On Winning and Losing
My daughters had been playing quietly for a good ten minutes, which is always cause for alarm.
After following a trail of graham cracker crumbs, I finally found them in the bathroom with my three-year-old on the potty and my six-year-old sitting on the floor in front of her – the two of them holding hands, rocking back and forth, singing row, row, row your boat.
It was a delightfully strange sight made all the more strange when my three-year-old looked up at me and announced: I win!
I’m used to losing games I didn’t even know I was playing, but I couldn’t help but think: win what?
And yet how often, as a writer, I find myself lost in the delightfully strange world of my imagination, rocking back and forth between song and thought, only to look up with a sudden worry about winning. And before I know it I’m on Amazon checking book sales, on Goodreads looking up ratings.
The problem with winning, though, is that it only begets the desire to win bigger, win faster. If anything, it gets in the way of writing. Not that anyone enjoys losing, but at least our brushes with defeat remind us of what’s at stake.
The other night my daughters were cuddling themselves to sleep, which would have been much cuter if my three-year-old weren’t such an aggressive and demanding cuddler, if she didn’t keep slapping her older sister awake.
I quickly shifted into counting-to-three-mode and my three-year-old made it to two in record time. One more, I told her, and you’re sleeping in your own bed.
There’s something about the zone between two and three that exerts a certain pressure on the imagination. On bad days, it turns us cautious – we check our swings only to be called out on strikes anyway. But there are other times when that boundary feels more like a frontier.
I think that, in some ways, must have been what Lorca was referring to when he talked about duende and its love of the edge; what Edward Hirsch meant when he wrote that the imagination comes when something enormous is at risk, when the self is imperiled and pushes against its limits.
And it’s what my three-year-old must have been feeling – the spirited mischief of the muse – when she raised first her fist and then her eyebrows, got one more lick in before running off to her bed.
Ben Berman’s first book, Strange Borderlands, won the 2014 Peace Corps Award for Best Book of Poetry and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Awards. His second collection, Figuring in the Figure, is just out from Able Muse Press. He has received awards from the New England Poetry Club and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Somerville Arts Council. He teaches at Brookline High School and is the Poetry Editor at Solstice Literary Magazine. www.ben-berman.comSee other articles by Ben Berman