Leaping from the Trapeze Without Seeing the Net: Something of a Manifesto

We all worry about the leap from the trapeze.The title of this post is a quote from a conversation with a wonderful coach named Sharon Sayler (check out her radio show), and I think it’s the perfect description of what writing demands of us.

Someone was saying to me this week that it’s not the writing she minds, but the voice in her head that accompanies the writing. The voice that says, “This is not good enough; this is terrible.” That’s what makes writing hard.

I see my kids creating so joyfully. Charlie loves typing at the computer. He’s 18 months old! And we don’t let him watch any television (except inauguration), but we’ve not been able to shield him from our own obsessions with the computer, and he’s hooked. Leo loves to draw. “More drawing,” he says if he has to leave the blank page to, say, eat. And when one page fills, he says, “New page.” With delight.

That voice that critiques the writing as we go is the sum of all that is wrong with the world. It’s a voice that lacks empathy, artistry, depth (other than the depths of despair), compassion, curiosity (what might come of following this line, this trail of words?).

If we heard this voice directed at anyone else–on the political stage or at a restaurant or on television–we would know that we’d sworn enmity to this voice and all it believes in. But in the privacy of our own offices or journals, that voice becomes an ambassador from the land of common sense. It’s Carl Kasell, and you can win him recorded on your answering machine.

The most important thing to remember about the voice that tells you anything at all about the wet new writing you’ve just laid upon the fibers of your page is that that voice is wrong. Plain wrong. That voice doesn’t know. It’s the loudest kid on the bus arguing about whether or not there is a Santa Claus or who is the best softball player. But it doesn’t know the truth; it doesn’t even know how to pause softly and fumble for the truth. It’s a bully. Don’t let yourself be bullied.

You won’t know the worth of the writing until later. Much later. After the draft is finished and some time has been spent recovering yourself and engaging with other things, you will curl up with it and get to know it, this thing that you’ve created. You will have the distance from it so that you can treat it as a friend, not someone you snap at to take the garbage out, not all the shame from the worst moments of your childhood heaped upon the thin thread of your attempted sentence. It will be something else: its own being, separate from you, alive and flawed and wonderful and fixable.

You, at your kitchen table, at your neighborhood cafe, under a blanket on your couch, waiting in the car for your kid to come out of gymnastics. You are working miracles. You are leaping from the trapeze without seeing the net. You are soaring, caught in the currents of air, in the uncertainty that gifts us with new possibilities we could not have imagined otherwise.

Treasure that act. Trust it. Silence the voice. Laugh at it. Shrink it down to size. Write down what it says and put those words in the mouth of your villain. Copy out the opposite of the voice’s evil message and post those words around your house and in your notebooks (computerized or not).

I, and hundreds of thousands like me, are waiting on the other side of a page for that miracle you grind out with so much labor and hesitancy and recklessness and terror and joy. I know a world of people who are not supposed to exist–freaks and queers and manly girls and girly men and all manner of others who are not, anywhere, described or anticipated. If someone is trying to add “readers” to that list, I defy them. We are everywhere, waiting, for the next story that will change our lives.

[Thursday, Feb. 26, I am offering a FREE TELE-CLASS on dialog. Dazzling fun that will grow your writing in ways you won’t believe. Email me for information about how to join us.]

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  1. Elizabeth, thank you for this one! It is wonderfully fierce and really helpful. That bullying inner “voice” is precisely the reason I’ve stopped at page 50 or so — because why should I continue? What’s the point? What a stupid idea for a book I have anyway! The thing is, the world is full of critics; better not to be one toward oneself. Ally, friend, nurturer, staunch advocate — much better.

  2. Writing has taught me more about faith than anything else I have done.

  3. As writers, we have a deep responsibility to give a voice to the worlds within us. Not just for the lives they bring to life but for the life they give to those who are already among the living.

    Great post, Elizabeth!!!


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