I don’t know whether you live with, or are yourself a football fan, but earlier this week, a lot of the media talked about Michael Vick’s concussion. There’s been increased awareness and studies made public about the brain damage football players suffer throughout their lives, from the “micro-concussions” they experience with every collision through to being knocked completely unconsciousness, and coaches and athletes are starting to take notice.
Michael Vick is a conversation starter in my family, in part because we live in Blacksburg, where he attended Virginia Tech before turning pro. Before the dog-fighting and subsequent jail term. We marveled at his prowess on the field, and make no mistake: though I didn’t know a first down from a touchdown when I met my husband, I’ve become minimally knowledgeable about the sport in the decades since. I’ve spent my share of conversational fuel on the debate about the sport’s brutality, the kinesthetic intelligence, the racism, the scandals, etcetera. And I feel comfortable admitting that when a player catches a hail Mary pass and runs it to the end zone, or a running back jukes out the defense and sprints away, it’s as lovely to behold as a masterful novelist’s opening paragraphs.
Nonetheless, when we had a son, I declared, “he will never play football.” Most of the “nevers” I’ve declared as a parent I’ve had to eat at some point. “I’ll never drive a minivan.” Took me six months with two kids to choke those down. “I’ll never let him eat dessert first.” Well, the dessert was carrot cake but the principle was definitely violated.
However, with football, I’ve held firm. Despite my oldest son’s passionate love of the game. Despite his friends’ participation. Despite his promise he would “only be a kicker, mom, and there’s a penalty if they get tackled.”
I wavered briefly once, when the Town’s rec league offered a summer sandlot camp. But during the week I wavered, I watched my kid’s soccer game with a friend, who’d played football in college. After we’d all winced on the sidelines at a particularly painful collision between our eight-year olds, he commented, “soccer is a contact sport. Football is an assault sport.” My gut instinct confirmed with his assessment, the wavering steadied and hasn’t returned. That’s one permission slip I’ll never sign.
The connection to art-making, the practice of writing?
Well, holding fast to depriving my sons of football has entailed a LOT of conversation about why they can’t play, which for me, when they were younger, was simple: I think it’s bad for your body, especially your head. You get hit too hard. This wasn’t a lie or even stretching the truth: I don’t think our skulls are designed to protect our brains from repeated, hard, sudden impacts.
And now the evidence is bearing out this mama bear’s gut instinct. Helmets are being redesigned, the NFL has been shamed into participating in studies to track brain damage on its players. Vick says he feels fine but a neurologist will ultimately decide whether and when he plays again.
Ever have a “mama bear” reaction to an idea but you didn’t follow up on it and a year later you saw the picture you imagined hanging in a gallery? A book review describing “your” plot? A poem glowing with “you” imagery?
Yeah, me too.
I’d like to blame circumstance (see above re: conversations with children about why they can’t play football. Multiply by 24/7, on a range of topics and time for creative effort has vanished like a will-o-the-wisp!). I’d like to say I’m just not as “good” a writer as those who did publish.
But that’s a cop-out. The number of “genius” level writers alive at any one time on the planet can probably be counted on one’s fingers and toes. The number of those actually writing can be counted on fingers only.
Truth is, I was afraid. Afraid my ideas were stupid. That I couldn’t do it.
Release from fear is one of the presents Time brings in its gift-jammed goodie bag. Although I’m beginning to experience very real physical limitations — my eyes are going, my short-term memory isn’t so much memory as an exercise in frustration (and the poem “Forgetfulness” by Billy Collins describes this PERFECTLY), I need more sleep than I used to, my muscle mass is waning and my neck hurts if I spend too much time at the computer — I have figured out that fear isn’t the reason to ignore my gut.
The visual artist Gary Stephan put it beautifully during a presentation at Vermont Studio Center in March 2011. If an image or an idea captures you, play with it. Paint it. Write it down. In other words, don’t “think” yourself out of the idea that it is or could be, Art. Yes, with a capital “A.”
And then the kicker: “If it doesn’t work, hide it.”
Duh! I can just squirrel away that horrific haiku under my old address book. Or burn it entirely. No one need ever know I thought road kill rhymed effectively with bode ill. Even if I were a famous writer, my missteps would be entirely my own. Unlike pop singers and football stars, writers and most other artists have the privilege of trying out new stuff, and failing, privately.
While I relish the cloak of relatively invisibility my creative work allows me, I’m also grateful for the very public triumphs, mistakes, restitution and subsequent acceptance onto the Philadelphia Eagles that Vick’s journey teaches. It illustrates what my Unitarian Universalist (interim) minister Alex Richardson calls “praxis,” a variation on my idea of practicing creativity:
Humans make promises to each other.
We break those promises.
And then we renew the promise and try again.
It’s not a painful stretch to:
Artists make promises to themselves … to sit down and do the work of creation.
They fail, opting instead to eat, train for 5Ks, read, blog (!), raise children, cook elaborate five-course French dinners, do the crossword in under 5 minutes – anything rather than stare down another blank page.
They swallow literal or metaphorical aspirins and show up at the desk again and sharpen their pencils and put the words down again.
A decade later we may or may not have published those words. But we’ve got ‘em. It’s up to us to decide whether and how to market our words in the slippery-fast current of today’s world of publishing.
Sit down. Write. Erase it. Forgive yourself. Start again.