Here is a little exercise I wrote a few years ago (Sept. 8, 2017), in which “I wrote anything until I found myself writing something.” It ended up in my little flash fiction chapbook, 24 flashes. The story begins as a conversation between me and Ray Bradbury, riffing on his wonderful writing advice, “Jump, and build your wings on the way down,” which, come to think of it, is a lovely way of saying the same thing. Later on, when he interrupts my fairy tale, I confront my mentor with another sweet Bradbury quote, this one collected in Zen and the Art of Writing: “Every morning I jump out of bed and step on a landmine. The landmine is me. After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together.”
He looked out over the horizon and saw vast possibilities. He looked down and saw a vast drop.
“Go ahead,” said the man in the tousled white hair. “Jump, and build your wings on the way down.”
“Can’t,” he whispered.
“Come on, buddy,” said the man, pulling off his horn-rimmed glasses and wiping them carefully. “What did the little elf say – ‘Do or do not. There is no try’? You haven’t even been trying lately, have you?”
“Too much to do,” he muttered. “And who’s listening anyway?”
“Whatcha got to say?” the man challenged. “Not gonna listen to white noise, are they?”
“OK,” he said. “Here goes. Once upon a time –”
“Shut up,” he told the white-haired man. “Once upon a time – oh, now I’ve lost my train of –”
“No, no, you’re right. I’m sorry. Jump.”
So he jumped.
Once upon a time, a man lost his train of thought. But that was a good thing if you think about it, because what is a train but a dumb machine doomed to follow the same track day in and day out? Jump off the rails and explore what’s out there, I say – but that wasn’t his insight yet, so he searched and he searched for a thousand nights to find his train of thought. A thousand nights, that’s what? 365, 730, 1,095 – that’s about two years and nine months, I figure, lost in the wilderness, calling, “Here, train. Here, train.”
Well, one day a cartoon frog looked up as he passed by saying, “Here, train. Here, train,” and cleared his throat with a froggy “ahem.”
“Hi,” the man said in the way people say it when they pass a stranger on the street, uncomfortable but knowing it’s rude not to acknowledge the other’s existence.
“I’ve noticed you walking around, poking here and there and essentially going in circles for a thousand days and nights,” the frog said. “And you still haven’t found what you’re looking for. Have you?”
“You may be right,” he said. “I may be crazy.”
“Did you ever have to make up your mind?” asked the frog. “There’s a lesson to be learned from this.”
“I don’t follow.”
The frog sighed.
“Hold on, hold on,” said the white-haired man, appearing from nowhere. “Where are you going with this?”
“Now you hold on,” he said. “Did you or did you not tell me to jump and build my wings on the way down?”
“I’m building my wings.”
“Is that what this is?”
“Well,” he hesitated but persisted. “And did you or did you not tell me to jump out of bed, step on a land mine that is me, and spend the rest of the day picking up the pieces?”
“Well, sir, this is the pieces of me from stepping on the –”
“Hold on, hold on,” the white-haired man said again. “Did I or did I not say you only fail if you stop writing?”
He blushed. “You did.”
“And, without peeking back at the pages, how many days am I going to find like this one, where we’re at the bottom of the fourth page and still rolling along? Where frogs offer to help you derail the train?”
“Um – erm –”
“That’s the spirit! ‘Do or do not, there is not try,’” the man cried. “And you haven’t even been trying. Maybe I should have advised you to try and then worry about doing later.”
“Isn’t that what I’m doing now?”
“Yes! And I was wrong to interrupt. You’ve been going nowhere, and the frog was taking you somewhere.”
“Where is the frog, anyway?”
“Over here!” waved the frog, patiently.
“Look,” said the white-haired man. “You’ve been so bound up in ‘I need to do something’ and so nothing happens. Maybe let’s put on the training wheels and say, ‘Let me try something’ and see if you don’t end up doing something anyway.”
“I’m not sure I follow,” the man said.
“Good! Great!” the white-haired man said. “I’m not asking you to follow anyway, or anyone, or anything. There is no path off the cliff, just a marvelous flight that could end suddenly if you don’t build your wings on the way down. Jump! Jump!”
“You sound like a crowd down in the street.”
“No I don’t,” he said, “because the crowd doesn’t care if you jump or not, they’re just there for the train wreck of the show. I, on the other hand, care about flying machines and rockets that launch dreamers into space. I’m here to watch what you build while you’re toppling overhead frantically manipulating gossamer and bones and turning them into something that soars, and I’m especially here to see you smile in triumph when you discover the ground isn’t so close and your wings will save you and lift you into another world, another place, another dream.”
The man looked at his arms.
“Huh,” he said. “Where did these wings come from?”
“There you go,” said the white-haired man. “Now. Same time tomorrow?”
“Sure,” he grinned. “And maybe this time you’ll let me finish my conversation with the frog.”