The Whole Point (of theme building).

In order to illuminate the human condition through story, the writer should burrow deep into his own values and beliefs, because it is those values and beliefs that drive his thoughts and behaviors.   By identifying what matters to him, he is able to give the story profundity, quality and meaning. Whether the writer intends to weave theme through the narrative or not, when he first starts out, he must make his story about something. He might start by first coming up with a theme upon which he desires to create his story, or he may write the story first and identify the theme later, (before revision, of course), however; regardless of the road he takes, he must choose one if his goal is to engage the reader in a meaningful manner. While the story’s plot should excite the reader, it is the theme that ties together the universal human connection between story and reader.

Some questions the writer might ask himself before, during or after he writes his first draft could include the following:   What makes me feel happy or sad, or angry?  What drives me?  Are people inherently good , or evil?   Do we become who we are through genetics or through the environment in which we grow up?  What is it that breaks my heart in society,  or in the world?  What do I think is the true meaning of life, the reason we are really here? 

By asking ourselves these questions, we recognize what matters to us, and likewise, what matters to our readers. While some themes are monosyllabic, meaning they come from one word, such as love, death, friendship, belonging, family, loss, betrayal, or sacrifice, other themes can be implied.  Some examples of these types of implied themes include,  good verses evil (William Golding’s, Lord of the Flies, Harper Lee’s, To Kill a Mockingbird, George Orwell’s, Animal Farm) , money can’t buy happiness (F.Scott Fitzgerald’s, The Great Gatsby) , crime does not pay (James Bond movies) , be careful what you wish for (Pinocchio), perseverance pays off (Rocky), or no man is a failure who has friends (borrowed from Mark Twain, by Frank Capra’s Its a Wonderful Life).

As the underlying thread that ties together the plot with the characters, descriptions, and settings, the theme relates the story to real life. Through the theme of the story, writers connect their readers universally to the point the writer is trying to make. However, the writer must hide his theme in the story’s background, to allow his readers to draw their own conclusions, rather than make them feel they have been preached to or lectured. 

Moreover, through the use of symbolism, motifs and characters, writers build the theme as a way to reflect who they are and what they value and believe in, to the reader.  Consequently, that theme resonates with the reader because what matters to the writer usually matters to or affects the reader as well.  However, as stated previously, the writer must do this subtly because the reader does not want the writer to convince her to think the way he does, or feel the way he does, but to come to her own conclusions.

Take for instance, one of my favorite novels; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, in which Fitzgerald uses the famous green light as a symbol to represent the American dream (the achievement of happiness through wealth), which Jay Gatsby strives to acquire, yet never does. Further, the green light, combined with Fitzgerald’s beloved character, Daisy, personifies the love Gatsby is never able to attain, for which he ultimately makes the biggest sacrifice. 

Without theme, the story is like a meal with no flavor, or a rainbow without color. Through the character’s behaviors, tied to the symbols and motifs in the story, the writer discloses the main point of the story. 

In the end, a writer writes from what he feels in his heart, or from his own values and beliefs, and it is from digging deep and asking questions of himself, that he is able to convey his message.  Ultimately, this process enables theme to work its magic and it is from that magic that readers draw emotion, a lesson, or change, and that, at the end of the day, is the whole point.    

Tension

     In fiction, the writer introduces his readers to a crisis or a quest of some kind, through or toward which our protagonist will journey.  As tension continues to build throughout the story, often by way of unrealized desire, the character eventually reaches that moment of complete despair in which hopelessness consumes her and she must make a decision,  altering her, her situation or her life.  It is that change (or character arc)  to which the reader relates, through what writers call the universal connection, or from which the reader feels an emotion or learns a lesson.

     Choreographing each of the acts that pull all of this together, like a needle pulling thread, the writer draws in and holds his reader captive.  As in life, with individuals in their daily lives, each decision our characters make and each act in which they initiate or participate, reaps outcomes,  not only for themselves, but for those they love, hate or know.  Our stories are built on an escalation of tension, like the framework holding together the structure of a tall building, one beam at a time.   The story’s tension will ebb and flow, allowing the reader to take a breath in between, while it is the duty of the writer to maintain the reader’s attention all along.

     Tension is built from reactions to actions, or as writers like to say; scenes and sequels. Every action, whether physical or mental, reaps a reaction, and every scene reaps a sequel. To hold the attention of the reader, the writer builds strong and powerful scenes that create enough drama or suspense to keep the reader turning the pages.  In contrast to real life, in which most of us try our best to avoid drama and tension (at least we like to think that), it is the escalation of tension in our fiction that compels the reader to stay up late at night, reading past bed-time, further connecting her universally to the character’s tension- filled struggle.  When the reader witnesses the character react to the action, altering the character in some way, as mentioned earlier, the reader identifies with or feels for her, even if only for the brief time she ensconces herself in the scene.

     Take the protagonist, Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, for instance, in which the main character’s life ends in a tragic outcome as a result of an action, (scene and sequel, action and reaction).   Gatsby refuses to accept the life into which he was born, therefore; he attempts to reinvent himself into someone he is not, but dreams to be. This isolates him from others and ultimately,  destroys him.  His tragic outcome is an indirect result of that facade, and a direct result of his decision to cover up for the love of and inspiration in his life, Daisy when she strikes and kills Myrtle in Gatsby’s car.

     Likewise, in  Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, we observe a different type of reaction to an action, still a scene and sequel sequence, however; in contrast to the poor decision- making in The Great Gatsby, we see Atticus Finch act as a role model for his children, making the right decision to defend Tom Robinson, proving Tom not guilty of assault.  Further, when Atticus is treated badly by Mr. Ewell, instead of reacting in a confrontational manner, which would further aggravate a bad situation, Atticus walks away, teaching his children, and the reader, a lesson about honor and integrity.   

     As in life with people, the actions of our characters in our fiction reap outcomes, sometimes positive outcomes and sometimes negative outcomes, but always through tension.  While we know that some individuals in real life are actually drawn to drama like moths to the light, (rubber necking on the highway, reality t.v., gossip, etc ) , rather than avoid it as most of us would like to believe, it is certain that at least for our readers; they are, without doubt,  drawn to the story through that tension, drama or suspense,  and unlike in real life, that is always a good thing.

Rejections are inevitable.

In writing, and in relationships, rejections are inevitable. When we give someone (a love interest, a family member, a friend, an employer, or a publisher) the power to save us, we also give him or her the power to destroy us. It is our response and the manner in which we handle that destruction that decides our fate, not the rejection itself.

We must not live in fear of rejection, whether it comes within a relationship disappointment and a broken heart, or a manuscript brush off and a disenchantment. James Lee Burke, an American Mystery Writer, said, “ Every rejection is an incremental payment on your dues that in some way will be translated back into your work”.  Paying our dues  is another way of saying “work hard, learn from your mistakes, while keeping in mind that you may not necessarily enjoy the process in the meantime,  in the end the pain will have been worth it”.  Heck, for anyone who exercises, we  know without pain there is no gain (of muscle, not unwanted weight- of course!). 

Rejection, if used properly, is a tool in our writer’s box that helps us become stronger or better at what we do. We must get back on the horse that bucked us if we want to learn how to ride. Likewise, a profound phrase quoted by Ronald Reagan and Winston Churchill reads as follows;  ”There is nothing so good for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse.”   What better way to most fully learn than to be taught through rejection. It is the forsaking that pushes us forward, not the medals, trophies or prizes we obtain the first time we succeed.  If we become complacent with the first award we receive, we lower our ceilings before we have had the chance to discover the taller buildings out there- with higher ceilings to reach.

Walt Disney was told he lacked imagination when he was rejected. (Can you imagine that one?)  Albert Einstein couldn’t process lessons in the “normal/ traditional” manner in which other students would and was subsequently, rejected.  Likewise, Charles Darwin, who published The Origin of Species, dropped out of school at one point, and Dr. Seuss’s first book; To Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street was rejected more than 25 times before it was published. Even Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K Rowling were rejected before getting published.  In fact, many great writers are rejected countless times before they make it, yet they advise new writers;  To allow rejection to discourage us, we seal our own fate and we have no one else to blame but ourselves.

In one of 26 rejections received from all major publishers, Vladimir  Nabokov was told;  “I recommend that your project  be buried under a stone for a thousand years”. Despite that grim advice, Nabokov found a publisher in France who agreed to publish Lolita.  Those publishers who had initially rejected his manuscript eventually published it, selling more than 50 million copies.  Nabokov could have read the advice he received to bury his manuscript, and walked away, giving up on himself and the potential readers who would be deprived of his work, but instead he used those words like fuel to drive him further and harder.  And guess what- it worked!

Rejection is inevitable, so use it to your advantage. Rather than feel broken -hearted or disappointed, allow the rejection to help you get better and stronger at what you do and who you are,  or who you want to become. Whether it is in your writing process, working through a relationship, or playing a sport, rejection in some form will always work its way into your life. It is your response, and how you deal with it that gives it the power to defeat you, or on the other hand, to embolden you, and that power is always only yours to give away- or to put to good use.

Writing to Learn Who We Are and to Make a Difference

The dramatist, novelist, and playwright, George Bernard Shaw, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1925, said; one uses a glass mirror to see his face, but he uses works of art to see his soul. We know that writers write to tell a story, or to entertain, to teach or inspire, but we also write to learn who we are, and in doing so, we learn about one another.

Prompted by the combination of curiosity, imagination, reflection and opinion, we are driven toward our craft like a moth propelled toward the light on a warm, summer night.  What interests, beliefs or passions do I have that interest another?  What frustrations, regrets, or struggles could lurk inside me that might cause me to behave one way and another individual to react differently? If I learn who I am, and who I am not, will I learn about others?  Will others learn about themselves from my work?

Some writers hear a story in the news, or from a friend, colleague or loved one, that affects them so deeply that they would have more luck cutting off their own shadow than to let go of the impression.   Reaching inside to touch the writer’s soul, the story throbs like an open wound that won’t heal.  It inspires her to question herself, her motives, the possibilities, the differences, and those of others.

She wonders what pain could be so bad that a parent would suffer the lives of the children to whom he or she gave life? What could have possibly caused such deep and destructive madness?  Was the line that separated rational from irrational thinking so frail?  Similarly, why did the politician put himself and his own family before the people he pledged to serve and protect?  Does selfishness and greed truly run that deep and if so, where does it come from and could anything truly ever satisfy that need?  Likewise, why did the business owner turn the young man away simply because he was different?  Couldn’t the employer see the integrity, honor, morality and ethics inside the boy as clearly as he could see the blue jacket he wore?  Or did he have no time, energy or compassion to bother looking?  Moreover, why couldn’t the head football coach see what was so obvious, that the high school sophomore merely needed a mentor, someone who cared and believed in him, and would make the boy feel worthy, unlike the way his father had made him feel all these years? 

What is inside me that draws me to this story?

How does a person become who he is?

What lurks inside each one of us that has the potential to cause us to treat one another so carelessly?

What is inside me that could be inside others?

What is in others that could be inside me?

What drives us to think the way we think, or feel the way we feel?  Or act the way we act?

We all have questions, whether we are writers or not, but it is the writer, (or motivated individual), who digs like a locust seeking a nest in the sand, tunneling deeply for solution, who seeks to find the dwelling place within himself, rather than settle for building his house upon the sand. The writer  knows that it is inside the tunnel where he will find meaning and security, to help him fight the external influences surrounding him, rather than seek outside where life’s pressures have the power to suck him into self-destruction, or sweep him away like a broken shell in the rip-tide.

Like the locust on its quest, writers dig for an outcome, a solution, the puzzle piece that fits, an answer, or hope.  YET, unlike the oblivious and shallow, self-serving  locust, (greedy politician, irrational bad parent, or arrogant and dispassionate coach…)  it is deep within ourselves, as writers and human beings, where we should seek the answers that are universal, because what is inside each of us eventually metamorphoses into, or helps to create, what is outside us. For, isn’t it true that whatever compels some one else could surely, in a different circumstance, influence each one of us and, likewise; whatever might drive me could sway another?

William Kenower writes, in the September issue of Writer’s Digest;  You are not your books, your awards, or your rejection letters, or your fan mail, or your website. You are what interests you most, what pulls your attention like a magnet, what wakes you up with a jolt of excitement, the ideas that crave expression. Nothing is more unique to you than what’s going on internally, within the confines of your own mind.

In other words, you are not what you create on, or want from, or receive from, the outside. It is what is inside each one us that matters, and that contributes to, or creates, what is outside us, not the other way around. It is what is inside of us that makes us who we are and it is the desire to learn who we are, to learn what interests or excites us, what we believe, and what we feel and think, that inspires us to write (and to live how we live).

Kenower has a line in this article that I love: he writes that he would like to say he never looks for himself where he is not, meaning he wishes he could admit that those external rewards or forces do not drive him, the way his desire to learn who he is and how he thinks and feels should drive him.  Yet, like each of us, he is human and admittedly, we all look for ourselves at times, in places we shouldn’t.  We look to the external reward; the paycheck, the trophy, the win, someone’s appreciation, praise, respect, admiration or love, for satisfaction, but it is what is within each one of us that truly matters and ultimately, what creates, contributes to, or obtains all of those things on the surface.

It is within us that we find the greatest lesson to share, and the most profound story to weave, because we are all connected in this life and each one of us, (or someone we know or love), at one time or another, has shared , or will share, the same desires, dreams, challenges, failures, pains, insecurities or questions. We all, at one time or another, have a similar tale to tell.

Likewise, Maria Walley tells us that we (writers, ..yet really any artist)  are in the business of selling our vulnerability.  After all,  she writes, we’re taking the innermost parts of ourselves, our ideas, and translating them into words intended to provoke thought, and in some cases (many cases- in my view), emotion. It can be painful to do, but it’s also what makes good writing worth reading.

It is the ability to be human that resonates with the reader and it is the tender spots the writer hits upon that the reader studies most closely, dwelling upon longer, to which she pays more attention, that allows her to see her own reflection on the page.

We can not turn in a direction we do not see, or toward a preference, inclination, or opinion to which we do not understand, therefore; it is those moments of awareness, recognition and familiarity to which our readers relate, rather than to the make and model of a neighbor’s car, the number of trophies an athlete displays on his shelf, or the size of the bank president’s paycheck, that excites or interests the reader most. The allure and appeal of the external reward is merely the backdrop for the internal magnificence of what is truly complex and captivating inside each one of us…. that has the power to inspire the most, and to make the biggest difference. 

Writing to learn who we are is to write about ALL of us. Although truly solving the puzzle of the internal workings of our minds is daunting, it is the process itself that propels us forward in our craft. To pursue what inspires us, should be the journey the writer pursues, not merely the external payoffs we might receive.

Gertrude Stein said; A writer should write with his eyes and the painter paints with his ears,  meaning we seek with our senses, with our questions, and with our hearts.  Consequently, we spin together that which we see inside and around us, that which we hear, and that which we question, and we mix it together, before spilling it outward in its color and brilliance, onto the page, or the canvas, of our work, for all the world to ponder. 

Like an open wound before the surgeons hands are upon it, the writer’s vulnerability and internal workings lie exposed- for the reader who opens herself and her own vulnerability and pain with us, as we , the writer and the reader together- as one,  await its repair, even if that healing comes only in the form of self-recognition, self-inquiry, resonance, hope or acceptance.

Yes, we write to tell a story, to entertain, to teach, or inspire, and maybe even to make a living, but we also write to learn who we are and in doing so, to learn about one another, and likewise, we learn about others to learn about ourselves, and ultimately, we write to make a difference.

Life without books.

Imagine life without books!

As I hiked across the internet, searching for answers to this idea, I stumbled across a blog called “ The Reader Complex”, written by Kubra. In this blog, Kubra writes; “ The reason why authors write, readers read and write reviews is to unwind, to reflect, to be challenged, to be entertained, or to be transported to another time, place or world. All of these reasons, let alone the need to do so, would dissolve.”

Sure, now a days we can turn on the television, open up our lap tops, press our fingers to our tablets or stick ear buds in our ears to hear a great story, learn a lesson, or be entertained, but it isn’t the same as holding a book in our hands, feeling the crisp pages between our fingers, and devouring words like a baby guzzling down milk after he wakes from an especially long nap.

Every morning, before I wake my kids, or even before I gulp down my first cup of coffee, I run with my cell phone in hand, ear buds in both ears. Like most people, I am unable to run and “read” at the same time, therefore; I listen to my Andy Stanley sermon, or Joel Osteen or my news channel, instead. Admittedly, there is a time and a place for that type of non-book, media technology that educates, informs or entertains, but it will never become a substitute for the good, old fashioned book, where we explore the world, or the mind of an individual we admire or fear.

Writers write so that readers can read. Whether we write to an audience who prefers media over books, we must still write. Writers will always have a job. But, the possibility of someday ridding our society of books, of succumbing fully to mass media technology, and in the process signing a death warrant for the beloved book, would be a massive mistake.

In Ray Bradbury’s; Fahrenheit 451, we see a society that has made that mistake. Because of the collaborative dwindling attention span, as individuals fall victim to the easier, quicker task of opening a computer, or turning on a television, and the eagerness to censor or protest anything that does not conform to what the individual feels is adequate, books were outlawed and destroyed. It was believed that books provided too much opportunity to think on one’s own, to form one’s own opinion, rather than submit to what the government or society thinks is best.

Despite that the protagonist in the story begins to wonder if books of the past may have had the potential to contain messages that might actually save society, rather than destroy it, most other characters in the story had become too mindless to understand his questions, let alone agree with his theory.

To further this point, the former English professor in the story spends years regretting that he did not see this coming, that he did not stand up for what he believed when he first saw the signs of destruction heading his way.

When we look around us now, and see the division in our world, and the differences in viewpoints as to how individuals perceive right and wrong, injustice and fairness, discrimination and tolerance, we see this potential concept to ban books in its infancy. If we can change how someone else thinks, the way he or she perceives the world, perhaps we can change society altogether, so that it becomes the way we want it to be. Perhaps we can reshape it into the world we prefer, the one in which we were raised to believe would be perfect, almost utopian. If we could rid ourselves of the viewpoints of others who disagree with us, we may have a chance. So, why not start with the destruction of and banning of books?

But, then I ask, isn’t that how we shaped our thought processes and became the individuals we are today? By reading books, forming our own opinions, becoming the unique and special individuals we are meant to be. It was that way for me- growing up, surrounded by piles of books.

However, I am sorry to say, as I watch this new generation walk around with ear buds plugged into their ears all day- well beyond a simple, thirty minute early morning run, with fingers pressing cell phone keys as they sit across from companions at a dinner table, and x-boxes blaring from bedrooms in which they isolate themselves from their families, I wonder if perhaps the destruction of books has already begun.

As the English Professor Faber in Fahrenheit 451 would say, “why didn’t I say something, or stand up for books, when I could, before it was too late”. Why must we ignore the signs coming our way now, as book stores go out of business, replaced by technology stores and e-books. We know the value of the written word and we know what happens when we take what we value for granted. It eventually disappears like water evaporating in the heat. One minute it is there and the next minute it is gone. Just as we take our children’s childhood for granted when it is here with us; then suddenly it is gone and we wonder where it went.

In the “Reader Complex ‘blog, there is a poem I felt fitting for this topic. I hope the creator of The Reader Complex is okay with me sharing it. (Look up The Reader Complex blog when you can!):

“I opened a book and in I strode.
Now nobody can find me.
I’ve left my chair, my house, my road,
My town and my world behind me.
I’m wearing the cloak, I’ve slipped on the ring,
I’ve swallowed the magic potion.
I’ve fought with a dragon, dined with a king
And dived in a bottomless ocean.
I opened a book and made some friends.
I shared their tears and laughter
And followed their road with its bumps and bends
To the happily ever after.
I finished my book and out I came.
The cloak can no longer hide me.
My chair and my house are just the same,
But I have a book inside me.”
― Julia Donaldson

The point here, is to appreciate the beauty and value of books and what they represent in our lives and to never take them so much for granted that they eventually become extinct. A life without books is a life without expression, creativity, imagination, inspiration, hope, reflection, and education in its rawest and most meaningful form. It is a life I could not imagine.

It’s All Good!

As a big fan of Joel Osteen, the non-denominational Senior Pastor of Lakewood Church in Texas, with his positive messages about maintaining faith- even when “the chips are down”, I compare his mission to the writer’s task; “to share faith through her stories”.  While Osteen’s messages are directed toward the spiritual audiences open to them, the message of the writer is directed toward readers who are open to new possibilities, exciting new adventures, or to a life lesson. 

I have emphasized many times in my past blogs how our mistakes, or our struggles, are often our greatest teachers, just as Joel Osteen tell us difficult times are placed before us to make us stronger, and to prepare us for something bigger and better.  If you keep doing good even while something bad is happening to you, a new door will eventually open through which you are sure to find happiness and peace. 

I recognize that Osteen has his critics who say he is merely a self-help guru or motivational speaker, who does not preach true theological issues, and for some- that description fits.  As for me, I like the idea of self-help, life- coaching, motivational speaking, or anyone else who has a message of positive thinking.  Regardless of “how” preachers preach, or the extent to which they convey bible stories or messages of faith and positive thinking, I believe whole- heartedly that God’s main goal for us is to love one another, forgive one another and help one another, through whatever positive means we have available.  Perhaps, through love,  positive thinking and faith….. 

Whether we have a talent to teach young children, or to coach young athletes, or to preach soul- searching sermons, or to convey positive messages as writers- in order to make the world a better place, – so be it. There is a place for us to congregate to hear the Word of the Lord, within the confinements of our churches- for whatever religion we follow, and there is a place for us to open our minds and our hearts to the same, simple messages Joel Osteen preaches in his sermons…. through story. 

When I say simple I mean; easy to understand, basic suggestions of ways to become better brothers and sisters to one another, -yet far from simple in the meaning.   The idea to have faith, even when the going gets tough, is a large, and important message which we all need to receive, whether we listen to Joel or not, whether we are teachers or students, employers or employees,  parents or children,  church- goers or not,  writers or readers, or anyone else.  Our mistakes and our days of difficulty ARE our greatest teachers, but as students of life, it is up to each of one us to recognize our mistakes and our challenges, and grow stronger from them, rather than to succumb to their weight, and wither and die.

Joel Osteen uses Good Friday and the Resurrection as an example.  When Jesus was crucified on that dark Friday, the disciples, and Mary, and his other followers, would not have considered that Friday to be “good”.  On the contrary, it was the darkest day they experienced in their lifetimes so far.  Not only was their leader and friend and son taken from them, but their faith was in jeopardy as well.  Could they have been wrong?  Were they following the wrong man?  It was not until Sunday’s arrival of the resurrection, that their doubts were eased, their sadness changed to happiness, and their fear turned to courage.  Like a rainbow after the storm, a new door to brighter days will open- only once our courage allows for us to unlatch the door that has locked us in for so long. 

If we, as writers, can keep doing good while we challenge ourselves to balance our family time with working and writing time, judge ourselves less harshly when we are rejected or fail,  push through our periods of self-doubt, reconnecting with our absent muse, we can overcome those  times when something bad is happening.  We can turn our dark Friday into a good Friday as we are resurrected.

As I go through my own personal, family challenges at this time, I continue to believe that everything does happen for  a reason. God places obstacles in our path so that we can become stronger individuals, ….so that we become better equipped later to do something great, perhaps make a difference in someone else’s life without even knowing it.  If somehow, our struggles ultimately help us in some way to become better people, who commit less sins upon others, or help even one other person as a result of our own resurrection, then those bad times are a blessing in disguise.  The trick is not to quit, or give up faith, or to break under pressure, but to keep doing good- even when all we want to do is lay down and cry. 

Writing is not easy.  It is a painful sort of joy, but it is a part of a writer that is as real as an arm or a leg.  The writer can no more not write than she can stop breathing.  The key is to keep faith. Keep hope. Keep doing good even when something bad is happening.  In the end, when the new door opens and what we were waiting for and hoping for appears before us, because we never gave up our faith, or our writing, we will realize those bad things that happened, those mistakes we made, those times when someone else let us down, those times we failed, will have been “ all good” in the end, toward the bigger picture. 

In the end, it’s all good.  The bad times make us better people. 

Taking One Step At A Time

Like running a marathon, the first step in writing, or anything – I suppose,  often seems daunting because we can not see the finish line from where we stand at the starting point. Yet, if we take one step at a time, setting mini- goals along the way, we are able to pull that finish line closer, with each benchmark we reach. 

Anthony Robbins, businessman and author, says, “ The only impossible journey is the one you never begin.”  If we do not at least attempt the crossing, taking it step by step, we prophesy our failure. Whereas, on the contrary, the likelihood of reaching our finish line increases with each step we take.

I recently read the New York Times Bestseller, A Long Walk to Water, written by Linda Sue Park, based on the true story of two individuals struggling to survive in Sudan in different time periods, which supports this idea to take one step at a time toward success.  Both of the individuals in this story endure against challenges most of us could never imagine.  It is their perseverance and determination not to give up that ultimately saves them, despite the obstacles in their paths which they must overcome. 

Set in 1985 during civil unrest, during his quest to survive,  eleven year old protagonist, Salva Mawien Dut Ariik lags behind the group with whom he travels on foot toward a Kenyon refugee camp, and he cries so hard he could hardly breath, when his uncle finds him. Pointing to what Salva’s uncle decides to be a first benchmark,  he asks Salva, “ Do you see that group of bushes?  You need only to walk as far as those bushes. Can you do that?”  Salva admits he could see the bushes, which do not look too far away.  Then, when he and his uncle reach the bushes, his uncle asks Salva if he sees the clump of rocks up ahead and so they walk to the rocks.  “After that, a lone acacia… another clump of rocks…. a spot bare of everything except sand.”  They continue that way for the rest of the walk.  It was a long walk, but the journey becomes less formidable when broken down into smaller pieces.

Similarly, the other main character in the story, living in contemporary 2008, eleven year old Nya, walks eight hours a day to fetch water for her family.  Her journey is also challenging, and like Salva, she struggles to reach her own finish line, day after day.  Both characters ultimately achieve their purposes, by taking their journeys one step at a time, while neither individual in the story gives up, despite the many times they wish they could.

Likewise, Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher, quotes the following , “A Journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”  As long as we take that first step, and then a second step, and a third, and so forth, never giving up, we will eventually arrive at our destination.

In Ann Lamont’s book, “ Bird by Bird”, she recounts how her brother, ten years old at the time, had a report on birds due for school.  Despite that he had three months to do it, he waited until it was due the next day, feeling immobilized by the “hugeness of the task” ahead.  Ann recalls how her father sat down next to her brother, placing his arm around his shoulder, sharing the following advice, “ Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird”.  By breaking down our task into smaller segments, the undertaking shrinks in size.  In fact, it becomes downright achievable, rather than overwhelming!

This idea is further illustrated by Jeff Goins, Writer, Speaker, and Entrepreneur, “ You write a sentence, then a paragraph, then maybe if you’re lucky, an entire chapter. Writing happens in fits and starts, in bits and pieces.  It’s a process.”   Like anything else we do, from following a recipe -one ingredient at a time, to crocheting a blanket- one stitch at a time, to painting a house -one room at a time, we progress, piece by piece, bit by bit, -one step at a time.

Stephen King advises new writers to keep going, without stopping,” If you fail to write consistently, the excitement for your idea may begin to fade. When the work starts to feel like work, that moment can become”, in King’s words, the  smooch of death, therefore; he advises to “just take it one word at a time”.

In other words, keep at it, look at only one fragment at a time, while staying in the present, remaining mindful of the task in front of you at this moment.  Do not fear the future or the possibility of failure, and don’t let the past hinder you.  Just keep going, one foot in front of the other.

We do not stop driving our car at night, toward our destination, because the end point is not within sight.  Our headlights light up the road only so many feet in front of us, but we know eventually we will get there- so we keep going, taking our journey one street, one mile, one town- at a time, seeing more of the road before us the further we proceed.

That is the way we must think when it comes to writing, or again- to anything else we desire to pursue.  We may feel immobilized with fear as we stare at that first blank page before us, dreading the other blank, wordless pages to follow.  Yet, those pages will only remain blank if our thoughts and ideas are never permitted to escape past the gated borders of our minds, to their freedom, and on to the paper where they belong.

Unless we take the first step, the finish line we pursue will forever remain out of our reach.