Writing into a Tree: Bicycles, Writing and Getting Unstuck

by Jennifer Paros 

Life is like riding a bicycle - in order to keep your balance, you must keep moving.                                            

                                                          --Albert Einstein

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2010

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2010

When I was a child, my parents tried to teach me to ride a bike.  Although I assume they must have tried more than once, all I remember is the one time I got on and rode into a tree.  After that, I remember feeling that all my efforts to learn were a failure. It seemed like I didn’t have any belief in my ultimate ability and so each attempt ended up serving as evidence of that initial perception.

But our street was filled with kids who rode bikes and it was something I very much wanted.  I wanted to be able to ride a bicycle and yet I saw myself as someone who could not get it.   And so I was in an argument with myself.  An argument characterized by humiliation and distress - an argument that seemed to go on and on.

Sometimes when I write I go through a similar dynamic.  On occasion I write right into a tree.  And although there is no one there to witness it, I can easily find myself feeling inadequate.  I might even mope a bit and talk about how poorly I think I did that day writing - as though it’s indicative of a bigger problem with me.  If, as a child, I had taken that one tree moment, as just that – only one moment- I would have allowed myself to move on and do what I most wanted a whole lot sooner.    But I told myself a story about that experience and what it meant about me, and I told it again and again.  And every time I reached for my goal it seemed farther away and more difficult to obtain.

That story haunted me, consuming my energy and attention. And that was energy and attention that needed to be going in to the fine art of bicycle riding.  Because bicycle riding requires attention. Writing requires full attention too, which means my attention cannot be funneling into some upsetting story about my capability or perceived lack thereof.

Although I am a world of one while I am writing, I sometimes make the mistake of stepping outside of myself and working from the outside-in.   I guess at what other people might think of what I’m doing.  And that is when one moment of hitting a tree can become a moment of feeling stuck indefinitely.  In fact, it might even be the cause of the mishap in the first place.

How much time he saves who does not look to see what his neighbor says or does or thinks.

                                                            —Marcus Aurelius

Back when it was all about bicycles, I resolved this issue by one day borrowing a very small bike from a child across the street.  Because I was so absolutely close to the ground I was able to let go of any feelings of insecurity I had while riding.  And although I was self-conscious of the fact that I was riding a bicycle several sizes too small, I was willing to do it in the hopes that I might one day build up the courage for riding something right for me.   And I did.

In doing this, I gave myself a chance to begin again. What I wanted and the freedom to do it became more important than any vendetta I was holding against myself. I refocused my energy off the tree story and how I compared or might look to others, and I rejoined myself and my goals on the inside.  Now, I was a world of one again and all that mattered was what I wanted to learn and do.  And how much simpler life is when that’s the focus rather than a particular outcome or what other people might think. How much easier it is to keep one’s balance and navigate tricky terrain when we let ourselves take whatever steps necessary towards what we want in the moment - without comparison or judgment.

What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step. It is always the same step, but you have to take it.

                                                —Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle.

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