Putting One Shoe (or Book) In Front of the Other

imageMy daughter is learning to tie her shoes as a kindergartner. This is because, up until now, all her shoes have been closed with Velcro. I think I have unconsciously avoided laces, but this time she went shopping with grandma, and got Hello Kitty sneakers. With laces. I think this is the first task that she is trying to master that I recall so clearly having tried to master myself, as a child. I couldn’t quite get the tie to happen. For a long period, I had to make a single knot, then make two loops and tie them together. I just couldn’t seem to get the bunny ear to go around into the burrow or whatever the it was that the teacher suggested.

I don’t recall when that changed for me. I only know that now, many decades later, I tie my shoes without thinking about it. Yet my daughter is in the steep learning curve where it requires a great deal of thought. There’s something else that fascinates me about the process: in this phase of shoe-tying, she has made major gains, but hasn’t totally achieved mastery. That is to say, sometimes she can tie one, but then needs several tries to tie the other. As I watch, I want to help, to push, to coach, but I let her figure it out. This is, of course, how she will learn and how she will eventually master the art of shoe-tying.

I identify with her

I am in the same place with my second novel. Although I’ve managed, by some miracle, to finish the first one to my own satisfaction and the satisfaction of my agent, my editor, my blurbers, and various readers, I am stumbling through the process of working on the second one. I have hit various crises of confidence. Will I ever finish this second book? Will it be as good as the first? I recall hitting these same obstacles with the first book, but it feels different now. Because I don’t have eight years to write book #2. I have less than one year. According to the contract, the two books are scheduled to come out less than a year apart.

Perhaps it’s more like dance or gymnastics. As a kid, I mastered the cartwheel on my right side (I’m right-handed), but then the teacher would instruct us to try to do it on my left side. I didn’t have all the advantages of my dominant hand, and yet I was going for the same result. And failing. I don’t know that I ever mastered the left-handed cartwheel.

But here are the miracles. My daughter’s second shoe did manage to get tied. I did manage to finish this draft of the second book. And I guess here’s the difference between sneakers and novels: the shoe is tied the same way every time. But the novel is different. This second book isn’t the same as the first, but I have grown to love it. And I’ve managed to make it just as complex and layered and interesting to me. I feel satisfied with what I’ve written. So much so that I actually started working on the third book. Of course, it seems sort of hopeless. Like it’ll never work. I feel like a kindergartner looking at a twisting pile of laces. Perhaps they slipped out of my fingers and I imagined them like wriggly worms. They seemed as if they’d never sort themselves into neat bows. But for my daughter, they eventually do. I smile at the the crisp bows on her sparkling, leopard print, Hello Kitty sneakers. I still feel delightedly startled each time I see the unimaginably sharp-cornered galley of my book, with its flashy cover and the model in her shimmering dress. I can report that mastery does happen, one shoe or book at a time.

Author: Aya de Leon

Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program in the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley. Her work has appeared in Essence Magazine, xojane, Ebony, Guernica, Writers Digest, Mutha Magazine, Movement Strategy Center, My Brown Baby, KQED Pop, Bitch Magazine, Racialicious, Fusion, and she has been a guest on HuffPostLive. She is the author of the children's picture book PUFFY: PEOPLE WHOSE HAIR DEFIES GRAVITY. Kensington Books will be publishing her debut feminist heist novel, UPTOWN THIEF, in 2016. For more info, go to ayadeleon.wordpress.com.