Knowledge and Love

The Big Green Guy ~ Photograph by Steve Schwartzman
(Click image for greater size and clarity)

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.

**I first posted on April 19, 2008. With seven years gone, and no seven-year itch, we may be good for another seven.
Comments are welcome, always.

113 thoughts on “Knowledge and Love

  1. Um… If that is a ‘tobacco worm’ they will devour an entire plant in a day. They are so small you won’t see it until you come home from work, and it is now two inches long, fat, and your plant? Gone. Nice blog post. But still don’t like that caterpillar. (Please don’t throw anything at me)

    1. Not guilty! This little guy prefers willow weed, four o’clocks, apple and evening primrose, although he’ll apparently go after tomatoes and other flowers, too. From what I read, he’s not as voracious as the tomato and tobacco hornworms. Good thing for him — I have a feeling you’d reach out across the miles and squish him if you could

      Nice to see you. Here’s hoping you a caterpillar-free garden this year!

    1. That’s one of my favorite sites, Z. Such a nice compliment, that you’d combine one of my posts and Brain Pickings in the same thought.

      I’m even happier to see you. Clearly, you’re up and around, and within range of an internet connection. Pace yourself — no relapses are allowed!

        1. Is there any chance you have one of the malarias that’s recurrent? This, from the WHO site: “For both P. vivax and P. ovale, clinical relapses may occur weeks to months after the first infection, even if the patient has left the malarious area. These new episodes arise from dormant liver forms known as hypnozoites (absent in P. falciparum and P. malariae); special treatment – targeted at these liver stages – is required for a complete cure.”

          I’m sure you’ve been tested for all forms, but since I can’t do anything but ask questions and fret, I will. I’ll look forward to an update when you’re able.

          1. I’ll embrace all suggestions, and I wondered about malaria as well. It’s just past 3, and though I’ve been asleep since about ten, I’ve probably awakened several hundred times with the muscle aches,most in my lower abs/hips. I find myself wondering where the nearest hot tub might be…

  2. My thoughts, before I quite finished reading, is that a writer (and every artist) should put as much heart into their work as possible. Though some subjects require a detached treatment for the reader, the writer still must approach it with fearlessness and intensity. And as I finished reading, I saw I got ahead of myself, because that seems to be the point you were making. :)

    1. At least that’s the point I was trying to make: yes. And you’re right that much of what I say here does apply to every kind of creativity. I was especially taken with Burrough’s reflections on science and literature. I’d read brief quotations, but not the entire piece. It’s worth a read.

      One of the best examples of someone who writes in a manner I think Burroughs would approve is Loren Eiseley. If you and Jim haven’t read his autobiography, “All the Strange Hours,” I’m sure you’d find it compelling.

        1. I know that feeling! I’m glad that your library has it. It’s an older book, and ours doesn’t have a copy. My own copy is a 1975 paperback that has browned pages and that wonderful old book smell. I believe I’ll keep it out and read it again.

    1. It is the thing. And then there’s the corollary: write just for the heck of it, and see what you discover.

      One of my favorite quotations from Flannery O’Connor is, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” That’s one reason I enjoy her letters as I do. You can watch her tunneling through her own mind, on her way to a conclusion.

  3. “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”.

    Got that one down really well.

    Bradbury’s wishes visit me daily.

    Super post. I’m going to read it a few more times.

    1. Martha, I haven’t a clue how we could have known each other so long without this song coming to my mind, but here it is. It seems to accord very nicely with Bradbury’s thoughts, don’t you think? I confess I laughed at the line, “Summer’s almost done, winter’s coming on…” You know all about that feeling!

      I really did enjoy writing this one, and probably will read it from time to time, myself. I’m glad you liked it.

      1. I remember hearing this during my childhood. I suppose most of us were exposed to Jimmy Dean’s entertainment back then…Pre-sausage days.

        Every time it gets cloudy, even in the middle of summer, I think winter’s near. Damage done. Considerable.

  4. Write what you know. So often I find I know little about many things. I feel best when I can write about what I find interesting. It is satisfying to research something and be able to teach about it in a way that makes sense.

    That caterpillar is so fat. It is an eating machine. Miraculous how it can change into something so different.

    1. What’s amused me from time to time is how often the experience of research for a post has left me feeling like Alice, post-rabbit hole tumble. One thing leads to another, and the next thing I know, I’ve got something on my hands (like the German immigrants to Texas) that morphs into multiple posts. But, fun and satisfying? It surely is.

      “Eating machine” is exactly right. But he’s more than that. One of the reasons I love macro images of insects, bugs, butterflies, larvae, is that they help to reveal what we’d otherwise miss: that there’s an entire world out there, going about its business, while we happily ignore it. When we’re able to suddenly see it, it’s magical.

    1. I do have fun, Terry. Even more serious posts provide a tremendous sense of enjoyment while I’m writing them, and it’s good to know that some of that spills over.

      I can’t help but think of Annie Dillard’s comment in “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” which applies as much to your hikes as to my writing:

      “There is always an enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end. It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace, quite rightly, and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage.

      I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.

      Go up into the gaps. If you can find them: they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock-more than a maple- a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.”

  5. So the jolly green “giant” finally makes his appearance here: hail fellow well met, even if there was no evidence of hookah or mushroom.

    The writing advice you gave strikes me as simple and straightforward, and you’ve put it to excellent use yourself in so many posts.

    1. When I began writing this (as opposed to thinking about it) and saw that you’d posted the photo a full three years ago, I hardly could believe it. I’m not sure I believe it now. It does seem like yesterday: more of that mystery of time.

      Simple and straightforward have a lot going for them. In the world of varnishing, understanding your raw materials, attention to detail and patience really are all that’s needed. Perhaps the lessons I learned over eighteen years of varnishing, before I started writing, transferred more directly than I’ve realized.

      And once again — my compliments to the photographer!

  6. I’ve written what I know for years. Now, I’m writing what I don’t know, and it’s a lot more fun. Fiction! Where have you been all my life? Finally, I can make things up. I just finished a manuscript that is creative nonfiction/memoir and it was the hardest writing I’ve ever done…getting all the facts straight. Of course, each family member will view the same event quite differently…but I can’t control anyone else’s perceptions and interpretations.
    The caterpillar said to the butterfly: “You’ll never get me up in one of those things!” Your little fella is comical.

    1. Your remark about the difficulty of getting all the facts straight reminds me of Durrell’s “Alexandria Quartet,” which was, of course, based precisely on the premise that “one step to the right or to the left, and everything changes.”

      As I’ve recently learned, the addition of even a single fact to family history can radically change our view of a family member — not to mention our understanding of family dynamics. Even though I’ve been circling that story for some time, I’m still struggling to find a way into it. It is hard writing, and figuring out how to deal with the slippery relationship between facts and truth lies at the heart of it.

      That caterpillar-butterfly conversation is funny. There could be a children’s story in that exchange, don’t you think?

  7. reading this right before I head out the door to work. I really appreciate your suggestions on writing, (and your perspective years later validating your original thoughts) going to come back and read this one again s l o w l y One of the things that encouraged me reading this is, I do write a lot, don’t publish much of it and I try to only write about what lights a fire in me. ie. I don’t write out of some self imposed external pressure, I write for the pure pleasure of it. Now you’ve given me some great food for thought for the day. Blessings on your head. (from Fiddler on the Roof) DM

    1. One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that the discipline of regular publishing actually benefits my writing. It may not benefit it so much that it’s noticeable to anyone else, but the pleasure of pushing up against a deadline and meeting it is real: even if the deadline is self-imposed.

      What’s interesting now is to think about what I’d add to the list. If I had to sum it up, I think I’d say: more courage, sharper focus, harder work. That’s all!

  8. Good morning, Linda. I read somewhere that part of the writing process is being ruthless enough to “kill your babies.” I think it was Hemingway and am at the moment too lazy to go verify. It correlates nicely with your number six.

    It amuses me to consider just how far my blog has strayed from what I thought it would be when first tiptoeing into the blogosphere. Far from writing about various restoration projects on my old house, I seem lately to write only about “caterpillars.” And it makes me quite happy indeed.

    1. I thought it was Faulkner, Barbara. I see that it’s been attributed to Hemingway, Faulkner, Wilde, Welty, Chesterton, and (of course) Stephen King. Initially, I found a version in Annie Dillard, though she spoke of knocking down walls in the process of construction.

      It seems that one of the first to offer the advice was Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, in his “On the Art of Writing.” Here, he speaks of style, and his way of contextualizing the advice is priceless:

      “Style, for example, is not—can never be—extraneous Ornament. You remember, may be, the Persian lover whom I quoted to you out of Newman: how to convey his passion he sought a professional letter-writer and purchased a vocabulary charged with ornament, wherewith to attract the fair one as with a basket of jewels.

      Well, in this extraneous, professional, purchased ornamentation, you have something which Style is not: and if you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’”

      Since I started this blog with a goal of learning how to write (whatever that meant), I was completely free, topic-wise. The first year, I lived in constant fear that I’d run out of things to write about. Now, I worry I won’t live long enough to get all the stories told.

      1. Me too! I have stories on the back burner which I’ve been meaning to write for ages, but something always seems to nudge them out of the way.

        While I agree wholeheartedly about the “ornamentation” in writing, there is something else going on in the writing world which bothers me. I follow an author who wrote recently about receiving a “beta review” (whatever that is) on a recent piece in which she was criticized for using big words. The word in question being “fugue.” If it was the right word at the right time, why should she feel pressured to somehow dumb it down, I wonder. Sometimes I pick up a novel written by one of my favorite English writers and find myself just marveling at their brilliant use of language…which involves the occasional “big” word. Sheesh.

  9. Strange how your little green guy reflects aspects of Humphrey, in the roly poly tummy. :)

    I especially like the point “write, and let go”. It applies to much of my current attitude in life. Hanging on, or worse looking back, never seems very wise, but it’s something I excel at. Now I’m working on letting go, after I’ve done my best. A much better plan, I think.

    1. I was working on this post when I first saw Humphrey, and I had the same thought, Bellezza. I never imagined I would see a similarity between a caterpillar and a puppy, but there it is.

      “Write and let go” is a variation of something I learned in a Houston congregation. At the end of each service, the just slightly unusual benediction was, “The past is absolved; the future is open,” to which the congregation would respond, “Thanks be to God.” Sunday worship was understood as a “hinge” between the past week and the week to come, and the point always was to leave the past, in order to move into the future.

      There was a good bit of emphasis on freedom, responsibility, and decision-making. The senior pastor liked to say, “Once you’ve made a decision, move on. Otherwise, if you made the wrong decision, you’ll keep beating yourself up. If you made the right decision, you’ll waste time congratulating yourself.”

      I must have appropriated all that, because when I started writing, it was easy as pie to apply the dynamic to a new situation, and to realize I needed to “write, and let go.”

  10. What a beauty that big green guy is, and a gorgeous photo.

    I love Ray Bradbury and the quotes from him really speak to me.I have taken a long break from my prose blog, but am considering another run with it. We shall see … all your quotes are most encouraging, and, as always, a beautifully written piece.

    1. Even though Steve’s blog is devoted primarily to wildflowers, his macro shots of spiders, bugs, flies and bees — and caterpillars! — are magical. I’ve developed a new appreciation for the beauty and complexity of little critters that weren’t necessarily so appealing in the past.

      I confess I’m not much of a Bradbury fan, but there’s no question he’s a master at what he does. I know many people have drawn a good bit of inspiration from him, and I hope you’re inspired to restart your prose, however casually. Your observations always are intriguing, whether poignant or pointed.

      I hope summer is icumen in up your way — or at least a warm, full spring. It’s a precious time of year.

  11. At this range and enlargement, your Big Green Guy doesn’t creep me out. Plus, his chubbiness makes him almost cute ;-)

    I like your advice #8 and #9. Though I’m no writer, I do admire beautifully turned phrases and insights that reveal the writers “own thoughts”, showing me what they’ve seen and thought about the world.

    1. I think he’s cute as can be: or at least appealing in a quirky kind of way. i know gardeners and farmers have an aversion to caterpillars, but if it weren’t for the caterpillars, we wouldn’t have our butterflies and moths.

      Learning to write by writing seems pure common sense. No one learns how to cook by reading recipe books, or how to grow roses by strolling through someone else’s garden. The recipe books and the gardening columns are, as they say, necessary but not sufficient.

      As for thinking: that’s the hard part. When I started this little endeavor, I thought of editing as being equivalent to proofreading. Eventually, I figured out that copy editing differs, but even before that, there needs to be editing for coherence and logical consistency, structure and organization. That requires more thought than I’d imagined.

      I think my next challenge will be to develop my inner editor!

  12. I have to say that I dearly love your obese green caterpillar! He certainly deserves a post. Your tips are certainly helpful re writing, I think the best reads are written from the heart, so loving the subject matter certainly goes a long way. xxx

    1. He’s not obese, snowbird. He’s pleasingly plump, as required by his job. After all, he has quite the task ahead of him: transforming into a lovely moth.

      Your comment about the importance of loving your subject is so true. There’s a huge difference between liking the idea of being a writer, and loving the act of writing. I suspect it’s the subject matter that makes the difference.

  13. Wonderful pieces of writing advice, Linda — as good as anything written in the books lining my shelves right now! I, too, am not a big fan of writing what you know. If that were the case, there would be no newspapers at all, ha!

    As your your big green guy, well, he’s a chubby one, that’s for sure! I can see how he drew your interest and attention, even though he’s not something I’d really want framed and staring back at me from the walls!

    I love the quote by Ray Bradbury — just brilliant! “Wresting match with your Creative Muse” is such a picturesque statement, isn’t it?

    1. Bradbury’s words remind me of a “how to write” list produced by Jack Kerouac. I admire Kerouac, and I’m amused by his list (rule #3: “Try never get drunk outside yr own house”), but his approach never would work for me. Not to put too fine a point on it, I’m no Jack Kerouac.

      I suppose that’s part of the truth we have to come to terms with: what works for you might not work for me, and vice-versa. The best we can do is suggest, “Here are some things I’ve found helpful. Perhaps you’ll find something here to help you, too.”

      Say: here’s a storyline. What if my Creative Muse finally has shown up, in the form of an untidy, fat, green caterpillar?

  14. Excellent advice and neatly put together. If you managed to write this seven years ago you haven’t had far to travel to reach today’s high standard.

    I know I have been dismissive of blog writing in the past (and still am, on occasion) but coming here is always a pleasure and no post of yours has ever disappointed me.

    I love the fat green guy; to turn him into a blog post by skirting his periphery is a one of those skills you have developed admirably, whether over time or right from the beginning.

    1. Friko, I’m about to the point of trying to reach back in time (as you have in so many wonderful posts) and reclaim some of my early journey toward writing. It amazed me to remember that I was my senior class poet. It was even more amazing that I had to call my high school and ask someone in the administrative office to check our yearbook and send me a copy of what I wrote. That decades-long gap is a bit of a story in itself, and now it needs bridging.

      Clearly, everything I post here isn’t of equal quality. Some posts are objectively quite good. Others miss the mark a bit — or even more than a bit, given what I was attempting. And of course, what appeals to one will seem like rubbish to another.

      Be that as it may, I’m especially glad that you’ve found enjoyment here. Having the right kind of reader is more important than having many readers, and you’re a perfect reader, in my book.

  15. LOVE! I found myself face-to-face with what I was told was a poplar moth larva, deep in the Everglades. They’re not native, and it was like I was coming face-to-face with an alien species! I stayed with him until my hiking partner got fed up with my fascination. I was in awe of his sheer size.

    I agree with all you say; “Imagination is evidence of the Divine” is one of my favorite summaries of just that. Keep thinking, keep imagining, keep STARING!

    1. One of the best things about caterpillars is that we can take our time enjoying them. Trying to absorb the details of a butterfly or bird can be more than difficult, given their ability to flit away. But a caterpillar? It’s right there, and we can stare all we like: thinking and imagining as we do.

      That’s an equally handsome one you found. I always liked the fuzzy ones, too: especially the woolly bear, the great winter weather forecaster. I’ve been trying to figure out why I’ve not seen many — any — caterpillars around here, for ages. I suppose it’s a lack of congenial plants. I need to find a garden, and go looking there.

  16. Oh my goodness! As SOON as I gazed upon the entire BIG GUY, I immediately thought of the “Whooo arrrrrre youuuuu?” caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, and I’m sure I giggled, too, at this marvelous photo you’ve taken of him. I love your love of life, Linda, alliteration not intended, and your love of learning is so inspirational, too!

    1. Oh, my. BW, if I could take a photo like this, it would be a miracle. The photo actually was taken by Steve Schwartzman, and a fine job he did. Until I saw it, I’d never considered the possibility that caterpillars might have personality. This fellow clearly does. Well, at least he does in my eyes.

      One thing I need to do, and soon, is re-read “Alice in Wonderland.” It was a favorite when I was young, but I’m sure I’ve forgotten many wonderful details. As for loving, learning and life both deserve all of that we can give them.

  17. It is so good to be reminded of these writers’ chestnuts. Off the top of my head, I can’t really think of any to add but simply to re-iterate that writing involves intellectual elbow grease and self-discipline. In a way writing sermons for years prepared me for weekly blog writing, even when I don’t much feel like it. While reading good writing helps our craft, we really need to write to hone it.

    1. Allen, your mention of work and discipline reminded me of something Jack London said: “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

      And there’s that critical phrase: “even when I don’t much feel like it.” Feeling like writing is such a rare experience for me, at least when it comes to beginning a new piece, I might have produced a dozen posts in seven years if I depended on it.

      That’s the danger of so much of the “Muse talk” that goes on among writers. I suspect the “absence of the Muse” has been used as an excuse for not writing more than housework, employment, exhaustion, or the demands of family life combined.

      Once I get into a piece, it’s a different story. I can spend hours reading, researching, and writing, and enjoy it all. But getting past that strange, early procrastination can be hard.

      1. Yes, I completely agree. Writing is like broaching a hill that demands some hard slugging at first, and then a bit of a downward drift until the editing. Then more slogging follows!

  18. Oh Linda, that is a handsome cat by Steve S. and he is cute. I happen to think all caterpillars are cute. Some of the moth cats become the hawk or hummingbird moths, which to me, are pretty.

    Your advice about writing is excellent. But I have not read much as an older adult simply because I have not much time for that pursuit. I wish that I did.

    Great post as usual.

    1. I knew you’d like him, Yvonne. It’s only been over the past few years that I’ve begun appreciating the moths as much as butterflies. Following the nature photographers has increased my appreciation, for sure. The moth world’s filled with as much variety and beauty as that of the butterflies; it’s just a little harder to see for most of us.

      I find it hard to carve out time for reading, too. I actually read quite a bit, but it tends to be related to my writing. I’ve got a stack of “just for fun” books that could carry me to Christmas and beyond. All I need to do is start.

  19. Now that you’ve brought up Alice and her encounter with the hookah smoking caterpillar, I’ve always thought Humpty Dumpty’s advice to Alice is pretty good advice to a story-telling writer: “Begin at the beginning, go on to the end, then stop.” Particularly that last bit. There are writers who have never mastered that last bit.

    Don’t know if you know what a “small stone” is, but with your love of etherees, you might like them. http://www.writingourwayhome.com/small-stones/ Like writing etherees, it’s good discipline.

    Then there is the Rebok rule: Just do it. Nothing teaches you how to write like actually doing it. (Just like nothing teaches you how to draw like drawing. Every day.) Pick what kind of thing you want to write — news articles, poetry, nonfiction, fiction, whatever, set yourself a task in that kind of writing that you will write something as if you were that kind of writer, and then just do it.

    Now that you’ve brought it up, of course, we’ll bug you to death until you tell us the story of the pudgy green caterpiggle.

    1. Knowing when to end probably is an aquired skill, as is knowing how to end. My favorite ending is the last paragraph of Durrell’s “Alexandria Quartet.” It’s masterful — after four volumes, it links back to the opening paragraph of the first book, and is surprising in the extreme.

      I followed some small stone blogs for a while. Then, the bloggers went away, and that was the end of that, although I did practice some similar disciplines for a while. Now, I want to head in the other direction, and see if I can sustain even longer work. Think: chapters. Maybe.

      There’s great wisdom in the kin of imitation you mention: “write something as if you were that kind of writer.” It reminds me of a time, very long ago, when I was so shy I couldn’t stand to walk into a room filled with people. On a particular day, I got through it by pretending I was a beautiful and confident Sophia Loren instead of ordinary and quivering me. It worked like a charm, and was the beginning of a better kind of coping.

      I’m just sure the Big Green Guy has a story. When we get to be good enough friends, he might even tell me.

  20. HI Linda can’t say I fell in love with your beastie, although I loved the post. Will do a post incorporating the writing advice in the next while, with due attribution and link of course, if that’s ok with you?

    1. Love is a strange thing, Anne. I’ve wondered a time or two about the fellows my friends have chosen. To each her own, as they say!

      It’s fine for you to quote briefly from the post, or include an excerpt but I would prefer that the list not be reproduced in whole, and that fair use guidelines apply. Otherwise, feel free. Your judgment is good. I’m glad you found the post worthy of a link.

  21. That second paragraph is the opening for many chapters that could follow. Really delightful, stylish and skilled.
    Where is WP and Fresh Pressed? With all the multitude of not quite as good as this reblogs cluttering reader, why is the Big Green Guy off to the side unnoticed? Oh, he’s busy with actual important things and doesn’t need the attention. (He really could gently guide so many)
    Certainly one of the best pieces I read in a long time on writing, fiction, creating.
    (and the comments aren’t too shabby either)
    Cheers! Fireworks and standing ovation. You’ve done it again. Stellar

    1. To paraphrase a fairly famous bit of dialogue, “Freshly Pressed? We don’t need no stinking Freshly Pressed!” Besides, the BGG has you, and the rest of my lovely readers. He’s not lacking for a thing.

      I really did enjoy putting this together — not just for the delight of posting a caterpillar portrait, but also for the chance to reflect a bit, and re-evaluate convictions I already was forming by the time I moved to WP.

      Just today, I happened across this examination of Mark Strand’s work on Brain Pickings. I was going to quote a line or two, but it wasn’t long before I was quoting paragraphs, so I’ll just leave the link. It’s rich stuff, and I think you’ll like it.

  22. I knew I liked Ray Bradbury…didn’t quite know he was a fellow book sniffer!! I wouldn’t change a thing you said and it is true that you can’t really write in a lively way unless you actually ‘feel’ something about what you are writing. Personally, reading your list I need to take inspiration to pay more attention to proper sentence structure. It doesn’t kill the mood to do it right!!

    The green guy looks like Jabba the Hutt…only prettier!!

    1. Every now and then I have to make an embarassing confession, Judy, and this is one of those times. I had to resort to Google to figure out Jabba the Hutt. I do remember seeing him now (although I’ve not seen Star Wars) and I must say the Green Guy is far more attractive. He actually reminds me of the Marshmallow Man, or my grandmother’s lucky Buddha, with his rotund belly that we rubbed for luck.

      One of the best reasons to read some of the masters is to see how they manage to produce lush, descriptive prose without losing control of their language. What WOL mentioned up above, about Humpty Dumpty advising that a story should “Begin at the beginning, go on to the end, then stop” applies to sentences and paragraphs, too — don’t you think?

  23. Linda, I feel like this post was written for me this week (as you may recall my current art post). I know it wasn’t, yet all the things you discuss related to writing are applicable to finding yourself in any of the arts — or dare I say, life. Do nothing merely out of good resolutions. Discipline yourself to yield only to love. What fine words of Thoreau’s you share. They couldn’t be more timely, nor could the words of the other luminaries whose wisdom crosses generations and subject matter.

    I am rather fond of your big green guy and more fond still of the way you chose to weave his story into a picture so much bigger, one that we can all learn from. And really, you came up with those rules/guidelines only seven years ago? My! Talk about excellent instincts and knowing yourself and your craft — even before you may have thought you did!

    1. You’re right, Jeanie. Creativity is creativity, and much of this could apply across a variety of fields. One of the reasons I so enjoy following photographers and painters is because of the insights I glean from them about their processes: how they go about their work. That’s part of what makes Arti’s posts about books-into-film so fascinating, too.

      This post has been simmering for a while. Long before the big green guy came along, the title was going to be “Writer’s Intuition.” To be frank, I’ve always wondered where some of this wisdom came from, all those years ago.

      It did take me a good while and a lot of thought to commit to making the jump to WordPress, so many of these issues were swirling in my mind even before I had chosen a blog title, a theme, and so on. Beyond that, much of this is common sense, and some of it surely was picked up by osmosis from people like Flannery O’Connor and Annie Dillard, even though I wasn’t one whit interested in their views on writing when I began reading them in the 1970s.

      The one I’m finding more and more intriguing, and well worth reading, is Thoreau. I’m glad you enjoyed that quotation. I wish I’d come to him sooner, but at least I’ve found him now.

  24. You offered good advice to your friend’s nephew. I hope he’s still writing.

    Love The Big Green Guy. He’s awfully cute.

    1. The next time I talk with Beth, I need to ask her. Even if he’s moved on to other things, his question surely was good for me.

      Cuteness may be in the eye of the beholder, but I’m in one hundred percent agreement on that issue. I admire a lot of photographs without having to have a print for myself, but this one? I had to have it. It’s fun when we can have such little delights for ourselves.

  25. As I was reading your list I was thinking, “What about ‘Write about what you know'”? You make a good point about that. I think it may apply best to fiction.

    The podcast link you sent me recently with the interview of the author of Pig Tales and Tomatoland sort of makes the point. He knew that the book would be somehow about food, but then he picked a subject he knew nothing about and dove into it. Two years later a book emerged. But as he said, if you do that you better hope you choose wisely as you’re about to enter into an intense 2-year relationship.

    1. Maybe the gap between fiction and non-fiction could be bridged by “write what you’re curious about.” For fiction writers of every sort, that could lead to the creation of an alternative world. For the essayist or writer of non-fiction, it means a deeper exploration of the world in which we live.

      Barry Estabrook’s an example of someone who’s honed to perfection what I like to do with certain posts, especially those that focus on history. One thing leads to another, curiosity grows, details pile up, and the next thing you know, you realize you have a point, even if it’s still out there, hiding in the weeds.

      About once a year I cull my draft files. I’m always amused to find a few that are completely inexplicable. At some point, I was enthused enough to imagine there was a post worth writing, but if I can’t figure out what in the world I was thinking — out they go.

  26. Absolon wreathed in smoke from his hookah is one of my favorite characters in Alice in Wonderland. I like the combination of wise, bad and magical. So good for you, Linda, liking a big, fat, green caterpillar who undoubtedly consumes his own weight in leaves on a daily basis. –Curt

    1. It occurs to me that “wise, bad, and magical” is a fair description of another of your life favorites: Burning Man. Has the hookah-smoking caterpillar ever shown up there? I have to think the answer’s yes.

      I still enjoy Grace Slick’s Woodstock performance of White Rabbit. I was going to say, “She’s so young!” — but we all were young, then. Hard to believe it was nearly fifty years ago.

      1. I don’t remember, Linda. Were you at Woodstock? Peggy’s listening to Voice so I’ll go back and pick up Grace in a while. As for Burning Man, I haven’t seen Absolon there but I’ve seen some hookahs. :) Plenty of Madhatter types. –Curt

        1. No, Woodstock was very, very far away from north-central Iowa — in more ways than miles. But I had the first Jefferson Airplane album, along with the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Country Joe and the Fish… Such memories, and a lot of good music.

          1. So was Diamond Springs, Linda. But I had been off to Berkeley and Africa by then. I never did the Flower Child bit, however. I was serious, much too serious. I probably could have used a few more drugs and a lot more music. I went back and listened to Grace sing White Rabbit: it was all about magic pills and mushrooms. You may have been ‘cooler’ than I was. :) –Curt

            1. My contribution to the Flower Child movement was granny glasses and sandals: not drugs. Of all the things I wasn’t, cool was at the top of the list. But I had the music bit down just fine. I took up the 12-string, and started learning about Leadbelly and the Lomaxes and such. What amazed me about Gracie’s performance (she still was Gracie back then) was the purity of her voice, and the fact that her lovely white dress was such a contrast with all that mud.

            2. I never made ‘cool’ either. I was into protesting war, pushing the environment, and arguing for international solutions to international problems. A little naive perhaps, but as I said, serious. Groups like the Grateful Dead passed through my world and I had little knowledge of them. I regret having missed some of that, but not the choices I made. –Curt

  27. Such a wonderful post! the Ray Bradbury quote especially captures how I feel about reading and writing, and is just the inspiration I need to finish choosing a writing spot and moving beyond my blog. I mean, I will of course always blog,(I think) but prior to my children I wrote so much more than that and I am itching to return to the things I love! Thanks for the inspiration!

    1. For some reason, your comment about choosing a writing spot brought to mind the lollipops lying in that window by your stairs. I think for all of us, it’s a matter of finding where the lollipops are stashed, and taking that space for our own. The beautiful thing is, what we do with the space is our decision to make, and ours alone.

      It makes sense that you’d be feeling an urge to devote more time to your writing (and whatever else might appeal) as the kids become a little less dependent. And that’s an important lesson for them, too: that their parents have their own interests and pursuits. One of my friends used to say that independent and creative parents make possible independent and creative children. It seems reasonable to me.

  28. Although your advice was aimed at a prospective writer, it applies equally well to most all the artistic endeavors. Actually to almost any task whether in the arts, crafts or one’s basic employment. The quality of the output depends on the input and if love is put in then that’s what comes out.

    As far as your jolly green gigantic caterpillar, you’ll hear no discouraging word from me…I love the chubby green guys and we were delighted to find a Cecropia larva on a tree peony in our front yard a few years ago. Sadly it never got to mature as some parasitic fly larvae slowly devoured it. It looks so comical with those faux ladybird beetles on top and the blue suede shoes below.

    1. You’re right that my advice to the young writer could be equally valuable for photographers, artists, musicians — even for woodworkers and varnishers. In fact, as I look at the list, I know that certain bits of wisdom were grounded in life experiences that had nothing whatsoever to do with formal writing. Learning to deal with criticism, for example, and learning to say what I have to say without worrying overmuch about others’ responses has been a life-long process: one that’s not yet perfected, believe me.

      Your Cecropia larva is just amazing. I can’t remember ever seeing either the moth or the caterpillar, and I think those blue shoes and fake ladybugs would have impressed it on my mind. I hate the thought that it didn’t get to develop, but I’m so glad you were able to capture it for posterity — and a little renown for yourself, too!

      I started wondering what other caterpillar wonders there might be. Look at this one, from Australia. I had no idea they could be so highly decorated.

      1. The world is filled with such amazing things. Caterpillars especially are just so fascinating and I am pretty sure that individual has evolved all the decoration to make it a rather unpleasant swallow for some predator. But nature, I am also pretty sure, has evolved another individual with the knack for gobbling these larvae down quite happily.

        You would certainly remember a cecropia moth as they are quite large and as lovely as most any butterfly.

  29. I had to go over and congratulate Steve on his Big Green Guy. Did you frame him appropriately?

    The years pass so rapidly don’t they? I first checked out WordPress at Cheri’s insistence in 2011when it became impossible to continue sculpting. I had no idea what to write about but I knew I had to do something. I thought it might be a good idea to write family history for my family, but most of them don’t read me. Then I began posting pieces of my artwork, as it evolved and I became involved I found people who were actually interested in some of the things I find fascinating.
    We all form relationships with various groups of like-minded people, and I treasure the cyber-friendships I have made through the years.

    I read in Tandi’s post that you have had the cataract surgery. Glad to hear it is behind you—at least the first one.

    1. Ah, yes. Big Green has a perfect frame, Kayti. I tend to be a minimalist, and that suits him just fine. I do have a couple of very large oils painted by an accomplished friend — one is yellow roses, the other poppies — that have ornate gesso frames. The frames pair well with the paintings,given the size of the canvas, but I’d never make such a choice myself.

      When I began this blog, the one thing I was sure of was that I was going to write about what interested me. That way, even if no one else ever read an entry, I still would enjoy it myself, and wouldn’t regret the time I’d spent at it. There have been some times when I truly haven’t felt like writing another post, but I’ve always found that, once I begin, the process itself is energizing. It’s a strange phenomenon, but a useful one.

      Yes, one eye done, and one to go. Initially, they were going to do my right eye first, and place the lens for distance vision. Instead, they did the left eye, and inserted the lens for near vision. The great advantage is that, however limited I am for driving and such during this interim (two weeks to go!) I’m able to function perfectly well at the computer. How convenient!

  30. Great post! This is really applicable for those aspiring writers who want to strike it big and be rich. Sometimes it is just not possible, since some genre have much less followers compared to others (Historical compared to Romance).

    The Ray Bradbury quote, a rather amusing yet inspiring quote to us writers.

    1. Actually, this post isn’t meant for anyone who wants to strike it big and be rich. This is a post for people who want to write (or engage in other avenues of creativity) and do it well.

      Thanks for stopping by, and for commenting.

    1. Don’t stop with “The Immense Journey,” Georgette. Put “The Star Thrower” on your list, too, and be sure and read the chapter in that book called ‘The Hidden Teacher’. The epigraph for the chapter is “Sometimes, the best teacher teaches only once to a single child, or to a grownup past hope.”

  31. I agree with your pointing out that sometimes we begin by writing what we don’t know. It’s strange isn’t it, that through writing we come to know. Maybe it’s the process of constructing a post, the research involved, and the curiosity piqued, that we starts from square one, the first step, then slowly moves on to a full post, a tiny bit more informed after that. Congrats on your blogoversary, Linda. It’s been a long journey and glad you’ve shared every step of the way with us.

    1. It occurred to me this morning that, given the fact that there’s so much more that I don’t know, than what I do, starting with the unknown provides a nearly infinite number of topics.Beyond that, a willingness to say, “I don’t know” is extraordinarily helpful when it comes to the learning process.

      But there needs to be a connection, some curiosity, a good bit of sustaining interest. When I last culled my draft file, I was interested to ponder the drafts that never went anywhere. There were stories, poems, random thoughts, that got recorded in a full flush of enthusiasm. Then, with the passage of time, they simply withered on the vine. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Something else will grow up to take their place.

      Who knows what the next seven years will bring? It ought to be interesting.

  32. I appreciate your green guy, but I can’t love him like you do. I do however really love your 10 points on how to write, and I think there are brilliant sparkling diamonds in there.

    I am trying to find a great Gertrude Stein quote that I heard tonight – not yet successfully – in which she says in the job of the writer and painter not to give in to despair, but to find a way to give life meaning and beauty. Well, she said it much better than that, but those were the sentiments. I love that idea -that our creative endevours should also make the world a better place. That of course is what creativity is – our best expression of the world. Thanks for this inspiring post!

    1. That’s all right, Tandi. I didn’t really expect many people to take to the Big Green Guy with anything more than polite interest Of course, I know someone who thinks the Kardashians are really, really interesting and compelling. I don’t fault her for it, but I’m not going to get very excited myself.

      I tried to find that Stein quotation and couldn’t, but I do like the sense of it. It made me think of the Ice Castle. What better example could there be of people creating art to make their world more meaningful and beautiful? The fact that it melts away in time makes not the least bit of difference. The Castle may disappear, but the meaning and beauty remain, in memories and hearts.

  33. Just a little late to this writing confab, Linda.

    All of your writing advice is terrific and true. I’d add George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” to the round-table talk.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politics_and_the_English_Language

    I’ll also suggest, as I have to my students, to read the following novelists:

    William Faulkner
    Kate Chopin
    Franz Kafka
    W.G. Sebald
    Virginia Woolf

    Crafting five beautiful sentences is an art form most of us do not have the patience to pursue.

    Concerning Steve’s marvelous photograph and yours and your readers’ delightful commentary, I suggest a piece of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz (2001) that concerns moths. I’ve never viewed a moth the same after reading it.

    However, Austerlitz is one of the most difficult books to read, so it may not be for everyone.

    1. I’ve just read the whole of the article on Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” which I didn’t know. On the other hand, there was a good bit there that I found congenial, and I’m going to bump the full piece to the top of my reading list.

      I did laugh out loud when I got to the reference to Haltom and Ostrom’s work and the phrase used in their title: “Teaching George Orwell in Karl Rove’s World.” Oh, my. That’s rich.

      I’ve immersed myself in Faulkner, and read a good bit of Kafka and Woolf, but I don’t know Chopin or Sebald. I see that Chopin has ties to Louisiana, so I think I’ll set her aside for the time being. I’m starting to outline and rework some Acadian pieces myself, and I think it best not to put myself in a position of unconsciously echoing her voice, or of becoming discouraged by writing that seems far better than anything I can produce.

      I will take on “Austerlitz.” I was surprised to see Gwynedd mentioned. I have a dear friend who lives in Fford Gwynedd — just one of those little details that compels interest. And I found at least a part of the section about moths online. That only added to my interest, and willingness to take on the book (even though I’m quite fond of paragraphs, and have a sense I may need to get over that.)

      1. George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” is one of the most prescient essays I’ve ever read. Orwell had been a Communist, so he knew first-hand how people who want to control other people manipulate and distort language. He made language a central part of 1984, even to the point of including an appendix about Newspeak, and you may recall the great dictum from Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” When you have time to read “Politics and the English Language,” I think you’ll be impressed with the way he was able, way back then, to describe so much that has become familiar now—alas.

        1. Now that some Columbia students have requested trigger warnings on Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” perhaps Orwell will be next.

          Both “1984” and “Animal Farm” were part of my high school curriculum. It was much later that I realized Lewis Carroll was making a related point when he wrote this:

          ““When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ ’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.'”

          I’m looking forward to reading Orwell’s essay.

          1. Thanks for that link. Let me borrow an expression from the 1960s and say to the essayist “Right on!” The essay even touched on Orwell: ” Training us to ’embrace all identities’ smacks of Big Brotherhood….” In the half-century since I was at Columbia, that school has become increasingly alien to what I believe a university should be. If I sat in on some classes there now, I’ll bet I’d be “triggered” by the pettiness, narrow-mindedness, and intolerance of many students.

  34. Austerlitz is a masterpiece worth the effort. In order to study the work, I used sticky colored index pieces to create chapters and cordon them off, so that I was able to backtrack while I was writing my thesis. That decision turned out to be helpful.

    Sebald’s decision to leave out chapters relates to the content of the novel.

    I’d love to read a blog post on Austerlitz!

    1. I just finished reading this review, and intend to make a copy for my files, just in case it goes back behind the paywall. It’s an entirely illuminating read: not only for what it says about Sebald, but also in the way it relates to some aspects of my own learning curve.

      Now, there’s no question I’ll be reading Austerlitz.

  35. Oh yes, I have read that review. There are others that shed more light on his brilliance and what he was trying to do in his unorthodox approach to storytelling. You might start with The Emigrants or Rings of Saturn, both of which are a bit more orderly in terms of narration and paragraphing.

    There is no question in my mind that had he not died in 2001 (aneurysm at the wheel of his car), he would have won the Nobel Prize in Literature. No question.

    So yes, every serious student of modern literature (although his sentences harken back to old beautiful German ones) might consider reading W.G. Sebald.

    Now, off to study Camus in Italy next week. I hope to blog about the experience.

    1. I’ve seen general agreement about the Nobel prize possibilities had he lived. I’m not always so impressed with those who do win the various prizes, but as a general indicator, they’re of value.

      You do get around, I’ll say that. I re-read “The Plague” during the height of the ebola epidemic. Context certainly does make a difference.And you probably don’t know that the title of my blog is related to the myth of Sisyphus. You can find the originating poem here.

      Bon voyage!

  36. I enjoyed the piece but can’t sign up for writing tip #1. I don’t write about issues that are deeply troubling to me because to do so well I must tell the story through the eyes of my characters – live their lives. Writing detached from the experience is reporting whereas I view my style af more of a storyteller. There it is I suppose, the difference between reporting and storytelling.

    1. The issues you point to, Terry, are one reason I so enjoy reading (and trying to write) in the genre called creative non-fiction. Good history-writing and good reporting are so much more than the “just the facts, ma’am” approach that was common some years ago.

      The good news is that we get to choose how to approach our subjects, finding the ways that work best for us as individuals. It can take a while to sort through it all, but it’s still terrific fun.

  37. How beautiful sharing…. Your love, knowledge and well-observed life, experiences, etc. meet with your writing skill…and always makes me excited. I really love to read your stories, writings. You are one of my favorite writers in this blogging world. Thank you dear Linda, Love, nia

    1. Sometimes, even the littlest things can spark our interest, can’t they? It makes me happy to know that you enjoy my posts, Nia. I like sharing my world and my thoughts, just as you enjoy sharing your photos. That love of sharing is one of the good things that connects people, don’t you think? Love, Linda

  38. So much one gets to learn about when reading your blog. This time among themes, the Big Green Guy. :-) And then to your advice for writing; I can only completely agree. Most important I think is writing about what interests you.

    1. Isn’t he wonderful, Otto? And, yes — if we’re not interested in our subject matter, what’s the point? Of course, not everyone may be so interested, but that’s part of the struggle for the writer: to draw people in, to help them become interested in the topic, to make them care about that little bit of the world.

      Even about a Big Green Guy!

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