This two-inch marvel, munching away on a guara leaf and clearly unwilling to interrupt his meal in order to tidy up for the camera, has been tentatively identified as the larva of a white-lined sphinx moth: Hyles lineata. Scientific classification aside, he’ll forever be known to me as The Big Green Guy, a pet name I gave to him when we were introduced.
The first time I saw the creature, I dissolved into giggles. His vulnerable chubbiness, his tiny, multi-purpose feet, his air of concentration, his apparent lack of embarassment at being revealed as a messy eater: all evoked a response of absurd protectiveness.
Unable to help myself, I emailed his image to friends. Without exception, they reached the same conclusion: “It’s a caterpillar.” “Yes,” I said. “It is a caterpillar. But it’s not just any caterpillar. It’s an Alice-in-Wonderland, let-me-look-you-in-the-eye-and-ask-you-some-questions caterpillar.”
Not everyone found the Big Green Guy so appealing. After I purchased and hung a print of his photo on my wall, a neighbor said, “You might as well have mounted a collection of cockroaches.”
But a long-time friend saw what was coming and asked, “When is he going to show up in your blog?” Surprised by the question, I asked why she thought I’d be writing about him. Her answer told me something about myself, and something about my writing process. Before I share that answer, a little context is in order.
In February of 2008, The Task at Hand still was being developed. Consumed by the mechanics of setting up a blog page, I’d not given a thought to my first post. That would come later, near the end of April.**
While I prepared for my move to WordPress, I continued to participate on another site. It was a friendly and supportive community, where many of us enjoyed talking about writing: what we were doing, what we hoped to do, what we were frightened to death to begin.
One evening, a friend made a request that surprised me. Her nephew had decided to begin writing, and she was curious: what advice would I offer about how to proceed?
At the time, the thought of offering any sort of “writing advice” seemed presumptuous and absurd. I knew next to nothing about writing, and said so. Still, it seemed as though it could be an interesting exercise, especially if I kept a copy for future reference. Now, after seven years, I find myself in general agreement with the advice I offered then:
… Everyone has opinions about what constitutes good writing, and plenty of people think they have the how-to-write secret. But there are things I believe which I don’t often hear said, so I’ll jot those down, in no particular order, and you can do with them what you will.
1. Pay attention to the world. Listen to people. Nurture a sense of curiosity. Open your eyes to what is. Don’t be afraid to look at harsh or unpleasant realities. Writing about something doesn’t mean you have to live it.
If you must write about yourself, get a good distance away and judge yourself with a stranger’s eyes and a stranger’s severity. To put it another way, there’s such a thing as too much navel-gazing, even if you have a really cute navel.
2. Choose a congenial genre as a starting point. If you despise science fiction, writing science fiction isn’t going to be very satisfying. If you have shelves full of poetry, you might try your hand. If a novel seems overwhelming, a short story or essay might feel more manageable.
3. Write about what interests you. If you’re not interested in your subject, you’ll give up, write poorly, or bore yourself to death. A bored writer will lead to bored readers — unless the reader’s smart enough to stop reading.
4. Figure out where you come down on issues of money and publishing. Being paid to write is not a bad thing. Writing only to be paid can lead to difficulties. See #3.
5. Cherish details. Use your descriptive powers. Be specific
6. An important corollary: know what to leave out. Be ruthless. If it doesn’t fit, set it aside for later use.
7. The basics are important. Build your sentences carefully, understanding their structure. Know the rules of grammar and be able to follow them. Collect words like a painter collects brushes and colors, and learn how to wield them. Get a firm grip on the rules, so you can break them with confidence.
8. Read incessantly, but learn to write by writing, not by reading advice columns.
9. Don’t be afraid to think, and don’t parrot writers who seem more popular. You speak your own word by thinking your own thoughts.
10. Finally: write, and let go. If you’re happy with what you’ve produced, enjoy it. If you’re not satisfied, there’s always tomorrow, and the chance to try again.
As for criticism, take it in and consider it without becoming defensive or anxiety-ridden. Believe in what you’ve written as least as much as you trust what others have to say about it.
Reading through the list, I’m most intrigued by one piece of counsel I didn’t offer: today’s ubiquitous advice to “write what you know.” It isn’t bad advice, but even seven years ago it seemed somehow lacking.
After all, when I began this blog, I knew nothing of Yoani Sanchez, Charles Torrey Simpson and his Janthina janthina, the Tallgrass Prairie, the relationship between Suzanne Verdal and Leonard Cohen, the spot where the Southern cross the Dog, maritime law, the double exposures of Ansel Adams, Nora Sweetland’s sculpture, or a multitude of other curiosities which found their way into my posts.
In each case, the process was the same. A bit of life caught my attention; I became curious; curiosity transformed into interest; then interest led to research, writing, and increased knowledge. Still, it took my friend to point out the obvious. More often than not, I begin not by writing what I know, but by writing what I love. Since I clearly had fallen in love with The Big Green Guy, his appearance here was predictable.
In every era and across a multidude of disciplines, writers have made the same point.
On January 30, 1852, Henry David Thoreau wrote:
Do nothing merely out of good resolutions. Discipline yourself to yield only to love; suffer yourself to be attracted. It is vain to write on chosen themes. We must wait till they have kindled a flame in our minds. There must be the generating force of love behind every effort destined to be successful… The cold resolve gives birth to, begets, nothing.
The naturalist John Burroughs echoed Thoreau’s insights in his essay titled “Science and Literature”:
There is no literature or art without love and contemplation. We can make literature out of science only when we descend upon it with love, or with some degree of emotional enjoyment… Honey is the nectar plus the bee, and a poem, or other work of art, is fact and observation plus the man.
Our best growth is attained when we match knowledge with love, insight with reverence, understanding with sympathy and enjoyment; else the machine becomes more and more, and the man less and less.
Less measured than Thoreau and Burroughs, but making the point in his own, inimitable way, Ray Bradbury said:
If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling. You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads.
I wish you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime. I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you. May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories — science fiction or otherwise. Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.
Even the estimable E.B. White was willing to say, with typical conciseness:
All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.
Understood from White’s perspective, love for a corpulent, greens-eating caterpillar doesn’t seem particularly absurd. Besides, other caterpillars have had their stories told, so there’s always a chance The Big Green Guy will have his story, too.