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January 25, 2009

Daring Girl

From the January 2009 issue of O, The Oprah Winfrey Magazine.

“This is it!” I’d call to Edward. “Get the video camera!” Georgia was a year old. “Come on, baby! Take a step.” She’d been teasing us for weeks, slowly lifting herself up and then freezing—studying the terrain, considering the consequences. “You can do it! One little baby step!” It'd be another six weeks before Georgia summoned the nerve to lift one foot off the ground and set it down in front of the other. It happened when we weren’t looking, perhaps even because we weren’t looking.

Right around this time, I found an old Pentax in our storage space and started taking pictures. A few weeks later, I told Edward I might quit my job designing educational software. “I want to be a photographer,” I announced, handing him a set of black and whites. “Candid portraits.” He responded with his signature squint, a look of derision, skepticism, and superiority, all rolled into one. (Edward is a person who dares not begin anything that might not end with excellence, whereas I’ve been known to swing by the art supply store on the way home from the museum because “how hard can it be?”)

I landed one photography client, then another. A nice man at the camera shop walked me through my contact sheets, showing me which frames to print. After my first big assignment, I ran back to the lab waving my check. “She couldn’t believe this was my first job!” I reported. “I can’t, either,” said the nice man, beaming. That was all the confirmation I needed to say goodbye to education software.

A year or two later, though, expectations had reset. Customers started asking if I did my own printing, if I would bring lighting, if I could shoot in medium format. Nope, not me. If there are ten steps to mastering photography, medium format is probably around step eight. It’s advanced. You are no longer taking long easy strides, but rather inching ahead so slowly you wonder if you’ve moved forward at all. Too much work for too little gain, if you ask me.

By this time, Georgia was in preschool, distinguishing herself as the girl who drew flowers. Not hearts, or stick people, or big firecracker suns—just flowers. And really just one flower: a daisy-ish blossom that she honed and refined over the course of a year, like Monet and his water lilies. “Want me to show you how to draw a house?” I would ask. “I’m not finished with my flower!” she’d answer. Really? It looked good enough to me.

If I were Georgia, I’d have moved on months ago. I like the huge payoff of the steep learning curve. One day you’re stumbling around and the next, you’re doing it (drawing a tree, skiing down the bunny slope, playing chopsticks on the piano). I like impressing people (“Wow, you’ve never done this before?!”) And I love always having a fresh answer to my favorite question, What’s new?

Clearly, my daughter felt differently.

Eventually, I put down my camera and picked up a pen. I had read enough poorly written newspaper columns to believe that I could beat the average. I sent in a sample essay (about teaching kids to approach new things with optimism); one month later, my name and photo were on the front page of The Piedmonter, my town’s weekly paper. Just like that, I was a “columnist,” $50 per column, two columns a month, 100,000 readers. People at cocktail parties seemed impressed. Edward stopped squinting. When I walked Georgia to school, she ran from driveway to driveway looking for my face on the morning’s paper.

In second grade, having finally taken her flower as far as she could, Georgia dedicated herself to the cartwheel. Weeks became months. “You’ve got it!” I’d tell her. “Not yet,” she’d reply. She wanted to start and end on an imaginary balance beam, like her friend Amelia did. I’d say, “Try a headstand.” But she wasn’t looking for a quick win. She was working on something small and specific, something well beyond basic proficiency. “No,” she’d say, tossing her legs over her body again.

Meanwhile, after a year of writing my newspaper column, it was getting harder and harder to produce 800 original and meaningful words about family life. That’s when I came up with my coolest party trick yet. I wrote a book—a memoir about growing up called The Middle Place. Each week, I’d bang out a new chapter, which I’d oblige Edward to read the minute he walked in the door on Friday nights. Eventually, my story had a beginning, middle and end. My sister-in-law found me an agent, the agent found me an editor, the book was published. And to everyone’s astonishment, for one splendid week, it was tied for 15th place on the New York Times bestseller list. The book did okay with reviewers, too. All in all, pretty good for my first time. But in every chapter, there’s a phrase or a paragraph or a whole page that I wish I’d worked harder on.

It’s been a year since The Middle Place came out, and naturally my agent wants to know how the second book is coming. “I’m thinking about it,” I say, as I flip through my rough outline for Fields and Fences (so much easier to name a book than write one). I look at the document almost every day—sometimes touching up sentences, more often just tweaking the formatting. I want to write it, I do. The subject matter—deciding what faith to teach our children—feels important and provocative and worthwhile. But when I get inside a chapter, I can’t get any momentum going.

So, rather than suffer through the hopeless periods that every decent writer has, rather than delete and rewrite, outline and restructure, rather than advance by those tiny increments my daughter seems to relish, I’ve started something new: Saving Fairyland, an original screenplay!

Step one: Buy special software. Check.
Step two: Bang out a draft. Voila!
Step three: Drag my friend Betsy into the project. Done.

Right this minute, we have 89 index cards on my dining room table, one for each scene; by the time you read this, the fifth draft will be complete. That’s right, finished! If this were Fields and Fences, I’d still be suffering through the first chapter. I’ve started talking about the screenplay to friends. “You’re too much!” my friends say. “What next—an opera?”

Of course, as I’m busy reinventing myself, Georgia is still working on her cartwheel. The same damn thing, over and over again. Except, as Edward points out, her cartwheel has actually changed—a lot. She can do it anywhere now: on a grassy hill, in a crowded living room, on a painted line on concrete. Where it was once mostly momentum, it’s now controlled and exact. And watching her one day, it dawns on me that what appeared to be fruitless repetition has turned out to be…mastery. “That’s some cartwheel honey,” I say. And I mean it.

For 15 years Edward and I have been going to a San Francisco lecture series that features writers talking about their life’s work. I often think back on the night Charles Frazier said it took him six or seven years to write Cold Mountain. He spent the first three in the Blue Ridge Mountains, cataloging Appalachian plants, tracking down headstones on forgotten hillsides, reading old letters and journals from 19th Century farmers. Without an agent, Frazier quit his teaching job and spent years researching a novel that, for all he knew, might never have been published. On the way home that night, Edward and I agree that Frazier's gift is not only genius but will. Writers like Charles Frazier haven’t been on the steep part of the learning curve in years. They’re not susceptible to the look at me! lure of having something new to announce. They wouldn’t abandon their craft any sooner than they would their children. They’re moving slowly, even imperceptibly, toward some hard-to-come-by, maybe even impossible, goal that they refuse to forsake. How rich their satisfaction must be.

After one thousand cartwheels, Georgia knows something of that satisfaction. And watching her, I finally see that although I’ve always prided myself on fearlessly jumping into one new project after another, I’m the one who’s been doing the same thing over and over: finding a way to be a beginner. I keep starting at zero and making it to six or seven, but never going any further, never knowing the gratification of levels eight, nine, and ten, never reaching the place where the cartwheel becomes elegant.

When I think about writing another book (it couldn’t possibly go as well; I’ve told all the best stories already), what worries me is that I may have already done my personal best—and that whatever worked about The Middle Place was nothing more than beginner’s luck. And for the first time, I’m wondering if all the commotion that goes with continually—and “fearlessly”—reinventing myself might just be an elaborate smoke screen, a way to distract myself from my greatest fear: failure. I’d like to sit down for however many years it takes and write one true and beautiful thing, one book worthy of a world that already has too many books in it. The real truth is, I’m just not sure I can.

Georgia is too young to have found her life’s work, but when I watch her study the terrain and consider the consequences, it’s clear that if she felt like she had something big to say, she’d slip off quietly and while no one was looking, she’d summon the nerve to lift one foot off the ground and set it down in front of the other.

So here I go, opening the Fields and Fences file again. One sentence at a time. If I can get myself through this, it will be the most truly daring thing I’ve ever done. And while I think and stare and occasionally type, Georgia sits at the kitchen table, directing her considerable focus on cursive. The stylish capital G. The Laverne and Shirley L. Over and over again, she writes her name, Georgia Corrigan Lichty, until it perfectly reflects the indomitable, inspiring girl she is.