Baby Steps

by Jeff Oaks

One of my friends used this phrase “taking baby steps” to talk about how she needed to walk last week, as the great icesheets on our sidewalks and streets were melting, becoming a little more dangerous in fact, even while the rest of the world seemed to be lightening up on its demands. It’s important at moments of change to take it slow, even though your heart might be leaping around wanting you to dance.  Popular culture tells us this all the time, doesn’t it? Think of all those horror movies in which the brave heroine has killed the slasher, killer, alien predator, enemy, and just at the moment when she seems to have beaten It, It rises up suddenly for one last slash, throttle, bite, or explosion. It’s a cliche at this point in film. Still, it’s easy to forget that lesson in real life.  Because, well, it’s us.

I’m also thinking about those little steps because a Facebook friend who recently graduated with his MFA asked a good question the other day: How does anyone move past the “if I write anything, it will inevitably suck” phase?

The answer from a number of friends was simple: you don’t.  You accept it and move on. Eventually it won’t suck. But you might have to write a lot of crap first.

It’s hard to take little steps. As someone who just joined a gym again and has begun working out again, learning to not eat everything I want, move my body again, I’m having to remember this.

For me, most of the work I have to do is simply getting past the threshold of not doing anything. If I can begin to do something, I know I’ll want to keep doing things. Sometimes it helps to start at the most boring but necessary point, I’ve found, which is why I often write out bills or check my bank balance, often writing out a budget for myself for the month, before I begin to write. Anything I write after that is going to be better than that dull accounting. Sometimes it helps to change the status on my Facebook page. Sometimes it helps to read the news. Or to read a writer I despise aesthetically or personally. Whatever it takes to get a mutter started, something in me to growl or wag its tail. I’ve done it for long enough that I now trust that something will happen once I begin. Usually there’s a metaphor that appears suddenly and almost joyously. And when it appears I follow its hints forward.

When I was in Lynn Emanuel’s workshop in graduate school, she used to have us write toward the thing we didn’t like. To write a “Bad Poem” about it even. To write as many bad poems as we needed. Dull lists of our angers and frustrations. It usually had a salutary effect. Who or what is the adversary? Exhaustion? Fear? Ignorance? Discomfort? Laziness? Grief? Anger? A Fear of Being Awful or Trivial or Disenchanted or Mary Oliver or John Ashbery or Doctor Seuss?  Write each fear its own ode, maybe a line a day for a month, for a year.

Of course, how do I turn that assignment on myself in order to workout, or to help my friend who is afraid of falling on ice? To walk deliberately slow maybe, as opposed to trying to be brave and trying to walk normally? To work out deliberately slowly maybe–five minutes on the lowest setting of the treadmill maybe? So far, I’ve been going easy on the ellipticals at the beginning and finding that my body begins to want to go longer.  This morning I started with a song on my iPhone that is the song my husband and I chose for our marriage song, Peter Gabriel’s The Book of Love. “The Book of Love is long and boring,” it begins…and then turns “but…” and the song begins to summon something out of me that still surprises me sometimes: hope, energy, love.

What if you made a ritual to write only three sentences every morning? Maybe only enough for a postcard. The sentences could be about the cat or the birds outside the window or that irritating guy at the cafe. Or to write only a list of twenty words that rhyme, or had the short a sound inside them, or wrote one word for each of the letters of the alphabet? What are 26 things that make your life worth living, make it joyful, make it your life? That might be more than enough for a day.

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