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December 18, 2019

Walking on Air: Leaning into the Mystery in Writing and In Life

28 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

29 “Come,” he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”  Matthew 14:22-33




Always there is a moment in my flying dreams when I realize it is the belief that really can fly that keeps me aloft.  Sometimes, like a character in Mary Poppins or a helium balloon, I rise to the ceiling, then find myself out over pastures, Superman style, my arms out in front of me, looking down at rooftops, over the peaks of mountains, soaring into the Netherlands, by sheer force of will. At other times, it seems to be almost a mind game.  I am fully conscious (although I am asleep) of what it takes to stay in the air.  There I am, being me and watching me at the same time, hovering in the living room between the fireplace and the bookshelves, holding steady in the delicate balance I seem to embody between the possible and the impossible, conscious effort or thought and the power of faith.


In fact, in moments at which I find myself lost in a pathless wood (Robert Frost) or in the heart of darkness (Joseph Conrad) – in writing or in life – I call upon this image to remind me that I need faith because I cannot see a solution, a way out, or even a reason that I lost my way in the first place.


That image is of leaning into the unknown, just as a bird or a plane leans into the invisible force that keeps it flying – the wind.


Writing requires the suspension of both fear and disbelief.  Is what I’m saying true?  Is it good?  Where am I getting these ideas and how am I producing words?  I’m on a roll.  Can I keep going?


These thoughts will deflate even the loftiest among us (pun intended.)


Suspended, held up by the invisible force of . . .  imagination, spirit, air . . .  that is the place from which, I have found, the best writing comes.


So how do you get there?


I can trace the moment I became a writer/poet to a little exercise my best friend, lifelong editor and fellow writer did sitting on my grandmother’s pullout couchon West 16th street when we were about 20.  Cliff’s childhood friend, Wayne Koestenbaum, who now has become a great thinker and writer in his own right, had told him about “found poetry.” So one day we decided to try it – that was the day we ran into James Taylor buying cilantro in the corner market near my building — pulling books off the shelf to find “random” phrases from which to make a collage-poem out of the pieces we pulled.  I have since lost and don’t remember most of the found poem I constructed that day, but somewhere buried in there was the line – a gossamer thread that keeps the moon from getting lost at its pinnacle.  This simple phrase has become a kind of mantra for me with regards to . . .  well, faith . . .  in life, in love/connection, in the mystery:  There is something keeping me in the air.


The exercise is simple. You simply find random phrases from random books and throw them down on the page like Jackson Pollock throwing paint. Here’s one I constructed right at this moment, the moment I am writing this, to demonstrate.


everything was going

into one big cast

I could see

in the distance the wand

each circle faster

suddenly destitute

of piety he called this

“shadow casting”

the halo of himself was

always there from our angle high

on the bank

the Book was left open


These were all taken from Norman Maclean’s lovely novella A River Runs Through It, which was later made into a movie directed by Robert Redford.  I happened to have Maclean’s book in arm’s reach on the shelf next to my desk.  I could have used any book, it wouldn’t matter. And you could have done this exercise with me, sitting next to me, as Cliff did that day, and you would come up with an entirely different poem, one uniquely your own . . .  You must trust that The Book (of your heart/mind) is always left open.


Writing takes faith and the spirit of play.  The imagination recoils at the slightest hint of danger, fear or expectation.  For the imagination to flourish, you must believe, with every fiber of your being, that indeed, you can fly. “Without the possibility of the mind moving in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention,” in the words of Donald Barthelme.


Here is Cliff’s beautiful articulation of this feeling/experience:


When I’m writing well, I feel like I’m crawling further and further out on a limb, and the limb can’t hold my weight much longer.  This isn’t a light-footed sensation, but I’m kind of laughing while I’m doing it, drunk on my own audacity.  Am I wearing a tutu?  If so, I’m a chimp in a tutu, a circus animal on the loose, and when the limb is just about to break, yes, I swing to the next one.


What is so amazing about trusting the process in this way is that when you read what you’ve written, it will tell you what you’re trying to say, instead of the other way around.


That’s not how most people teach writing.  They tell you to start with an idea, write an outline, even. Sometimes that works like a charm.  I call that a dangerous piece of luck, because mostly, trying to figure out beforehand where you’ll end up is like speaking your sentences in reverse – it’ll gum you up, or bring you down, if you’re already flying.


My motto:  Write first, think later.


When you are writing well or living freely and writing freely and living well, it’s sometimes scary. After all, you are flying, walking on air – your heart keeps beating, your breath is moving in and out . . . how could that be?


Indeed, it seems there really is an invisible thread that keeps the moon from getting lost as its pinnacle.  Otherwise, what else is keeping you alive/aloft?

Gabrielle Glancy ( is an award-winning poet, essayist and novelist whose work has appeared in such publications as The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The American Poetry Review and many other journals and anthologies.  Winner of a New York Foundation for the Arts award in Fiction, an Albee Foundation Fellowship and a Writer’s at Work Prize, Ms. Glancy has also been a finalist for the Walt Whitman Award, Yale Younger Poets and The Colorado Prize.  Gabrielle Glancy is one of the translators of the acclaimed French writer Marguerite Duras. Ms. Glancy’s memoir I’m Already Disturbed Please Come In was chosen as one of the top books you may have missed in 2015 by The Advocate. Curve Magazine said about her novel VERA:  “ . . . a queer gem of a book . . . wonderful, literary, sexy and funny . . . by turns mystifying, hilarious, admirable and hard to put down.”  Ms. Glancy is also Founder & Director of New Vision Learning. She has helped thousands of students – all over the world – locate and get into the colleges of their dreams – the honest way — and has written two books on the subject, The Art of the College Essay and UNSTUCK:  How to Break Through Writer’s Block, Find Your Voice and Get Into the College of Your Dreams.  She has recently been featured on NPR and in USA Today. 

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