I’ve noticed a pattern in the instructions of some of the yoga teachers whose classes I visit regularly. When the time comes to practice yogic splits (Hanumanasa—Monkey pose), they’ll ask the students in the class to close their eyes.
There are lots of good, noble reasons for this, I suppose. The instruction to close the eyes is a cue from the teachers to take the ego out—the pelvis doesn’t have to come all the way down to the floor to be in the pose—and to pay attention to the physical sensations and the way breathing can help ease the way into a challenging pose.
That’s all fine.
But sometimes I think it’s also because our various Hanumanasanas look like crap and a good teacher knows that seeing the teacher’s pose and our own, wonky, tilted, far-from-the-floor nutter poses is nothing if not disheartening. So, close your eyes.
I’ve been thinking a little bit about this feeling from which wise yoga teachers shield their students—that painful gap between what one can do and what one wishes to do.
This summer, I was invited by a literary journal to contribute a personal essay. In my professional writing life, I make academic arguments for my living, not imaginative, lovely personal essays. When I read the email requesting work from me, I was deeply honored but also deeply scared.
The thing is, I love writing and want desperately to be a good writer. But, like most wannabe writers, I am also a reader, and the writers whose work I return to most are not just good, but scary brilliant. When I think about the great essayists, I think of Joan Didion’s unsparing prose, her sense of her era, her home state, and herself captured with unflinching clarity. Or, I think of the wonderful contemporary essayist Eula Bliss, whose Notes from No Man’s Land made me want to run out into the streets and shake strangers by their lapels, so ferocious and heartbreaking an account it gives of race and life in America. I’d never put myself in the company of these writers, but given the opportunity to work in their form, I at least wanted to approximate a shadow of their work.
The ever-generous Ira Glass of This American Life has created a wonderful account of the problem I’ve been experiencing. If you do an Internet search for “Ira Glass taste gap” or “Ira Glass creative gap,” you’ll find videos with the text overlaid by Glass’s reassuringly nerdy voice explaining, “there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste — the thing that got you into the game — your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you, you know what I mean?”
Because most of us are consumers, sometimes rabid ones, of the thing we aspire to make, we are often faced with the painful realization that our work is not that great. I experience this regularly myself and I see it in my students as well.
A couple summers ago, a local Tahoe art studio offered locals free drawing notebooks and a weekly email prompt to inspire we denizens of the Northern Sierra to develop a sketching habit. I was pregnant at the time and casting around for things to do with my increasing immobile, and uncomfortable self. Drawing!, I thought, this could be a fun thing I do over the summer.
It was not. It was neither fun nor was it a thing I did over the summer.
Instead, after trying to fulfill what seemed at the outset a lighthearted and whimsical prompt, I gave up after an embarrassing fit of rage. The instruction was to draw a personal crest adorned with meaningful symbols. I wanted to decorate mine with an image of my dog, a yoga mat, and a typewriter. What I produced was something like a dog emoji, a fruit roll-up, and a square covered in lots of other squares—this last, unrecognizable as the object it was meant to portray.
Too, I recall a student turning in an essay, and proudly telling me that I’d be impressed by a word she had used: “I wrote, by putting the two authors in juxtapose, we can see their similarity.” She was wrong and she was right. She was wrong because she was reaching for the word juxtaposition, not the verb form she had used. But she was right to guess I’d be impressed with her—as someone who knows the terror of stretching for a new skill, I appreciated the effort, even if the result was a misfire.
The thing is, this particular student would never get to juxtaposition without falling into the valley of error that was juxtapose. For me, I’m ashamed to say that I gave up on drawing. But I wrote that invited essay. It was a stretch, and it didn’t glimmer or fully express all the contradictions of middle-class American life that I meant it to convey, but it’s me on the path working towards something just out of reach and which I’m willing to go through some ugly stretches, some bad work to achieve.
Get a Life, PhD
The Professor is In
The Thesis Whisperer
Tenure, She Wrote