Don’t run on air

In Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, homicide investigator Landsman has just informed a rabbi’s wife that her son has been murdered. The rabbi is powerful and corrupt man and has driven his son away, into a lifestyle of poverty and heroin abuse. Now the rabbi’s wife asks Landsman if he is married. Landsman is divorced. Then she says:

My marriage is a complete success,” she says without a trace of boastfulness or pride.

Landsman is skeptical. The wife asks if he remembers the old cartoon where a wolf chases another animal off a cliff.

51f8a92b22724c5cb64f303d22761b87“Then you know,” she says, “how that wolf can run in the middle of the air. He knows how to fly, but only so long as he still thinks he’s touching the ground. As soon as he looks down, and sees where he is, and understands what’s going on, then he falls and smashes into the ground. (. . . ) That’s how it is in a successful marriage,” says the rabbi’s wife. “I have spent the last fifty years running in the middle of the air. Not looking down.”

–Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, pages 209-210

A delusion. But a powerful delusion and one that many people share. How many of us claim to have success because we refuse to look down?

The success can be in relationships, in business, in other endeavors. We’re a success only in our own minds.

Ignore the cracks in the foundation, the shaky ground, the lack of solid matter underfoot. It’s easier to pretend, like the rabbi’s wife pretends. It’s easier in the short run to ignore the problems than to look down and face a calamitous fall. 

A church friend was relating why her job situation is stressful. In their small company, only she and another man are full-time employees in the regional branch. The company has grown too rapidly and it is apparent that their current systems and organization cannot handle the growth, both present and future.

At least, it’s apparent to her. The manager is doing a marvelous job of running in the air and not looking down. He won’t stop travelling long enough to reorganize and restructure, and she doesn’t have the authority or the knowledge of the entire system to do it herself. So she’s frustrated, knowing that this cannot work, that collapse is almost inevitable.

I’ve written four novels. In writing novels two and four, I had glaring problems from the start. The less said about Novel #2 the better; I learned a lot about writing prose in the year I spent running in the air, but once I looked down and admitted the truth–this will not work–the book fell apart.

In my current work in progress, there was a particular character who didn’t belong in the story. I knew it or had an inkling of the truth all throughout the writing of the first draft; I continually had to make excuses for the protagonist’s father to be absent during the story’s events, and his off-the-page presence detracted from the tension between the protagonist and antagonist. After all, dear Daddy could always swoop in at the end and save the day, take the power away from big bad grandpa, and the girl protagonist would have done nothing to change her own situation, a deus ex machina. The character had to go.

But I did a terrific job of refusing to acknowledge the problems with having the father as a character. Then one day, I looked down and saw the problems.

It could’ve killed the manuscript, but it didn’t. Why? Because once I acknowledged that there was a problem, I began working (thinking, ruminating, talking to myself) on a solution. (Oddly enough, I found it through an off-hand comment of my pastor’s during a sermon illustration.) Unlike the rabbi’s wife, I looked down.

So there’s the challenge: be willing to look at reality and be willing to do what it takes to work on problems that are within your control. Does anyone have any experiences they’d like to share? I’d love to hear them!

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7 thoughts on “Don’t run on air

  1. Dumping a character that keeps getting in the way – great advice. Otherwise, as you say, we’re just spinning our legs over the abyss.

    P.S. Linked the post on Twitter.

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  2. I know many people who “keep running in the air without looking down”….Personally, I think I was doing that when I finally retired from teaching. I was so busy trying to “do everything for everybody” that I couldn’t “look down”…I had to stay precariously perched on my life’s “balance beam” and keep carefully balancing everything to stay afloat….my body had a “give out” before I could “look down”. Otherwise, I’d still be on that balance beam trying to walk that “tight rope of life”…..Another great piece, Laura…. 🙂

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    1. I’ve had periods of time in my life when I was on that balance beam and my body gave out: nervous breakdown, mono, low iron, etc. Those are the points when I had to take a long hard look at what wasn’t working in my life (um, everything!) and let God use that weakness to break down my pride at my personal accomplishments. Not fun! Valuable, though.

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      1. Yes, not fun, but highly valuable. I usually “grow” the most during those period of times….not fun, but necessary if we want to keep learning and growing…..as usual, I so enjoy your thoughts on “things”… 🙂

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  3. Laura, it’s so interesting how you apply this idea of running along blindly without looking down at the cracks to a character in your story who just isn’t working. I have been working on a ‘tween novel for a while now and I have had some of the same niggling doubts about one of my characters: is he too distracting? should someone else, closer in relationship to the protagonist, be the one to play the role he’s currently playing? I think I’ll have to give that some more serious thought!

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    1. Sometimes that niggling feeling is our writer’s intuition, telling us that something isn’t right, and sometimes it’s our own self-doubt getting in the way of us. You could just play around and see what happens if that character wasn’t in the story or if someone else played that role. (In the latter case, the understudy might trump the cast member!)

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