On Finishing and Funambules

by nike, February 17, 2011

I, like everybody else, have a certain fear of heights and I have to be very careful when I am in the clouds but it is also what I love, it is my domain, so when you love something you don’t have fear. Philippe Petit (1949–)

Phjilippe Petit in 1974

Philippe Petit performs a back roll between the towers of the Notre Dame Cathedral, 6 June, 1971.

Recently, I completed a novel I had been working on. Such a tiny sentence, and yet it indicates the end of a project on which I have been working for several years. In order to write this novel I have made the usual sacrifices: I have given up my mornings, I have worn out my printer, my patience and my ink supply, and infuriated and neglected those I love most.

Of course, like many novels, this one only seems finished. I have done what I can with it, and sent it out to its first readers, knowing it is rough-hewn and incomplete, and that the characters I so adore, and whose lives have consumed me for a long time, are only words after all. Now, those words must be tested.

I completed this work during a difficult year, and the final haul – that final dragging of the beast up out of the dark onto the shore – has taken place during what seems like one of the darkest times of my life. Writing has been one of the grace notes of this time, providing a space into which I can enter that is almost completely separate from the world in which I actually live. During this time, one of my sisters reminded me that as child I used to disappear into books – as a reader, then – for hours. That at parties, while everyone else was talking, laughing, making friends, I would hole up in an empty corner and read. Then, as now, stories were the landscape into which I escaped, and in which I found comfort. As Philippe Petit said of being in the clouds: it is … what i love, it is my domain.

For now, I am between novels, which feels a little like being suspended in thin air between buildings; it is perhaps similar to the way Philippe Petit felt the first time he found himself halfway between two imposing structures on a wire no thicker than a pencil. Some part of me wants to go back, some part of me is beckoned forward, but for now I am out here on the wire. If only I had the grace and courage of Petit, and could be content to play on this impossibly fine line, as he did when performing his funambule between the two towers of the Notre Dame at dawn, on the 6th of June, 1971 (and later – far more famously – between the twin towers of New York). Rolling, tumbling, dancing in thin air while gawkers and applauders join the fire engines, police and ambulances gathering below, and – inside the ancient cathedral – fifty priests are solemnly ordained.

For now, I am in the clouds. Perhaps it’s time to seek advice from some of the great funambulists:

If I see three oranges, I have to juggle. And if I see two towers, I have to walk. Philippe Petit (1949–).

The gestures of the tightrope walker would look absurd to anyone unaware that he was walking over the void and over death. Jean Cocteau (1889-1963).

Every girl ought to walk a tightrope. It is a fine, healthy exercise. It develops a rare set of muscles and self-confidence and teaches one how to walk properly on the street. Bird Millman (1890-1940)

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