Writers are like birds


Writers are like birds. Here’s why:

Most Saturdays, I go to a taiji class- which our teacher holds at his house. There are three of us and we practise for a minimum of three hours. We are all at various stages of competence but the rigorous exercise is wonderful. Over the years, we have developed firm friendships and our teacher is unstinting as he shares his knowledge and skills with us.

Every year, at about this time, we have special visitors who set up home in the rafter holding up the carport where we practice. Three years ago we watched as two blackbirds built a perfectly shaped nest, laid three eggs, incubated them then fed the hatchlings until they matured and flew away.

Whenever the parents were away from the nest, collecting food we climbed the ladder and peeked at, first, the eggs, then the tiny wee birds that looked, in their infancy, like rotund beer-bloated stomachs with beaks, then became beautiful as they grew feathers.

This year we wondered if they would return for a third year.  The nest they had originally built and modified the year after was still in the corner of the carport in perfect condition. Just as we had started to think the birds were not returning they busily began taking the first nest apart and building partial nests on three different sections of the same rafter. These nests were nothing like the neat original but roughly thrown together bits of twigs and dried grasses. We wondered if this was evidence that Mum and Dad had returned with a couple of their off spring with partners in tow . . . setting up a commune.

But then, in a flurry of activity, the birds undid all but one of the nests and started building that into a neat replica of the original nest. The new one was at the opposite end of the carport. I am still wondering if they preferred the new aspect or couldn’t face sitting in the same place for a third year running. I wonder if there is such a thing as an equivalent to stir crazy in the bird world.

We also don’t know if it’s the parents returning or one of the young ones but it’s the most wonderful feeling after completing a difficult part of the taiji form to look up and see the Mother or Father bird placidly sitting on the nest, black fanning tail poking over the edge of the home they built for their coming brood.

The babies hatched last week, so when the parents were away, we all took turns to climb the ladder and look in at the three sleeping chicks, on their backs tummies bulging, eyes closed, legs tangled and beaks pointing upwards, looking very content and I swear smiling. They are pretty ugly with their pink featherless bodies, but there is still something quite cute about them.

We all know that their feathers will grow very quickly and within a few weeks they will become too big for the nest. At that point, they will push each other out of the crowded nest and force each other to fly. We have seen it every other year.

What a great metaphor for writing this process is - with its trial and error first draft, the incubation of the idea, the testing of concepts and the scrambling to find the right word and then the final moment when it flies.

Each word is like a twig that builds the story, and like the nest building, the story takes shape.

Once their babies arrive the work of feeding them becomes unending with Mum and Dad taking turns to deliver food parcels.

At the moment, the babies are tiny and not making a sound. But I have heard them when they are a couple of weeks old. Their demanding chirping allows the parents no rest.

Isn’t that like a story as it takes shape inside us? It also becomes a nagging voice refusing to be silenced until we have put the words down on the page. Writing is an imperative driven from deep inside. In a recent interview Ruth Rendell is quoted as saying, and this is a paraphrase, that if you cannot bear to think of a life without writing then you must write.

In a recent interview Ruth Rendell is quoted as saying, and this is my paraphrase, that if you cannot bear to think of a life without writing then you must write.

Here is the full quote:

What advice would you give a young writer?

I do give young writers advice all the time. I say: "Do you really want to do this? Are you so keen that you really can't help it – you long to do it, and when you do, you really enjoy it? If you don't feel like that – if what you're really saying is you want to see your book on a shelf in a bookstore – then just forget it, and do something else."




If it's not about sales/publicity but enjoyment/learning a new skill, that is a great philosophy. Keeping at it, enjoying learning from others and taking criticism. That is how you get better.