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October 9, 2019

The Gift of Stuckness

To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wildflower

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour.

–William Blake


The world is holographic. At least, I have always seen it that way.  Go deeply into anything and you will find everything.


This is what I’ve learned along the way in my travels, and what I pass on to my students every day, in one form or another.


Recently, I was giving a talk to an auditorium full of eager high school seniors.  The topic:  How to write a winning college essay – the honest, and worry-free way.


In the high stakes game of getting into college, it’s easy to get lost in the desire to succeed and the fear of failing. Witness the recent College Admissions Scandal.


That’s a case of parents being so afraid their kids can’t get in on their own steam, they schemed and scammed to get their kids into top-tier schools.


Think of the message they are giving their children! Not to mention, they broke the law.


What happens when you want to do it the honest way, but really, you don’t know how?


That’s why I have a job!


So . . . on the white board that was standing next to me in the auditorium where I was giving my talk, someone from a previous class or lecture, had written three words: Grass.  Bunny.  Hamster.


As an exercise, I spontaneously decided to ask everyone in the room to write whatever came to mind on the word “hamster.”


They laughed and squirmed.


Writing is hard!  Even when you take the deadline out and the pressure off.  Even when it’s a game.


“Write whatever you want, whatever comes to mind when you see the word hamster,” I said. “Stream-of-consciousness.  Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation or spelling. Don’t even worry about the order of ideas.  Just write write write. Only requirement:  Full sentences.”


These are the directions I give my students when I ask them to free write on a topic or idea they have come up with.


Everyone’s free write was different, of course.  But what was really amazing – many of these hamster riffs contained the seeds of a future college essay!


“Jeffrey, my hamster, once got caught in his treadmill.  We heard this weird screeching sound and looked into his cage.  Somehow, his neck went through the wires and he was stuck. . .”


“When I was in the fourth grade, my hamster, my goldfish and my turtle all died.  That was the first time I saw death firsthand.”


“My mom never let us get a hamster.  We got a ham radio instead. My dad and I used to listen to weather reports.  It was very staticky, but it helped us prepare for an approaching storm . . .”


I have highlighted here the parts of the free writes that were resonant, and that could conceivably turn, or be expanded, into a college essay.


What’s the point of this story?


You can never really escape your own story. It’s there, in you, waiting to be uncovered. And it will emerge, or you can get at it, a million different ways.  An infinite number of ways, actually.


It doesn’t matter where you start.  Somewhere in there will be a piece of the whole picture.


So you might as well . . . start where you are.


You may recognize these last four words as the title of a book by Pema Chodron.


She was really onto something here. 😉


In writing my recent book UNSTUCK:  How to Break Through Writer’s Block, Find Your Voice and Get into the College of Your Dreams, I started with a story about my failed tennis career which led me to The Inner Game of Tennis. I had no idea at the time, that the book would really be about “the inner game of writing.” I only discovered this in the writing of it.


If I have any overarching or underlying philosophy when it comes to writing, it is that you (often) must get lost in order to get found.


But fostering the confidence to put on the blindfold, and the awareness and patience to expect it may take several failed attempts to pin the tail on the donkey, is an art.


How do I get students to take these risks with me?


The answer is the spirit of play.


You have to believe there are no mistakes.  You have to trust your nose will lead you where you need to go, even if you sometimes bump your head.  You have to let your hair down and let ‘er rip.


I had a writer’s block. I should know.


And I have found myself “lost in the dark wood” of my life, as Dante describes, more times than I can count.


What have I learned? The obstacle isthe path. And the impasse itself can be your teacher and your friend (as long as you don’t perseverate over it!)


In the words of my student Mira, now at Barnard:


I hope when I am stuck, as I inevitably will be, I will be graced with the insight that there is something greater than myself – beyond my ability to comprehend.  And that even a seemingly unreadable text can lead to what some may call god, not only in spite of its difficulty, but because of it.


Start with a hamster if you like.  Let yourself get lost.  Appreciate the gift of stuckness.  Take risks. Don’t be afraid to be free.


In all these grains of sand, you will find the world.

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