In the early stages of my journey into writing, I signed up for an online class on writing memoir. The class was filled with writers all along the spectrum of mastery, from novice to English professor with a PhD. To say that I fell into the novice camp is an epic understatement. At the request of our mentor, we dove into critiquing each other’s work immediately. And I, with little background on the other students and their skill set, offered the English Professor my best advice, which fell somewhere along the lines of a grammar lesson and a suggestion that he use less “passive voice”. I’m fairly certain I had to google the term prior to using it.
He graciously ignored everything I wrote in the margins, and continued to develop his piece to his own liking. After a few weeks of reading other student’s comments, I realized I had focused on the minutiae of each piece, while ignoring the big ideas exploding with the whizz and bang of a firecracker in my face. I began to catch on, and in my last comment to the Professor, I told him I appreciated the structure of his piece. It presented itself like a series of concentric circles. He responded by uploading a photograph of his notes for the essay–written in the shape of a spiral.
Over the last month, I’ve read a lot about teaching theory which is to say I’ve been flummoxed by books with names like “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” You won’t find that title on your latest beach read list. It’s been a heavy slog through lots of theories I can’t explain, but one specific thought has stuck with me. When editing papers, all the books recommend that a professor focuses on the main ideas of the piece and on the student’s process for arriving there. Leave the grammar and word choice for finish work, and instead help the student keep the main thing, the main thing.
In other words, stop looking at their work as if it’s a straight line to The End. We don’t work in straight lines. We work from the inside out, making our way from the center, round and round, until our thoughts and ideas circle their way into something bigger. I’ve thought about this a lot, not so much as a professor with a student, but as a human who gets so caught up with wanting to fix the minute details on the outer rings, that I forget to begin in the center.
In yoga, we always begin class with a centering exercise, where we center on the moment, and push everything else to the outer rings. We eventually make our way to feel around the circle’s edges, but first, we center. We are fully present in that moment. I rarely take this practice off my yoga mat, but I see how easy it is to drift from my core, my soul center. I’ve come to realize that I need a few daily practices to help me keep the main thing the main thing. To help me focus on what I really want to say with my life, as I move from the inner to the outer rings.
Life is a series of concentric circles. The calendar year, the seasons, the raising of children, learning, laughter, personal growth and especially love. Everything starts at the epicenter and works it’s way out, growing larger and fuller and more complex as it grows. We have the ability to return to the main thing, to edit our way back to our core when the circles grow too far and too unwieldy to manage. This is true in writing. This is true in life.
In my next post, I’ll talk about a few practical ways I return to center when life feels as if it’s spiraling out of control. In the meantime, I’d love to know if you see things in a linear fashion or in a series of circles? How do you keep the main thing the main thing?