What It Really Means to Build Your Wings On The Way Down

Ray Bradbury QuoteThere’s a famous quote by Ray Bradbury about facing your writing fears. It goes like this:

“You’ve got to jump off a cliff and build your wings on the way down.” – Ray Bradbury

I first heard this quote from author Libba Bray in a wonderful lecture she gave at an SCBWI conference about bravery and the importance of risk taking. The quote is meant to inspire us to trust the process and take a leap of faith in our writing. It’s a wonderful quote. It’s inspirational. In fact, there’s a tradition at the Vermont College of naming one’s class after something literary, and many of my friends are Wing Builders, their name derived from this exact quote.

It’s been one of my favorite quotes for a long time.

But like all inspiration, this quote is only designed to make us take that first step, take that leap, jump off the cliff. In our minds that leap is amazing. We are writer’s after all, we have a flair for the dramatic. We imagine soaring through hundreds of pages like gallant dragons unraveling our wings to the air. We imagine it to be easy, cathartic, and powerful. We romanticize it. We convince ourselves that the leap itself is the hardest part.

We forget what it means to really jump off that cliff and take a risk. We forget the panic of no longer having the ground beneath our feet. We forget the focus and determination it takes to build wings in the midst of a free fall. We forget the pain of hitting the ground.

Recently, I saw a breathtaking video of a gosling – quite literally – jumping from a 400 foot cliff. The leap begins the way you might imagine – with soaring. At least, it seams like soaring for the first 57 seconds of the video. That’s until the gosling hits the rocks and tumbles for the remaining minute and a half of the video.

It turns out that first leap isn’t flying, it’s falling. The first taste of flight comes with the pain of crashing into rock and tumbling – over and over and over.

Watch the video and you’ll see what I mean:

Writing often feels this way. It feels like we’re soaring for a moment only to hit a wall of rock. Particularly when we take the leap to be honest and vulnerable in your work. We revise and revise and submit, only to be rejected and have to revise all over again. Submit all over again.

We wonder if the risk was worth it. We wonder if we built our wings wrong.

The amazing part of this video is moment when the bird’s decent comes to an end. It’s the moment he’s completed his first “flight.” He’s still alive. In fact, he’s only slightly flustered. We know he’ll climb back up that 400 foot cliff and jump again. That’s what building our wings is all about. It’s about learning. It’s about re-building. It’s about mending our wings, even if they broke on the way down. It’s the triumph of that first leap of faith and knowing the first jump – the first risk – is just the beginning. It may take a dozen leaps to learn how to fly. It may take a hundred jumps. But we keep jumping, keep flying, keep falling, and tumbling, and picking ourselves back up again.

The truth is we love flying too much. So we build our wings again and again.

We never stop building our wings.

2 responses to “What It Really Means to Build Your Wings On The Way Down”

  1. Art Rosch says:

    Many species of birds must take that initial leap. I saw the goslings and I saw another one recently and i was struck by how the chicks’ personalities differentiated right there: this one was eager, the next was hesitant, etc. So go ahead, writers, whatever it takes, jump. Only an idiot would jump from such a height, and only a person of great faith would be stupid enough to do it. So there you have the conundrum: you can’t learn to fly without being insane. Yet you have no choice if you want to come to grips with the creative life.

  2. Linda W says:

    I’m amazed the poor little thing survived! What a lesson for us writers, huh? We might hit the wall of rejection, but we can survive that and move on.

    Thanks for sharing this!

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