THREADING THE NEEDLE IN A VACUUM
In shadowboxing, other than impending fatigue, there is no feedback. The imaginary opponent, which may as well be the wide mass of molecules just beyond your skin, doesn’t slip and counter. You’re in a mock simulation of muscle memory—a perfect-dream scenario in which the hero—you—vanquishes the queue of enemies and comes away unscathed. It’s hard to not go undefeated in such a league.
Writing can be the same. Especially writing in a vacuum. It seems that to plot your way to the end of a novella or treatise requires a similar kind of calorie-burning to shadowboxing.
In both disciplines, you’re trying to carve the perfect path. Throwing a tight combination (jab-cross-hook-cross, say) requires not only crisp technique, but fundamentals like covering your head with the non-throwing hand. Stringing together sleek sentences while furthering the writerly objective, whether it’s a character arc or a succinct point, is akin to keeping the balls a-juggle.
What mystical thing happens in these two cases? Is it a pugilistic/writerly version of runner’s high at work? Some talk of flow state. Others refer to the empty-headedness of Zen Buddhism. Could it be merely a preoccupation with the next move? And the next? And the next? Maybe there’s no difference between flow state and the razor-sharp focus of keeping your hands up when not throwing a punch, or keeping the thematic plates spinning while devising another syntactical masterpiece. The boxer’s refined footwork dances through space and time like the Bard’s quill bounces cursive ink across the paper.
As prepared as you think you are, it’s very possible you are dead wrong. “Boards don’t hit back,” Bruce Lee’s character said to a cocky whippersnapper in Enter the Dragon. “Everyone has a plan,” Mike Tyson quipped, “until he gets punched in the face.” I’ve sent two of my novels through various edits, including professional. I’ve done everything to cover my bases. But I’m dead guilty of not having my work vetted by beta-readers or critique groups. Those would be the equivalent of sparring partners.
Could it be my rough draft is a boxer’s shadowboxing? If so, my finalized draft might be akin hitting the focus mitts: striking a hard target, gassing out in the process—but still not quite the real thing. My feedback at that point, as with a pad man, would be my hired editor. You pay him to fix things, but you don’t expect—don’t want—to get his honest opinion. That would be like having a real opponent, which is what I don’t want. My excuse is “Beta-readers ust aren’t my style, bro.” Or: “I’m too good to belong to a critique group.” A metric ton of rejection letters could attest to the contrary.
Yet I’ve long been guilty of telling more than showing. I telegraph my straight right. All I can do is let my manuscript sit a few months and take my detached self’s word for it. Or in the case of shadowboxing, consult a mirror.
The truth often hurts. Flat characters that cause readers’ disinterest or looping left hooks that leave you wide open for a counter right-cross croissant, you would now have the feedback you so desperately need.
So what’s a vacuum dweller to do? UFC strawweight champion Rose Namajunas recently said on a podcast that most people—fighters, that is—suck at shadowboxing. She wasn’t trying to be mean or trying to inflate her own shadowboxing skills. She has trained with some of the best fighters in the world. They come no humbler than “Thug” Rose. Looking to be taken dead seriously as a martial artist when pitted a few years back against another photogenic fighter, she went and shaved her head. That same monkish demeanor allowed her to mumble the Lord’s Prayer during face-offs against the seemingly unbeatable then-champion (and self-proclaimed bogeywoman) Joanna Jedrzejczyk, who did everything possible to rattle the challenger and failed abysmally. Rose TKO’d Joanna in the very first round with a tight left hook. Chalk one up for that shadowboxing, maybe? Maybe.
What she meant by alluding to most people’s deficiency in that training technique was not that those fighters lacked skill, which would be an asinine assumption, but that they neglected—perhaps not willfully—a great tool.
(I have a razor poised over my cranium, thinking Pulitzer.)
Writing in a vacuum might produce good rough drafts. All that self-doubt can lead to some self-awareness. Though there still might be more work to do—more tightening, more showing over telling, more resonating characterization.
Anyways, here’s to hoping your opponent has never seen you shadowbox.