Lessons in writing

Children are among the best teachers. I have two children, and, though they have the same parents and live in the same house, they have very different personalities. One tends to be a perfectionist, with an ability to focus and pay attention to small details. He is the kind of kid who enjoys spending hours following the dozens of intricate steps involved in putting together a Lego kit. We have a small city of Lego buildings proudly displayed in our family room. I can identify with this personality. I like to work hard on a demanding project and I like to save it. I still have a few old papers from college stashed away in my basement. Why? Have I ever re-read them? No. But somehow I couldn’t throw them away. My other son enjoys building things too. But he has no interest in following directions. He would rather build something from scratch and play with it as soon as possible. And even when he does spend long amounts on his creations, they are purely utilitarian. When he’s done playing he’ll smash his object with no regrets. I can’t count the number of times I’ve screamed, “no,” when he’s about to rip up a special drawing or a story. In his mind, he’s done with the art or the story and I read it; why save it?

Several years ago a group of Tibetan monks visited Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and they offered a class on making mandalas, geometric designs created with colored sand. The mandalas took several days or even a week to make as the students had to pour sand through little tubes to create the intricate designs. Once the the mandalas were finished and displayed they were destroyed. This was done to emphasize the transitory nature of our existence.

If I ever teach a writing class, I think I might start with a mandala exercise. Writing is often about letting go. We write, create, we cut, reword, throw out. I often become so attached to an idea, even when it isn’t working, that I am reluctant to leave it. What if, as an exercise, we went to a class, worked hard on something for an hour, and then (without knowing this ahead of time), were asked to crumple that writing up and throw it away. I often think (mistakenly) that everything I write has value and should be saved. Hey, even if I don’t want to save it as a finished work, maybe I’ll need it for the ideas it gave me. Perhaps it’s the journalist instinct in me to save notes and scraps, just in case. But I could benefit from a freer hand.

In Febraruy 2010 I visited Valencia Spain to see the Fallas, a gigantic street party in which the whole city spends an entire year building dozens of sculptures that are displayed on street corners for a weekend. The sculptures represent various vices. There was a 3-story  Formula 1 race car and driver, a woman dancing and a man drinking wine, and a woman on a wave, representing people surfing the internet. The high point of the festival comes at midnight on Saturday when all the Fallas are burned to the ground. Huge crowds wait for hours to see the burning and the city’s fire department is on hand for emergencies.  I’m not sure how seriously people take the meaning behind the fallas, but there is something about fire that attracts humans. It is the power of life and destruction in one. On the one hand the people must feel a bit sad about burning their creations but on the other hand they are freeing themselves from the past year of work to begin anew.

Next time I get stuck writing I need to remember the lessons of the mandala and the Fallas and the power of starting over. I might not burn my drafts but I can hit the delete button with more satisfaction, knowing that starting over can release new energy.