Today, I read a new post by another blogger whose site has provided me with many pleasurable hours spent reading. The blogger is Emma McCoy, and her blogsite, which I recently reviewed, is at http://emmamccoy.wordpress.com/ . Today, Emma wrote about the problem of writer’s block, though she doesn’t dwell on that topic. The main gist of her article is about how one can free up one’s mind with the process of free association (learned from psychology, a field in which Emma seems to be an expert). Emma starts her own free association and lets it run for a while, letting us see openly just what some of her inner connections are within the topics her mind runs through.
This is significant to me right now because I’m in the process of working on my fifth novel and am stuck in place, having left off at the last point where I had anything to say and having been unable to pick up for about a week now. So, following Emma’s example in my somewhat quirky way, I decided not to free associate, but to pull out a little poem of my own which stays in the back of my mind as a sort of chant, and which sometimes lures me back into the creation process when I find all else murky and dark. Here it is:
“It flew over the fence without a word.
The heart of cat is caught by bird.”
This little poem comes up somehow in my mind every time I’m stuck, and I don’t even know why, but sometimes it helps me back into writing what I want to continue with. Of course the bird “flew over the fence without a word,” it’s a bird, after all! One has to posit a third actor, perhaps a human watching the bird-cat interaction; the knowledge of the cat’s overweening interest in the bird stirs in the human the idea that it’s not just the cat’s possibility of catching the bird that’s at stake here, but the fact that the sight of the bird twittering and dancing in the grass or on the fenceline, or pulling up a worm or sitting in a bush only seconds later perhaps to startle and fly away over the fence has captured the cat’s attention much more effectively than the cat could have caught the bird. But this is to make prosaic a line or two of poetry (I know, it’s not great, but it is poetry).
So, the same thing goes for the writer and the reader both. What catches the reader-as-cat’s attention is of course getting into the whys and wherefores of the story, the drama of the encounter depending upon explanations inasmuch as the explanations are the scaffolding of the dramatic encounter. What the reader’s main attention is on, of course, is the actual interaction: Does the cat leap? Does the bird get away? What does the cat do next? Some of the details might be: Just what kind of bird was it? And what was the cat doing there? Was it an outdoor scene entirely, with a real risk implied, or was Tabby an indoor cat watching from behind a picture window? Fulfilling this sort of question-and-answer contract with the curiosity of one’s readers is akin to giving them a good scratch behind the ears (no condescension intended, it’s my cat-within-cat metaphor getting away from me) and a treat, and helping them to console themselves, perhaps, for not having seen the end of the story, that the bird would in fact fly over the fence and into other perspectives.
First, however, the initial cat/bird metaphor to be fulfilled is not the contract between writer and reader, but the contract between the writer and herself, to find a bird worth watching and a cat who just might leap, given the chance. Lest you think I’ve wandered away from my basic metaphor again here, let me just say that it’s as you suspect: before the bird can fly over the fence taking your heart with it, so must it do in analogous form for me. I have to sit watching the bird through the window, preening my whiskers as I think of being able to knock it down and bite into that feathery mass. But it has somehow to escape sucessfully from me, too: it has to surprise me and catch me off guard and carry my own heart over the fence with it until I say, “Ah, yes, now that’s a bird after my own heart!” For of course, it’s the old tale of “the one who got away” except that the tale itself is the point, and the tale comes not only from a capture, but from imagery and incident and detail and (here’s the tricky part) allowing the spirit to fly away over the fence, which is after all the essential part of what it is to be a cat watching a bird and feeling one’s own heart airborne as well.
This is my possibly pedestrian evaluation of one of my own poems, and how it recurs in my life at some of my trickiest moments of fiction writing. I would love to hear from you about what gets your creative mind working. Thanks to Emma for her free association, which you can see and respond to at her site, listed above.
4 responses to “Just what kind of bird was it? And what was the cat doing there?”
Nothing as creative or as clever as yours, I’m afraid. Mine is very simple: I lay down, completely relax both body and mind and, thinking about just the story, or not, let the mind wonder. I have found that the brain is very interested in trying to help; figuring out the puzzle, as it were. At times I go into a dream-like state and the direction comes. I never suffer from writer’s block. If I get stuck in one chapter I leave it and move onto another, coming back to the first when I have discovered how I want to go. I’m sure that makes very little sense but it works for me. My biggest problem when writing is being interrupted, especially when I am ‘in the zone’. That is my struggle.
Congrats on your fifth novel.
Kathy, thanks for responding. Whatever gets you “in the zone” to work is creative, I suspect, whether it’s a trick like my poem or not. Yours sounds more like true Zen and meditation, which is also supposed to be very good for creativity. And don’t congratulate me on the 5th novel yet–it keeps trying to insist that it wants to be a short story, and I keep pointing to how much material I want to cover, and it tries to refuse the load. We’ll see whether or not it works!
Thanks for the mention and kind words. I love the analogy of the cat and bird. I kept imagining an elusive, teasing story and the writer salivating at the thrill of the chase. Great post!
Hi, Emma! Thanks to you for the praise. That poem has been fluttering around in my head for a long time now, and oddly comes up when I’m trying to get the inspiration to work on other things, as if it knew something I don’t. But without your previous mention of free association (which I free associated with and dragged my poem out of hiding!) I might not have written about it. Now I only hope that since it stands revealed, it won’t stop working!