My daughter likes to show me what she’s working on, what she’s reading, what she’s just discovered, and each time it’s the same request, the same request she’s made since she could speak, “Mami, look!” and she holds the paper – the craft, the book, the foreign object made of twigs and beads – three centimeters from my eyelashes.
“Hold it further back, sweetheart.”
“But I want you to seeeeeeeeeeeeee it,” she replies. Or she sighs with silent (semi-silent) exasperation and holds it further away, looking slightly angry, slightly dejected, slightly something other than elated.
“I just can’t see it properly, honey, when you hold it so close.” Why is that so hard to understand?
I was invited to speak with a class of undergrads next week about writing. I really, truly, deeply love speaking with undergrads – especially those undergrads who, like me at twenty, are exploring their roots and their values, their beliefs, passions, boundaries, each other… There is something about that age, that time of life, where everything is fresh but not entirely, where curiosity meets independence, where you cut your teeth on the opinions of your parents and adult friends, break out of old patterns and family mindsets, discover your own values, your own voice, your own style, and no matter what direction you’re going, there is an excitement to it all. Like holding that paper right up to your eyes and seeing every angle, every color, every bit of it. Really seeing it.
Everything in my twenties – every experience – I remember holding close. I valued whatever and whoever was intimate with me or intense. I also remember needing to be inside every experience, dissecting every detail, feeling every breeze, inspecting and recording every tone, every shade, every color. I needed to see everything from the inside and I couldn’t step away until I was done. This was true of every experience. Every day. Every minute of my life.
Happily as I aged, I learned to step back and see a few things from the outside. Breathe. Give myself and everyone around me a bit of space, and this space (distance, perspective) helped me to become a better writer, a better person, a better friend.
Maybe this is what I’ll share with the undergrads, if I can figure out how to talk with young adults about stepping back. In my late teens and early twenties, I never would have listened. Step out of the eye of the storm just as it’s picking up speed? Ridiculous. Boring. But surely they aren’t all like me.
Even now, every time I get excited, I head right back into the eye of the storm — even though I know it’s someplace I can’t stay, not as a parent and not as a writer. How can you coach a child out of her own black hole if you enter it with her? How can you find your way out of the linguistic rabbit hole if you re-arrange the same words over and over and over again?
These are the habits that get me stuck, that run me into writer’s block (parent’s block). No, I can’t become one with the thunder, as thrilling as it may be; I can’t stay on the inside. I know this now from experience, but there are days I still find it hard to listen — even to myself.
“For a fresh perspective…” I can tell them next week, “Step back. Take a breath. Swing your arms.”
I can talk with them about writer’s block – about getting too close to what you’re trying to say and no longer being able to say it. I can talk about building writer’s block into your timeline, into your process. Understanding that writer’s block can be part of what makes your writing GOOD. Getting through it and coming out the other side with something sharper, something more refined. Writing through your fear, even if what you write is crap. Coming back the next morning with fresh eyes. Coming back after you step away.
Writing requires faith, perspective and commitment.
Maybe that’s what I’ll talk about next week. Maybe I’ll use NASA’s picture, too — this one of the whole world from a distance, taken in 1972.
“What do you hold close?” I might ask them. “Too close? How might it look different from a distance?”