On The Need To Stop Choking

I was doing some job searching, and one area I was looking into was English teaching in Japan. I spent a year in Japan while in college, and I must tell you, it was one of the best times of my life. I spent Halloween night alone on a mountain covered in torii, as part of the mammoth Fushimi Inari Taisha, a shinto shrine. (And since I don’t have enough images on this blog, check out this one below:)

 

A big red tunnel, basically
Yes, it’s THAT place.

It wasn’t just the Shinto shrines that got me, either–the food was amazing (??? for the win), the people were engaging (though maybe that was just because I was a white guy), the weather was unbelievably fantastic, and there vending machines every five steps that would sell you soda, grape juice (that had grapes in it), soup, beer, and hard liquor. (Well, chuhais, so semi-hard liquor.) You could go outside after dark and not worry about getting knifed or robbed. I even loved Japanese furniture; say what you will, but I found that the Japanese futon to be way more comfortable than American beds, and if I could, I would have one. (I think this is because I’m very tall, and frequently my feet hang over the end.) Not to mention, it has wonderful mass transit. Note I said mass transit, and not public transit, for aside from subways, all of the mass transit–trains, buses, and so on–are owned by private companies. Even Japan Rail, which used to be called Japan National Rail, was broken up and privatized in the 80′s. (So yes, the free market does work.) Yes, the language is difficult (I never understood as many kanji as I was expected to, and I could never keep the honorific form of the language straight in my head) but I felt that was a small price to pay for everything else that was so wonderful.

Anyways, I just felt sharing that little bit of my history because the sheer awesomeness of the place drew me back to it during my job hunt. Working in Japan for foreigners is not easy, aside from one area: English teaching. Demand for English teachers is up, or so I’m told, as more Japanese believe English will be a necessary skill for their future job prospects. (Though they should probably be learning Chinese or Hindi as well, just to be on the safe side.)

So I went looking for English teaching jobs. I came across one website, ELT News, and starting reading the blogs. And what do you know, I find something that directly touches upon my experience writing. I’ll excerpt only the relevant part of the post, but if you’re interesting in teaching English in Japan, I encourage you to read the rest of it; the author, Mike Guest, is a pretty darn good writer (bolded emphasis is mine, by the way):

This was a chapter (The Art of Failure, p. 324-344) outlining the difference between choking and panicking using examples from professional tennis, golf, and an airplane crash. Choking, Gladwell argues (with his usual research-based support) is a case in which the agent, under pressure, reverts to a mechanical mode of action or behaviour where he/she becomes overly conscious of every move and thus can’t function with the fluidity of someone who normally has intuitions, skills or an ingrained sense about what to do. Panicking, on the other hand, refers to cases where people stop thinking due to what is called perception narrowing under pressure. Experienced people may choke under pressure, the inexperienced are more likely to panic.

Most readers will be aware of the tendency for many Japanese learners of English to either choke or panic when having to produce or perform under pressure in English. “I went to Canada but I couldn’t say more than a few words. I just forgot what to say,” might be a typical refrain– from somebody who has studied English for eight years and is even proficient on standardized tests. But understanding the difference between the two is crucial.

Some of my students are chokers. They have a reasonably good command of the flow of English, the holistic side. It has worn itself into their cerebral fabric. They ‘know’ the language but, when under pressure, tend to revert to an earlier mechanical stage which causes them to re-think every lexical, grammatical and social nuance of the language, effectively paralyzing them in speech. Choking, Gladwell say [sic], is about thinking too much.

Others, with far fewer ingrained English skills simply lose all perception and panic, grasping wildly at any English expression which might race through their minds. Panicking is about thinking too little. Panicking is often a product of too little experience, such that when any plus-alpha factors appear, the fragile control system easily breaks down.

Addressing panic involves little more than gaining experience, buckling down, applying diligence. It is what Gladwell calls ‘a conventional failure’. But choking is ‘a paradoxical failure’. Gladwell uses a research-based example (one from Claude Steele at Stanford Univ. and one from Julian Garcia at Tufts Univ.) utilizing stereotypes and expected performance to illustrate the difference.

The bolded part is what hit me in the head like a sledgehammer. This is what I’ve been doing for so long with my writing. I’ll write, think, “Oh, this is crap,” then go back and re-edit endlessly, or just walk away. This didn’t happen to me in high school, when I wrote my first novel. (400 pages, too, at the tender age of 15. I think that was a decent start that I failed to capitalize on.) This doesn’t happen to me when I blog. I don’t know why, but somehow, in those two instances–my high school writing and my blogging today–I just don’t think about it that much, I just let it come to me and let it be. But when I write my fiction today, I lock down and struggle to get through.

My problem is I just think too goddamn much.

I blame some of my writing books, for starters. Some of them are very good. Some are okay. Some are terrible. But in any case, I relied too much on them, and so when I started writing, I would think about what I read in them and go, “But my work isn’t matching up to that at all.”

What I have to do now is just say “Screw it” and write it. Forget about what everyone else says; hell, forget what I say, and just do it. I did that with my last story, which I just finished the first draft of a few days ago, and to which I’m rewriting (though substantially; I think if I use different characters, it will be better. We’ll see.) I did that with a story earlier in the year, which didn’t get published, but it was just something I wanted to write, so I did it. I need to keep in that habit and just keep going. I’m bound to hit paydirt some time or another.

Or a wall. One or the other.