Walking On Air

When my partner Emily teaches a traditional circle dance to a group of newbies, they go through a predictable progression. First, they’re so uncomfortable they trip over their feet. They talk nervously, drawing attention away from their awkwardness. Sometimes they give up. But Emily’s a patient teacher and her dances are simple, ancient, and usually repetitive, so those who stick with it eventually fall into a pattern and begin enjoying themselves.

Then, if the dancer repeats these steps over weeks and months, he or she forgets the steps entirely and enters the dance. I’m not much of a dancer but even I have experienced my self-consciousness release into consciousness and then fall away entirely.

I’m interested in how this happens for writers, too. Seamus Heaney describes it as “walking on air”: “We must teach ourselves to walk on air against our better judgment.” Lately in my own writing practice I’ve experienced it as the art of forgetting. I’ve been writing long enough that I’ve gotten a pretty good grasp on the elements of craft; I’ve some skills under my belt. What if it’s time to forget all this and enter the story?

I’m reminded of a disastrous class I taught at the Loft Literary Center a few years ago. The course was an introduction to revision, and that evening’s lesson was on transitioning between reflection and narration. At first students moved easily between story and exposition; it’s something we humans naturally do when we tell each other stories. But when I called attention to the distinction between our character selves and narrator selves—when I showed them how they were transitioning between these voices and what effect it had on the reader—they got stymied. Self-consciousness made it impossible to write well. The class got disgruntled, and the evening ended with fifteen writers writing worse than when they arrived.

But this is our progression when learning an art, and (I suspect) when living life: First we’re unconscious, then we’re self-conscious, and then we’re aware of being self-conscious, which is truly agonizing. Only then can we come into consciousness and make conscious choices that shape our lives. My students needed to recognize that they were using a technique before they could choose to use this technique. Intention, not default, makes art. And intention makes life itself deliberate and artful.

But at some point even intention sinks down into muscle memory and the body takes over, moving in a dance far bigger than itself. At some point consciousness can fall away, if we let it. We can walk on air. I don’t know yet, but I’m curious about where that will take me and my writing. –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

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5 Comments

  1. as always, thank you for your beautiful words and wisdom

    Reply
  2. Thank you for this helpful – and important – reminder about the progression of learning. I was especially struck by this observation: “The class got disgruntled, and the evening ended with fifteen writers writing worse than when they arrived.” As unsettling as it is to feel that I’ve regressed, it’s usually a necessary step to move forward with new skill. Your post renews my hope that what seems like a setback often is progress.

    Reply
    • You’re so welcome, Iris. I agree–it’s unsettling to regress. So much of learning an art is unsettling! But the rewards eventually rear their heads.

      Reply
  3. Oh Elizabeth, this is a perfect description of the art of living! I’ve been so focused on consciousness but have felt myself at some kind of edge with that process. . . too much trying. Falling away from consciousness is definitely the next step. Thank you for this language. And ironically it can feel like no effort at all once it’s in the body.

    Reply
    • You’re most welcome, Paula. In my experience, there’s really not much I can do to “forget”; it’s more an act of grace. But there’s a lot I can do to put myself in a place where I’m ready. I’m navigating that “edge” with you!

      I’ve been appreciating your weekly questions.

      Reply

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