Hurtling the Hurdles of Smallness
Shrinking our words expands our impact.
About my sophomore year in high school, I made a confession to a friend who asked how tall I was. It might have been obvious to all who came into my presence—or not. The confession was also one that ran deep into my psyche.
Here it is: At that time of his questioning, I measured only four feet, ¾ of inch tall. I had not yet attained a height of five feet.
This friend, also shorter in stature, promised when I reached that magical number, as if I were the beanstalk in the fairytale about Jack, a party would ensue. By then, I had already attained some level of success as a hurdler for my high school track team. And prior, had endured and surpassed the doubts of my seventh-grade track coach after I proudly announced—to my mother’s horror and that of my knees—I wanted to run hurdles.
Though short, I was fierce.
I’m surprised most people haven’t figured out not to tell a short or, more correctly, a small person they can’t do something. The challenge did create a need in me to compete on the same level as my friends whose spindly legs were somewhat akin to giraffes at that age. I needed height and length. If by the good (and height-limited) genes I was granted, that was not available to me, I needed an inner moxie built up over time. A fierceness that hasn’t left me since.
My track career ended my junior year, my four-step, right leg lead, then left leg lead hurdler stride was outpaced by the three-step stride of my peers.
Was the party thrown? I don’t recall. At a recent doctor’s appointment, the nurse measured my height below five feet. I insisted they measure again. The best lesson in growing up and showing up is standing with a spine straight up, or at least so the top of your head reaches the five-foot mark in the doctor’s office. When I renewed my license this month, I didn’t think twice when asked if my height was still the same. If it wasn’t, I didn’t want to know.
What does being short—or small—have to do with writing? Everything,
Within a group of writers last week, someone mentioned Robert Creeley’s poetry and his desire to write small, in a quote I would later find:
― Robert Creeley, The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley, 1945-1975
Heads around the circle nodded. Each in our way, we were all quietly accomplished writers, my friend Ron, liked to quote. The moniker stuck with me.
To write small, to be quietly accomplished, is no small feat for any of us. Instead, it’s the only one.
For a long time, writers set out simply trying to find their voice (I might still be trying), and to locate an outlet for our words (Substack made that easier, as has content creation, and a publishing industry where everyone wants to publish a book to generate speaking fees).
When writers finally reach a certain level, we wonder what’s next?
What’s next is what’s been there from the start. The need to be small. What is most personal is most universal, said psychologist Carl R. Rogers. If we are always speaking or writing in platitudes about the big, big world around us, we’re missing the mark with our readers in connecting that largesse to our tiny world.
This morning, I combed through my archives (not on the presidential level) and found a poem I wrote in 2005. About cutting grapefruit. In Ohio. In the 1970s. Grapefruit is now ubiquitous. Then, it was a luxury, as was a father standing in the kitchen early morning slicing sections, his hands sticky, before they would later develop calluses from the adding machine punch or pinch too tight the shoe laces for a nurse in need orthopedic shoes.
I never published that poem, but in it, I feel the smallness of the world. Of writing within the confines of memory and sense and place.
Because we already work in the bits and bytes of emotions, of feelings, of semantics, writers create their own operating system. In college, I took a course in assembly language, a lower-level programming language of number, symbols, and abbreviations that were then translated to the machine language of 0’s and 1’s telling it what to do. While I would never call anyone’s writing low-level, this is what defines a writer. Giving little instructions on how to interact in the gigantic machine we live in.
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” — Leonardo da Vinci
Inside our offices and writing rooms, our she sheds and man huts, we condense time and space into a container filled with the dynamite of our words. In the middle of life, as our container shrinks, our work explodes. We often marvel at those who are still writing at age 80, still achieving. They’re able to, or need to, or want to, go small. Not in terms of their accomplishments, which might be gargantuan in size, but in recognizing the only way forward is in thinking small:
Four-step strides instead of three.
Bits and bytes.
Quiet but infinite.
I’ve learned to think small, to write small, even minutely, to inhabit this body of mine—and thus the world.
When you’re feeling small, here’s a few places to contain your words…
Rewrite, Revise, Repeat - Tina Neyer and I continue our three-part revision workshop at Roebling Books Newport, on February 25th. If you’d still like to join, contact me.
Caregiving Talk - You can listen to my colleague, Pauletta Hansel and I, discuss how our FREE, virtual caregiver writing experiences came into existence. Or join us with the Giving Voice Foundation. First up, February 16th from 1-3 p.m. Register here.
In conjunction with the Contemporary Arts Center, I’ll be leading a writing workshop as part of their Creative Writing Project and their upcoming exhibit - Ecologies of Elsewhere. Details at contemporaryartscenter.org to learn more.
How about some recommendations, those I’ve passed to my friend, Christie G., the most voracious reader I know?
Aesthetica by Allie Rowbottom- a bold, and unsettling look at the perils of social media and the filters we use to capture our life.
The Magnolia Palace by Fiona Davis - a fun twist on the history of the Frick Mansion in New York City.
The Forbidden Notebook by Alba de Cespedes, a feminist Cuba-Italian writer in the 1950s. Originally published as the Proibo Quarderno, this intimate look of a woman from the inside is worth the time of any writer contemplating the purpose of their journals.
Unlikely Animals by Annie Hartnett - a near speculative fiction, combined with historical fiction, combined with…whatever, do we really need all these genres? Read it. It’s a delight.
Finally, speaking of someone named Annie, a friend and I recently exchanged email regarding our names and namesakes. For some reason, several Annes, Annies, and Annettes, all whose root words mean grace, have entered my life. In my email, I called them a constellation of grace, and decided that phrase is now the official word for a “group of Annes.” May you enjoy your own starry circle of grace.
Yessss. Quietly accomplished! This phrase captures the genuine artist. Thank you for sharing--this essay reminds me of our coffee shop conversation not long ago, my friend.
“ quietly accomplished writers”
I love the surprising places this essay took us.