The Slow-Cooked Sentence

Roller derby, deck of cards give me a novel set of writing skills

Rachael Conlin Levy


I pulled a card from the deck of Oblique Strategies by artists Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt and read it: “Make a sudden, destructive unpredictable action; incorporate.”

I thought about the short story I was wrestling, ahem, writing. I’m soooo close to finishing, to feeling the relief and elation that comes with completion, but I’m not there yet. I’m here, pinned in place, facing the heavy task of transforming the bits narrative and snippets of scene into something cohesive and whole, and feeling depleted and spent, doubtful and scared that I wouldn’t–no, couldn’t– carry it off.

I wanted to read someone else’s story, a finished story.

But I wouldn’t.

Instead, I opened my oracle box, the deck of Oblique Strategies: Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas, and drew a card from the top. The cards, created in 1975 by Eno and Schmidt to promote creativity and in their fifth edition, offer challenging constraints intended to help artists break creative blocks and discover solutions through nonlinear approaches.

“If you’re in a panic,” Eno said in a 1980 interview with Berkeley’s KPFA-FM radio station, “you tend to take the head-on approach because it seems to be the one that’s going to yield the best results Of course, that often isn’t the case – it’s just the most obvious and – apparently – reliable method.”

This kind of problem-solving is called lateral thinking, a concept that shares an approach outlined in the slim volume “A Technique for Producing Ideas” by adman James Webb Young (1886-1973). Young identified two principles for the production of ideas: First, that an idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements; and second, the ability to bring old elements into new combinations depends on the ability to see relationships.

Lateral thought occurs when a person moves from one known idea to another by making connections that generate new ideas. It differs from critical thinking, which is primarily concerned with judging the true value of statements and seeking errors, according to Edward de Bono, who popularized the term “lateral thinking” in the late 1960s.

de Bono suggested that one way to create new ideas is through the destruction of current thinking loops; break pattern, routine, and the status quo. Hence, the Oblique Strategies deck and the card now in my hand. Make a sudden, destructive unpredictable action; incorporate.

Mercurial movement reminds me of roller derby.




Eight weeks ago, I made a sudden, unpredictable decision to learn a new sport despite the destructive risk it held for my 48-year-old knees, hips, and low back. Signing up scared me, but I didn’t allow myself time for fear or critical thought. Logic wasn’t going to lead me to judge the value of my decision and see its error.

Instead, I bought the skates, knee pads, elbow pads, wrist guards, helmet, and mouth guard, and showed up Saturday morning, sick to my stomach and palms sweating.

Every morning thereafter, you’d find me and the rest of the recruits (aka fresh meat) trying to stay upright on a polished concrete floor in a chilly rundown warehouse just beyond the city limits. This is where I relearned to skate (and fall), discover my edges (and fall), snowplow (and fall), as well as a handful of lateral, transition moves like side-surfs, crossovers, cuts, and shuttle steps.

In the process, I discovered a love for the sound of Velcro ripping, the bite on the mouthguard, the push of muscle until it quivered like jelly, the grit needed to scrape myself off the floor, the ache that surfaced in the days that followed.

The capricious decision to not spend all of my free time writing has made me a better writer. I lobbed a bomb at myself and survived, developing a fresh mindset and discovering within a set of novelty skills tools that I can apply to novel writing.

Vulnerability. When I signed up for roller derby, everything I knew came from the movie “Whip It.” Everything I’ve learned since then was learned in front of coaches and other skaters. Skills were demo’ed, then tried. I was failing (and falling) in a very public way, something I need to do with writing and submitting work for publication.

Courage. Discovering that I could survive looking foolish and awkward, uncoordinated and clueless, freed me to take more risk. Surrounding myself with people all working hard to learn the same thing created a powerfully supportive environment, which in turn encouraged more risk-taking. Finding this community in skating revealed its deficit in my writing life, something I’m working hard to correct.

Grit. Skating, nearly nonstop, for two hours builds muscle; I can squat deeper, balance longer, skate faster. It’s also built mental muscle. Greater concentration keeps me focused on the short story. And thanks to a body pushed to its limits and then asked to give more, I’ve deeper wells of determination and greater willpower when it comes to keeping my (more shapely) ass in the chair in order to write the story to its end.

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