Blowing Out To Brightness

hummingbird-matthew-b-pA hummingbird was sending its long, delicate beak into the garage window today, trapped inside and trying to escape, able to see the wide world before it but not able, despite its whirring drive, to reach it. My attempts to coax it toward the open garage door panicked the little thing, and drove it harder against the glass, the glass ramming up to meet it with astonishing bluntness.

A hummingbird can wear itself out in short order this way, grow dehydrated, and die. So I let it rest.

But in that pause it struck me how, so focused on the world beyond the glass, the bird hadn’t noticed that freedom was only a stone’s throw away.

Silly bird, right? Yet how often as writers do we remain tapping the glass when what we hope to reach lies just outside the door? How often do we write with our nose pressing the pane, begging entry into a place we sometimes fail to enter? What larger perspective might we take, how many steps back or up or sideways, before we really experience insight?

Perhaps the answer lies in training ourselves to see more deeply, and to think more deeply, too.

“If you love something, the work will be just fine,” graphic artist Inge Druckrey says. “Go beyond what it is and try to understand what it’s doing. How it reflects and represents the subject.”

It seems to me Druckrey is talking about stepping back to view the larger implications of what we create. For it’s in considering new angles that we learn to go beyond what is to understand what it’s doing. Maybe this is achieved by considering how our own needs, motives and desires are shaped—and shaped by—our vision. Asking more of the work than what we originally had planned, and more of ourselves in the bargain. Who are we? What do we bring to the page? Why do we carry it so?

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There is another perspective too, of course. The one created by stepping forward, when we truly enter the world beyond the glass.

“When I wrote my first children’s book at the age of twenty-five,” says author Susan Cooper, “I hadn’t even met a child for years—perhaps not since I stopped being one myself.” It wasn’t that Cooper particularly liked children, it’s just that her creative vision had retained “that quality peculiar to children’s writers… a strange intuitive immediacy that the creative imagination shares with the alert, unjaded mind of a reading child.”

And that, I think, is the world beyond the glass. The one we share with the “unjaded mind of a reading child.” If we meet the reader here, as Cooper promises, “he will fall in love,” and give your book “surrender, acceptance, a warm generous responsiveness—and an unselfconscious sense of wonder.”

To cultivate this sense of wonder, you might adopt what data visualization expert Edward Tufte calls “deep seeing.” For example, Tufte advocates taking a walk and giving yourself over to the power of sight. Really experiencing sight in a new way. “After ten minutes of just seeing,” he says about his own such walk, “it was like the light became perfect. And in this perfect light, you could protect the eye against blowing out to brightness. The details in the shadows were perfect, too.”

But all this takes work, of course. It’s likely that just when you feel your work is done it’s only just beginning. Deep seeing, deep thinking, take effort. It’s not easy to judge when your eye has blown out to brightness or where the door to freedom stands.

For the hummingbird, it just took that moment’s pause. Soon I was able to retrieve a small net and hold it out, the exhausted bird climbed aboard.

I slipped the net though the door. The bird left the net. I watched as it dipped and faltered, then caught the beat of its tiny wings and sailed up. Freed, the hummingbird had the envious perspective now. Its heart was in my hand, and it carried my heart aloft.