That used to be one of my mother’s favorite expressions. ‘You have to be on top of the wave,’ she’d say; ‘that is, if you really want to enjoy New York.’ Translation—you have to be really ‘up’ to succeed in New York. I thought I understood what she meant, but often wondered how she’d come up with the phrase. She was neither overtly passionate nor verbally descriptive, and an idiom describing something as exhilarating as surfing long before it was considered a common sport was an anomaly, coming from her.
I hadn’t thought about my mother’s metaphor until very recently, a span of a half-century separating then and now. I’m sure the reason it came back to me at all had something to do with a book I’ve been reading by Dani Shapiro titled, ‘Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life’. A chapter very near the beginning of the book is called, ‘Riding the Wave’, and it not only sparked an old memory but set me to thinking about how I may have totally misinterpreted my mother’s meaning. Odd that I never discussed it with her further, but too late now, a recurring truth in connection with many family mysteries that might have been solved long ago had I thought to ask. So why now?
Now that I’m older, I certainly find it easier to admit I got things wrong in my youth. It happens with greater frequency these days. And of course, my return to writing has opened me up in so many ways; I can question things with a whole new acceptance of where the answers might lead. But this thing of my mother’s about the wave…was it more than a comment about needing to feel good to enjoy New York? Reading the chapter in ‘Still Writing’ again, I note the reference is to energy that fosters creativity, an essential component of art. It has nothing to do with learning the skills of the craft. The author suggests that like most things that are exhilarating, this flow of energy can be frightening in its inherent risk.
If I’ve read the chapter correctly, the wave of creative energy flowing through us has to be ridden along with instead of run away from. The instinct to fight for control or flee as fast as possible has to be ignored. She suggests that, “we don’t want the wave to win”, a feeling we’ve all experienced as children running up the beach in a desperate dash to escape it. But just as we’ve also known the elation of standing our ground while the foam races and swirls around our legs, nearly pushing us down and pulling us back out to sea with it, she tells writers to “withstand those wild surges”. The reason is because everything we need to make our writing (or any art) resonate can be found in those power swells.
Now, as I write this essay, I can see that my mother was also referring to the importance of energy, and she really wasn’t as far away from Dani Shapiro’s suggestion as I thought when I started reading her book. True, it wasn’t instinctive for my mother to move toward the risk—throw herself down the fall line of a mountain or ride a wave without struggle—as it was for my father, but the fact that she understood the necessity and forced herself not to run away reassures me that even writers who don’t initially embrace the unsettling power of those energy forces can learn to use them effectively.
Earlier in ‘Still Writing’, the point is made that everything one needs to know about life can be found in writing. And yes, I do believe it’s those frightening power surges that hold the mirror up to us. I know my mother’s observation that you had to be able to use the energy of the City to get the most out of it wasn’t quite the same thing, but it had a lot in common with Dani Shapiro’s reflections on creativity. Energy begets energy, and going toward something instead of fighting it probably doubles its lift. An MFA in writing can’t do it for you. Great ski equipment makes the skier more confident, but you still have to throw yourself toward the fall line, no matter how steep it is. You still have to ride the wave to feel the energy.