I couldn’t see it, but I knew there was a skateboard underneath her. She was teaching herself how to ollie.

This morning I made myself eggs. One by one I cracked each egg and then spilled it into a bowl, where I beat them together and added a little milk. Each broke cleanly; I didn’t have to pick out a single small piece of shell. I almost never have to anymore. Whereas, when I was younger I had to so often it practically just seemed one of the steps of making eggs. I don’t think my technique has changed; it wasn’t anything I ever worked on trying to get better at. I’ve just been doing it for so long, it started to come a little more naturally.

Last week I went on a run that was the slowest, hardest struggle of a run in recent memory. I’ve been running, at this point, on and off for fifteen years, although I still don’t really think of myself as a runner. I’m not totally sure why the hesitation to commit to the label. Probably in part because this is how time and getting older works. I can’t believe that it’s been fifteen years! And probably also because I hated running in school, I never ran if I didn’t have to until my later twenties, and another aspect of getting older is, to varying degrees, still thinking of yourself as fifteen-year-old you. Probably, too, because of that on-and-offness. But maybe even most of all because I’m not that fast and can’t run that far and I’d rather think of myself as being kinda fast, and piling up a decent number of miles, for someone who isn’t really a runner than being less good at something I do all the time. (Note to self: there is probably another whole essay to be built around this idea on self-perception and self-identity.) Anyway. I went on this run and it sucked and was incredibly frustrating. But then, the next day, I went on another run, and it was the fastest and best I’d felt in recent memory. Bodies and minds are weird. But it all counts, it’s all part of the process.

When I was fifteen, I saved up and bought myself a skateboard. I wanted to skate because it looked cool, and because being a skater seemed cool, and because some of my friends had started skating and so I wanted to, too. I watched skate videos over and over, admiring how cool everyone in them seemed, but also trying to dissect and figure out how they were doing what they did. And, even more, I studied these IKEA-like diagrams in Thrasher and Transworld Skateboarding, walking me through how to put a move together, no Allen wrench required. I spent hours, days, weeks in my backyard trying to build myself an ollie. Slamming my back foot down, sliding my front foot forward in the air and against the board, lifting my back foot up, and hopping up, a succession of steps that needed to happen in just the right order to actually work but also that seemed to all need to happen at once. It was frustrating, it seemed impossible, it felt like a magic trick I was never going to figure out much less pull off. Over and over and over, hopping, falling, flailing… until one day it worked. I ollied! First on grass, then on concrete while holding onto something, then while not holding onto anything but stationary, and then finally while moving. I could push, push, kick down, hop, and even if only for the smallest fraction of a second, I was in the air. It was euphoric.

This last year, I started painting. Covid hit and everything went into lockdown and then, even when lockdown was technically lifted, no one really knew what was and wasn’t safe and we still weren’t supposed to do most things. As winter approached, my girlfriend and I needed to figure out some indoor activities. We watched a lot of TV, we borrowed some board games from friends, and we started painting. I loved art as a kid, but hadn’t drawn anything in twenty years, at least. I was excited to start again, and immediately enjoyed it, and almost just as quickly figured out my subject. Skulls. (Another note to self: there’s probably another essay just focused on this; see: growing up in youth group, the satanic panic of the 80s, being scared away of all things demonic and scary as “evil,” discovering and embracing my enjoyment of death metal and its accompanying iconography in my 40s…) For my first painting, I looked up an image of a simple skull and, looking back and forth between screen and my piece of paper, tried to draw that skull myself. The eyes go here… are about this big compared to the nose… there’s something of a protruding point for the cheekbones… the teeth go here… In the coming weeks, I drew another, five more, twenty more. I loved drawing skulls, it turned out, in part because they were fun to draw, and in part because they looked so cool, and especially because of their incredibly forgiving and exciting “how cool they look” to “how easy they are to draw” ratio. (Note to self: revisit this idea and add to previously noted essay about self-perception, self-identity, liking being good at something I think of myself as an amateur at.) I kept doing this, over and over, another skull, and then another. Each time, I’d look up an image and painstakingly look back and forth between reference and my own drawing. I wasn’t trying to practice or learn or teach myself anything, it was just fun. But with each, I needed to look at a reference image less and less. Now I barely need one at all.

In grad school, I started playing pickup basketball with a few friends. I hadn’t played in almost ten years, but I was ok. Like drawing, the basics came back to me relatively easily. “Like riding a bike,” that kind of thing. All those years shooting baskets in my driveway by myself, both before and throughout my skateboarding years. My specialty, my best move, my signature shot, was this crazy, off-balance, half-fadeaway/half-falling down shot hurled at the basket. I looked, now that I think about it, a little like a fish flopping around. A little like a kid trying to learn how to ollie. No matter how many times I’d made it before, it always looked like it had no right to go in, and yet it did with surprising regularity. I’d bet my shooting percentage with the shot was better than when wide open. It was weird, but also: that was the shot I’d practiced in my driveway, over and over and over and over. An announcer voice in my head counting down the final seconds of a game, a ghost defender locking me down like some kind of imagined Gary Payton, a falling-down, off-kilter fadeaway flung toward the basket, my only option to try to win the game and become the hero. Five… four… three…

I was never a very good skateboarder. I added a couple of other pretty basic moves but nothing special. Mostly, I liked skating so that I could go skating with my friends; I wasn’t committed enough to practice much more than that. I got to the point where I could ollie with ease, at least. You do something enough, you get better at it, sometimes it even becomes second nature. You don’t have to think about it at all. I’m convinced I could ollie right now, if I tried, though it’s also been long enough, and I’m old enough, that I’m not actually going to try. Because I don’t want to hurt myself, and also I don’t want to learn that that assumption isn’t true. I hope that girl-by-the-side-of-the-church figures it out, if she hasn’t already. I hope she realizes the joy and beauty and exaltation of ollieing over something or up onto a curb without even having to think about it. I hope she finds it as satisfying as I did.

Aaron Burch is the author of the memoir/literary analysis Stephen King’s The Body; the short story collection, Backswing; and the novella, How to Predict the Weather.  Other recent short-shorts have appeared on No ContactThe ForgeXRAY, and Pidgenholes. He is the Founding/Co-Founding Editor of Hobart and HAD. His first novel, YEAR OF THE BUFFALOis forthcoming in spring 2022.

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