The Lightbulb Moment

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Stop pulling.  It was a striking thought, and one that sounded simple enough, though maybe it was a bit of a strange epiphany when it comes to archery.  After all, that’s the basic notion, isn’t it?  Pull back and let go.  To stop doing that seemed like it might be counterproductive.

But archery, like writing, is about taking the “basic notion” and turning it into something entirely different.  Archery is an art that requires a very fine balance between pushing and pulling and not doing anything at all, and sometimes you’re not entirely sure when to do what in order to achieve the optimal effect.

When I told myself to stop pulling, I wasn’t saying that it was time to pack up and go home after an hour and a half of sending arrows into the corners of the target.  It wasn’t.  It was just time to stop moving the string past my anchor point as I tried to bring my elbow around in line with my shoulder (an action that would actually be sort of necessary if I was using a clicker, but I’m not).

The pull made me shoot wild, varying my draw length and causing my fingers to roll sideways off the string as I tried to control the extra bit of unreliable power I was inadvertently giving my arrows.  I wasn’t relaxed.  I wasn’t consistent.

It wasn’t my grip, or my stance, or my fletchings; it wasn’t my aiming or my shoulders or a smudge on my glasses or any of the other thousands of things I tried to change and perfect for that first deeply frustrating hour and a half.  I was tinkering with everything other than the real problem, making it all worse for myself, and I could not for the life of me figure out what was going wrong.

Then I told myself to stop pulling.  I don’t know why it suddenly came to me, but it did.  And while I was immensely relieved to see my arrows heading back into the gold, I also felt like a total idiot for not realizing what I was doing wrong a little bit sooner.

I never know whether to laugh with joy or blush with shame when the lightbulb goes off, but I think I usually do both.  I treasure those moments very dearly, whether they appear during archery practice or when I’m plotting a new novel, and I feel lucky to be able to experience them.  But they also make me feel like a fool.  I should have seen the impossible, I tell myself.  It all seems so easy now.  Why wasn’t it easy before?

Because it couldn’t be, of course.  Lightbulb moments are like optical illusions.  It’s not a failing of character or intelligence if you can’t see the hidden picture until you do.  It’s just a trick of the brain: a strangely synchronized firing of synapses that happens when you least expect it, and the outline of the old woman’s face becomes clear.

Sometimes you have to tilt the paper or step back a little bit, but other times there’s no discernable reason why your eyes decided to refocus at just such a moment in just such a way, creating some nebulous, imperceptible change that illuminates something new in your world.

It’s one of those wonderful mysteries of life and learning, and it’s one of the reasons I keep doing what I do.  I think it’s rare to be able to pinpoint the exact moment when “can’t” turns into “can.”

I wish I could remember the first instant during my childhood that squiggly lines on a page became letters that conveyed meaning.  I wish I could quantify what happens when a plot device clicks into place and a new path of possibility swings into view, opening the gate to a long road of adventure.  I wish I could bottle it and share it with people whose ideas sidle up to them more gradually, so that everyone knows how great it feels.

If you’ve ever had a lightbulb moment, I hope you treasure it, especially when you’re running up against the wall of impossibility again and again.  Remember how it feels the instant after you’ve solved a problem.  Be patient and be persistent as you work towards the answer, because it’s going to come, eventually, in a flash of brightness that’s going to make you feel silly and amazing and brilliant and dumb.  I honestly can’t think of a better sensation.

Are you a lightbulb person, or do you get your answers in a different way?  I’m interested to hear if this is a more or less universal experience, or if none of you have any idea what I’m actually talking about.  Let me know in the comments!

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