Help on One Foot

A man who wasn’t born with this language asked me if I could help him with his reading and writing. I immediately stood on one foot.

According to the Talmud, Rabbi Hillel was once asked if he could explain all of Judaism while standing on one foot.  His reply: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this—go and study it!”

While some might say that there’s a bit more to the religious tradition than that, none would accuse Hillel of being wrong. Flip Hillel’s explanation and you get the golden rule: do to others as you would have them do to you. Is life that simple? No, but it should be.

I stood on one foot because I have taught writing at the high school, undergraduate and graduate levels and I did not want to go on and on about what to do, or not to do. I didn’t want to dwell on my grudges, my quarrels with editors, my objection to what is and isn’t published and how the level of acceptable public discourse, thanks mostly to what people “write” on social media, is identical to what was once reserved for lavatory walls.

When you stand on one foot–even if you practice Tree Pose and other yoga balancing techniques–your attention is split between what you want to do, and the shame of falling over. Who wants to fall over?

So I gave three quick recommendations:

1. Read and write what you enjoy. Yes, you are forced to read stuff for work, or for the approval of others. That can be a chore. But on your own time, read what is delightful to you, and, when you write, bring forth that delight.

2. Go to the library, find an anthology of modern poetry, and discover what speaks to you. Poetry is language at its most beautiful, concentrated and, despite challenging forms, hidden rhythms and pesky rhyme schemes, is also language free to be what it must. If you are certain that a car can’t move if it doesn’t have wheels, you may find a poem in which a wheel-less vehicle merrily rolls along.  If you can’t find that poem, then you must write it.

3. Find a writers group whose members freely share their stuff, , and who will look at your stuff and let you know if what you’re doing is working for them.  Writing can be a thing to do for yourself, but it is also a form of communication that does wonders when it finds the right audience.

And then I put my foot down.

 

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