I Believed I Could Fly, and Other Deeply Held Writerly Convictions

April 4, 2022 § 5 Comments

By Mary Hannah Terzino

The summer before I turned four, I truly believed I could fly if only I tried hard enough. It was my greatest – and most secret– desire. My launching pad was the steps near my bedroom door that led downstairs. I would stand on the top step with my arms out, quivering, waiting for a sign that I could release my feet to float and fly down the stairs. I scrunched my eyes together to better concentrate, made my arms and legs rigid, lifted up on my toes, felt the longing in every muscle, but never experienced the woosh of lightness I’d need to fly. I knew I would fall unless I could summon that special woosh. Any time I could stand on the top step without a brother or mother or father nearby, I’d give it a shot. I believed fervently that I could fly, and equally fervently, that I hadn’t yet flown because I just wasn’t trying hard enough.

That memory of fervent conviction returned to me recently when our writing group mentor challenged my writing sisters and me to freewrite things we deeply believe, urging us to begin broadly, then narrow the list to the essentials. Once we’d captured them, a further question arose: How are these beliefs reflected in our writing, even if (especially if) we’ve never spelled them out in our work? What consistent beliefs seem to thread through what we’ve created over the years?

At first, I thought this a foolish exercise. It felt wildly attenuated from revisions I’m straining to complete on a difficult piece I’m determined not to turn into a memoir. But as I turned dutifully to the exercise, the old choral chestnut “I Believe” an ear-worm in my brain (“I believe for every drop of rain that falls/A flower grows….”), interesting things happened on the page.

I summoned thirteen beliefs, eliminating or combining them down to five. Once I winnowed to this number, I began to see common belief threads in the prose I’ve been writing over the past six years. I began to see them, too, in my current revision, making it a subsurface memoir no matter what other rewriting I do: For every drop of rain that falls, a memoir grows. And I encourage other writers to take twenty minutes or half an hour to scribble about beliefs. Here are mine, to encourage your rumination. No doubt yours are entirely different, and that’s a wonderful thing, and a key reason why people and their writing are endlessly variable.

  1. I deeply believe that trying isn’t enough. The alchemy of chance, which one could also call magic, is nearly always involved in accomplishment. Nevertheless, trying has other benefits: creating purpose, building character, teaching patience, encouraging discipline, enhancing storytelling. Trying has defined my life.
  2. I deeply believe that people are formed by their losses, and that the most interesting people are those who understand their losses and are trying to resurrect themselves from loss – even when trying isn’t enough.
  3. I deeply believe that happiness is usually fleeting; that insight is a longer-lasting, more rewarding experience; that aspiring to live an interesting life is, in the end, more achievable and worthwhile than aspiring to live a happy one.
  4. I deeply believe in the importance of seeing both the Big Picture and the little details. Sometimes the Big Picture is God, and we are the little details, but this belief applies in all kinds of contexts.
  5. I deeply believe in the remarkable power of humor, the fizz of humor in the middle of quiet darkness, the jig of humor in the midst of a dirge, the way humor substitutes for flying down the stairs when the chuckle lines up just right.

___

Mary Hannah Terzino writes overlooking the Kalamazoo River in Saugatuck, Michigan. Her prose has been published in The Forge Literary Magazine, MacQueen’s Quinterly, Lumiere Review, and Blue River Review, among other places. She was a 2018 finalist for a fellowship for emerging writers over 50 from The Forge, and was awarded first prize in 2021 for her flash fiction story “Blank Slate” from the UK’s Fiction Factory. She is presently working on a collection of short prose.

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