How Not to Lose Sight of the Big Picture
Too many times, I don’t take my own advice. I’ll give you a recent example.
I was fishing. Or I should say I was walking, strolling the shoreline and casting an artificial lure into the bay without much thought on tide and water temperature or anything tangible that might increase my chance of enticing a sea creature to take a bite. It seemed, like me, that the fish were practicing social distancing, staying well clear of my hook and enjoying their environs.
It was indeed a swell late-spring afternoon, sunny and just warm enough that I felt comfortable in jeans and a sweatshirt. It was so nice out that I felt hopeful despite the world’s troubles.
Being a man of the times, I decided to take some photos and post them on Facebook . I aimed my cell’s camera and began snapping shots I found inspiring, such as glistening rocks speckled with green and brown seaweed, sand-smoothed driftwood the color of spent charcoal, and a sweet older couple foraging for periwinkles.
With the post in mind, I took a “selfie” to culminate the collage. But when I checked the photo, I hated the angle, which made too prominent my double chin. So I took another.
But this one highlighted a forehead creased with deep wrinkles. I tried again, only to see a fleshy nose with a slight bend at the base. And again, but this time I was dismayed by crow’s feet crowding my eyes. I kept snapping, over and over, until, finally, I pulled a baseball cap low, put on a pair of sunglasses, slipped on my quarantine mask, and clicked.
The photo made me look like the Invisible Man from the movies. But I had achieved the goal of hiding my facial imperfections. It was only later, after sharing it and the other photos to my FB page, that I remembered something I have taught in my writing classes for years.
The analogy is about painting a room. I tell students how every time I have done so over the years, I start with eagerness and optimism. But not long into the job I am fretting and fuming and fatigued, dismayed by inconsistency in the brush strokes, splatters on the floor, a crooked line along the molding. By the end, I am certain the room looks horrid, that everyone will see my futility, and I make a vow never to paint again.
But almost always, once someone comes into the room, they will say something like: “Cool color” or “Nice color” or “What’s that color?” And that is the takeaway. As writers, we understandably become close to our work, sometimes too close, and as such the natural tendency is to focus on and find flaws in the work. Readers, however, are not as intent in finding fault in the minutiae as they are in finding significance in the collective. They see the “color” — how the writing makes them feel.
This was the same with the selfie. I cared so much more about my face than anyone on Facebook ever would. But I had been hijacked by insecurity, by vanity, and had lost sight of the only thing that mattered: that I was happy right before I took the picture.
I had lost that happiness in the quest to look good. I did not trust that the only thing that mattered to other people was the big picture. And not the little one staring at me on my phone.