You are young, and want the moon to drink from as a cup of gold. Reaching and straining to catch the moon, you may catch a firefly. But if you grow up you will realise that you cannot have the moon, and would not want it if you could. And you will catch no fireflies.— John Steinbeck, Cup of Gold
Summer is here. The other day I was lying in bed late in the morning and the wind was blowing outside. It was a sunny morning and the wind blowing the thick branches of the maple tree in our backyard was making a dancing, mottled pattern on the window blind. For an instant it took me way back to childhood, when I’d pitch my two-man canvass pup tent in the backyard and lie in there and read and watch the shadows of a long-gone mimosa move back and forth on the sides of the tent.
That seems like such a long time ago. About 35 years, I guess, and yet for that brief instant I was right back in the moment. I could almost feel the hard ground beneath me and smell the tent as it swelled with the bit of wind that made its way inside. There was the book, the churr of cicadas, the singing of birds, someone mowing in the distance, and the knowledge that Mom would be starting dinner in the house. There were no utility bills, no car payments, no unreasonable bosses, no job, no stress.
What does that have to do with the Steinbeck quote above? When I was that boy in the tent I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up, which meant that everything was open to me. I could chase the moon, believing I could catch it. That’s something only a child can believe, of course. We grow up. Our circumstances dictate certain courses of action, and pretty soon we don’t even look up at the moon anymore because we’re too busy working to pay the bills, tending to our kids and spouses, doing the laundry, and all those other things we have to do just to make it through the day. There’s no time for the moon, and our hands are empty of fireflies.
As a writer, you always have to keep your hand stretched toward the moon. You have to believe you can catch it. You have to stay connected with that innocence of youth even when you’re writing about the experience of age. Writing is about translating your personal sense of wonder to other people, making them see what you see, believe what you believe, and experience what you feel. If you’ve reached a point where you’re no longer trying to catch the moon yourself, you probably won’t inspire your readers.
Go spend some time outside today. Don’t work in the garden or mow the lawn or paint the house or play music. Just sit and listen and watch and let your mind drift toward the moon. Then, if you want, come back and show us your fireflies in the comment section.