The archer and the tree.Posted: December 20, 2011
I have a dear friend who’s a songwriter. Or, in theory, he is—he used to write songs, but doesn’t so much anymore; it’s more of a skill he puts to use for special occasions like birthdays and campfires. But he wants to start it again as a regular practice. The problem, he explained to me, is that he gets stuck on the very first step: conception.
I imagine we’ve all felt that: the moment of seduction, when an image comes to mind or a phrase emerges from a dream and we feel a deep seed of excitement, like sand in the oyster, when we’ve caught something worth growing. It’s like being in love.
But that’s both a good thing and a bad thing, and for the same reason: it’s one of the headiest, most delightful, and addictive parts of the creative process. My red Moleskine is filled with evidence of such spurts: “A drink made of seven kinds of blood!” “A door at the bottom of a pool!” “Beetlebung Corner is the center of the universe!” Many of these have gone on to become plays, stories, songs, or other mad little projects. But for each one, I had to overcome an enormous initial resistance: I wanted to stay and bask in the excitement of the initial idea, the initial flush of love, and never grow it and see it through into something that could…well, turn bad.
Which brings me back to my friend. When describing his problem, he said, “I feel like whatever I create will never be as good as the original vision. So I don’t even want to try.” And I absolutely understand that fear.
But here’s what I’ve learned just by doing it over and over: Nothing I’ve created has ever matched my original vision. And it never will. But it’s not supposed to—and we have to try anyway. One night, when I couldn’t fall asleep, I made up a story to try to explain it to myself. (And since I like fantasy, it has the aspect of a fairytale, so I beg you to indulge me…)
Once upon a time, a young archer wished to prove herself to the queen. The queen told her that, beyond the city walls, deep in the forest, there was a great tree made of solid gold. The archer had to find this tree and hit its trunk three times in a row, at which point three golden fruits would fall, which she could collect and bring back to the queen as evidence of her prowess. If she did not hit the trunk three times in a row, no fruits would fall. The queen also warned that nothing was what it seemed in the forest, and that faith, fortitude and caution were necessary.
So the archer set out into the forest, and found the tree the queen had spoken of. It was extraordinary—like the queen had described, solid gold from root to leaf-tip. The archer was astonished by its beauty, and also surprised; the tree trunk was very wide, and even an archer of modest skill would be able to hit it. But she remembered the queen’s warning and tried to remain humble. She set her feet, drew an arrow from her quiver, pulled back her bow, and released.
At that moment, a strong wind blew. The archer was dismayed to see the arrow, so perfectly placed, veer off course and land somewhere in the underbrush beyond. Where it landed, she saw a little rabbit leap up, her thick arrow sticking out of its side. The poor thing bounded away into the forest, with likely not long to live.
The archer was determined to try again, knowing the wind was just a bit of bad luck. But she also edged a little bit closer to the tree to increase her chances. Again she set her feet, drew her arrow, and released.
This time the ground lurched beneath her feet. She found herself standing on a sudden incline, just enough so that her arrow flew up into the air instead of straight ahead. She watched as the arrow arced up into the branches and then down again into the underbrush. Again, an animal—this time a fox—bounded up out of the thicket with her arrow stuck in its side, and ran away.
The archer was angry, now. She hadn’t meant to kill any animals; she just wanted to hit the tree trunk and collect the golden fruits and bring them back to the queen. So this time she went right up to the trunk so there would be absolutely no chance of missing it.
For the third time, and at point-blank range, she set her feet, drew her arrow and released. To her astonishment, the arrow passed directly through the trunk as if it were made of air—and then pierced the side of a doe just on the other side of the tree. The doe gave a harsh cry and bounded away into the forest.
The archer was sad. She couldn’t discern the tree’s magic, and admitted defeat. So she walked back out of the forest and began the journey back. When she was led to the doors of the queen’s chamber, she could only look at the floor, having returned empty-handed, and stammer that she had failed in bringing back the golden fruits.
But the queen bid the archer to look up. When she did, she saw the rabbit, the fox and the doe all resting comfortably by the hearth. The archer was amazed.
“How did the animals had come here to you?”
“These are the fruits of the tree,” answered the queen.
“But how can this be, since they’re not made of gold?”
“They were,” replied the queen, “until you hit them with your arrow.”
In other words, when we translate the ideas in our minds onto paper, we find that what results never fills the potential of the idea we originally had. Instead, it fulfills another potential entirely that we hadn’t been aware of. The target is set for us, and we’ll never hit it; but we must always take aim, regardless.
I’ll tell this story to my songwriter friend. And I remind myself of it whenever I find myself hesitating on a new script. Right now I’m staring at a note scribbled in my red Moleskine on May 19, 2011: Black planet spinning, sending off sparks. It excites me, though I have no idea what it means. But I also know that no one can translate it but me. I have to take a deep breath, have faith, and take aim.