Stephen King uses a wonderful metaphor to describe the creative process: he shows up every day to write, but he lets the “boys in the basement” do the heavy creative lifting. The boys solve the hard problems—characters who won’t behave, endings that don’t resolve. He trusts those guys, doesn’t worry too much when he loses a story thread, confident that if he walks away, they will fix it. Meanwhile he’s making dinner, or playing the guitar, or sleeping. You can tell from the way he talks about writing that it’s true—his deep unconscious, the mysterious place where ideas spring up, is populated by sturdy guys with huge biceps who hammer away, all the time. They sit down together at the end of the day and drink beer, don’t get their feelings hurt and don’t hold grudges. I liked that idea so much I tried it on—I could really use a reliable team to help me with my writing. Possibly because I’m a woman, I discovered I couldn’t convince a work crew, or even a convivial poker game, to take up residence in my imagination. But it got me thinking. If I don’t have boys down there, hammering away at my stories, what do I have? Birds, maybe? At first that idea seemed disappointing—birds aren’t very strong. In fact, boys sometimes make slingshots and fire rocks at them, for sport. But they do build astonishing nests. They find things, too, stuff that you can’t imagine, and would never expect– an old gym sock, woven delicately into something that looks like a long-looped Dr. Seuss shopping bag. Maybe I do have birds. Fragile, flighty, skittish, slightly mysterious to me. I have to leave them crumbs, and be patient. Too much noise sends them scattering.
Curiosity: why does the practice of writing send me into flight, one kind or another, either manic optimizing, or, when I cut off that escape route, narcolepsy– sitting trapped at my desk or in my chair, counting the words or the minutes, desperate for it to be over? I have been reading and hearing stories of writers who don’t wander off. They do the hard work. Trollope tied himself to his chair. Set and met word goals. Did not seek pleasure.
Perhaps my problem is taking discomfort as a sign of failure. Believing that writing should feel good. Which is not to say make your life grim, but if your goal is to feel good, you might have trouble writing. Developing a skill is frustrating, often disappointing— you measure yourself and come up short; your attention is bad and then, when you finally write, your writing is bad. You can’t get yourself to the table and then you get to the table and find it bare.
I want to develop greater tolerance for those disappointments. When I meet them, greet them, and keep working. For me the task of becoming a writer appears to be, first and foremost, the task of holding and directing my attention.
Syd drove two hours looking for a hawk. They finally found one, sitting in a tree across from a barn. Hawks stay in the same spot for hours, waiting for prey. This one pounced on the trap before they could step back, so hungry it lost its bearings and caught a foot in a loop of wire. They put the huge hood over its head, bound its feet and drove for another hour with it in her lap, tiny heart thudding against her fingers. They were trying to find something better, in which case they would turn him loose, but it was a bad day for hawks, so they finally settled on him, mangey and starved, ulcers on both legs. The trainer pulled up to a local bakery and came back with donuts, which she didn’t take. Her hands crawled with parasites. When they got back to the house and took his hood off, he studied them, eyes darting from one to the other, but in ten minutes he took the quail right out of her hand. The trainer said he was probably sick. There was a chance he could die.
They looped leather around his ankles, attached a leash, taught him with more quail how to fly and come back. A week after they caught him, they let him fly free. As long as she kept him hungry, he would come, loop once or twice, land on her leather wrist, give her the back of his head, a gesture of submission. She never let herself think they were connected– her detachment makes her a good birder, even at thirteen. She sorts and processes efficiently, careful with details: the length of a crest, the color and curl of a claw. They studied each other the same way, girl and hawk, dispassionate appraisals, making deals: back in ten minutes, half a quail. Back in five, the whole thing. At night he slept in a plywood box with metal bars on the window. The trainer called it a muse. He stayed patiently, not making a sound, the coop next to him filled with gossipy, rustling chickens, loose feathers furring the ramp, the doorframe, the roof. He waited for her after school like a dog, perched on the post at the end of the driveway. She walked back to the house with him on her wrist. Every night she powdered him to get rid of the parasites, dipped his foot in iodine to keep the ulcers from getting infected.
The plan was never to keep him. Just to learn how to handle a bird. After five months she started weaning him, gave him more quail than he could eat every day, stopped touching him, cut his leads. You need to leave them wild, so they don’t fly up to people and scare them, get themselves killed. He went wild faster than the trainer expected, plump and vigorous, more wary each time she came to the muse. They drove him back to the field where they found him and let him loose. He rose on a few strong pumps, disappeared over the tree-line as if he had never known her. That night at the dinner table she asked for seconds. You would think she had never known him either, except that she could tell you, if you asked, how long he was with her: five months, a week and two days.