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“Do You Really Want to See?”

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“You should write a children’s book on the climb,” my mother said to me the Christmas after I reached the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro. I responded, “I can’t imagine when I could ever find the emotional space to write a children’s book.” Just a few days later, back at home, I broke my leg scooting down my basement steps on January 1st. Lying on my bed, with my leg propped on a few pillows to get it above my heart and reduce the swelling, an idea popped into my head. I got some computer paper and a pen from my office and returned to my place on the bed. Writing and sketching frantically before the idea abandoned me, I produced what I call Too Hard For You, a children’s book about overcoming doubts to make it to the top of the mountain. I showed the stick-figure sketches and story to my mother and a few others. In contrast to the actual climb with its years of struggle just to get to the mountain, I was amazed that this story could crystallize in a moment. Just the same, it stayed in its sketched state for years.

I love children’s books because their stories and messages have always been so powerful and universal. When friends have babies, I give them copies of The Little Prince, the one that has had the most profound impact on me. Writing and sketching Too Hard For You, even if it just sat in a folder, started my mind thinking of other stories and themes. I repeated the process and stored them together knowing that I couldn’t draw and didn’t have a publisher. Both problems seemed solved earlier this year when a friend of a friend with a publishing company and an illustrator showed interest in Too Hard For You. After a few months of working together, I hope that my book is still a fit for her company, but even if it isn’t, I know that I want to both write and illustrate children’s books in some way. So in November, when I returned from a two-month tour of school presentations on the East Coast, I found Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain with its binding glue turned to dust among my books. My friend Bernie had loaned it to me when we were at Shake-a-leg, a holistic healing, secondary rehabilitation facility for people with spinal cord injuries. I was a participant. He directed a play. When he’d first asked me to audition I told him, “I’m an athlete. I don’t do that stuff.” But that play had awakened a part of me that I didn’t know existed. It gave me the confidence to improvise, create and play—all in front of a judging audience. Twenty-five years later, I hoped for a similar awakening.

According to the book, the left sides of our brains are analytical and judging and the right sides spatial and intuitive. Our problem with drawing is not physical, but in the way that we see. Betty Edwards says that if we can write our name, we have the physical dexterity to draw. I figured it was worth a try. Following her exercises to exhaust the left side of the brain into giving over control the right side, I was amazed that when I copied an upside down drawing, the finished product actually resembled the original. Later, when I lost myself in the details of a figure, I was surprised at the beauty of a woman that I’d previously considered unremarkable. A few pages later, Ms Edwards confirmed my epiphany, writing that every image is beautiful to an artist. Dread accompanied my euphoria, however. I was sure that in my ignorant youth I had bullied aspiring artists, but when I thought about it, I couldn’t come up with any other than myself. Even though one day wasting time with some friends, I had copied a Jerry Remy baseball card almost exactly, by the time I reached compulsory studio art as a high school sophomore, I was comfortable in my inability. Then one day our teacher, who looked surprisingly like Frank Zappa, paired us off to draw each other and it happened again. My drawing looked exactly like Jimmy Miller, but I moved on, finding it far easier to dismiss my sketch as an aberration.

A little over a week ago, even though I’d made it most of the way through the Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain course, I still brought that bully with me when I started a drawing a frontal view of a human face. The frontal view is one of most difficult to see properly because our vision is ripe with symbols for noses, eyes and mouths that we created when we were children. As my subject, I chose Robin Williams from the cover of People Magazine announcing his death. Each time I experienced difficulty, I moved my focus from the hair or eyes to the negative space around it as the book taught. Simple lines suddenly described shapes. But my efforts weren’t without struggle. I fought my instinct to go too fast or to let my hand fill in details that weren’t there. As I struggled with his nose, Robin started to talk to me in the voice that I’d appreciated from The Fisher King, Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets and so many more. “Pinch the nose there. Make it grotesque. See how it comes to those misshapen, asymmetrical bumps at end.” I started to see more as he talked. I started to see what I hadn’t seen before. And then he asked the real question, “Do you really want to see?”

I can’t pretend to know Robin, though I’d met him briefly at a Challenged Athletes Triathlon once. Still I knew what he meant in the same way that I could put myself in the place of his protagonist while watching him on screen. It was right there on the cover 1951-2014. Suicide. Depression. Drugs. Alcohol. Addiction. The worry of losing control. It was there in his expression too. He stared softly with eyes that verged on misty and a mouth that could erupt in smile. “Do you really want to see?” “Do you really want to see it all?” I think that’s what worries me. Is there a point of no return when you really see? But I said, yes, I really wanted to see. He revealed more and more to me. I have a vague recollection, like the distant memory of a nighttime dream, of my computer and Pandora dying during the process. Then a car in the driveway broke my reverie. My world took shape again. It couldn’t be my wife, whose flight was due to land past 11pm. I looked at my phone. It was 12:15am. I’d been drawing for almost three hours when I would have guessed forty-five minutes. It would be easy to say that I’d lost over two and a half hours, but that wasn’t how I saw it. Finally, I’d lost myself in the vision of the right brain, free of judgment and self-recrimination, which were the bullies that kept me from trying because I worried there might not be anything interesting for me to communicate or because people would knock me for my efforts.

In Dead Poets Society Robin said:
“Try never to think about anything the
same way twice. If you’re sure about
something, force yourself to think about
it another way, even if you know it’s
wrong or silly. When you read, don’t
consider only what the author thinks, but
take the time to consider what you think.
You must strive to find your own voice,
boys, and the longer you wait to begin,
the less likely you are to find it at
all. Thoreau said, “Most men lead lives
of quiet desperation.” I ask, why be
resigned to that? Risk walking new
ground. Now. A flame in your hearts
could change the world, lads. Nurture
it.”

I don’t want to live a life of quiet desperation, but I also know that the guy who played Alfalfa on Our Gang died young, shot by a guy, who owed him money. I’ve read about the most undeserved contracts in sports history and about the celebrities who died of overdoses or fell into bankruptcy. I know how the world loves to knock those who care, who are unique and who try. In the last episode of The Newroom the guys running the IT department are surprised when the system freezes in the midst of their slandering the top nine most overrated films of all time. Neal, who is back from exile and is responsible for freezing the system, says essentially, that’s not the way we do things here. Why don’t you do a list on the most underrated films of all time? Why don’t you celebrate those who care enough to try instead of making yourself seem more important be knocking someone with the guts to actually put something out there? With that, I’ve vowed to stop reading the critically small. Robin asked me one more time, “Do you really want to see?” Again I looked at his face equally likely to split into rapture or despair and said, yeah, I think so. Hopefully, just being willing to see my world differently is a good first step.

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