Monday Motivation: On the margins of the river, a lesson for all us writers

 In All About Writing

Herons are long-legged fresh-water and coastal birds which live on a varied diet of small fish, crustacea, frogs and aquatic insects. On both rivers and canals, we pass herons regularly as we slowly putter by in Patience, our fifty-foot narrowboat.

Over the past month we’ve been moving from Braunston, a little village just south of Rugby, to Bedford, just a hop and a skip from London and at the extreme end of navigation on the River Great Ouse.

It’s been a great cruise, punctuated by panicked trips to London to acquire Italian visas for our Venetian writing retreat. And over the convoluted 180-mile, 87-lock journey, I’ve spotted upwards of a hundred herons quietly fishing at the riverside.

They’re so skinny that they seem two-dimensional, grey and blue shadows without substance, perched sometimes in trees above the water, more often in the shallows along the margins of the watercourse. They stand with their heads hunched deep between their shoulders. They appear to take no notice of the slowly approaching narrowboat, but then, most often, launch themselves into the air, dip down for a moment, before their wings power them aloft in a great sweep over the meadow behind them.

But sometimes a heron will ignore the boat and continue to scrutinize the water with fixed concentration. Then it lunges at something in the water and a split second later raises its head with a minnow wriggling in its beak. The heron tosses its head back, swallows its snack, and resumes its solitary vigil, eyes fixed once more on the water.

On the upper reaches of the River Great Ouse we passed a bird that looked like a miniature version of the standard heron. Standing, its head sank, like the heron’s, between its shoulders. In flight, its silhouette was identical to the heron’s. But it is, as I say, much smaller than its larger relative – and a pure and absolute white. It is, not surprisingly, a member of the heron family, but is in fact a little egret.

The greatest point of difference between the two birds, though, lies in their feeding habits. The heron stands still as a statue and waits for its prey to swim by. The little egret, by contrast, actively pursues its lunch, dancing with raised wings through the shallows, stabbing its long harpoon-like beak at fish that its feet have disturbed, leaping into the air and splashing down, that beak darting down with startling speed…

Both varieties of heron earn a substantial living. I watched a little egret splash through the shallows for fifty or sixty metres as it kept pace with Patience, and in that time it caught and swallowed half a dozen tidbits, the largest of which was a tiddler two inches in length.

I’ve watched dozens of herons spear fish of various sizes, sometimes in quick succession, and gobble them down.

My point?

Well, it’s a small one, but it’s intended to reassure. Having spent my apprentice years in the television industry, I write very fast. I’m happy to give myself a target of two thousand words a day – and when I’m really flying (skipping along the margins of my literary river) I can write four or five thousand words a day.

There are many writers who work in this way. Joyce Carol Oates in her heyday wrote forty or fifty pages a day. Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose autobiographical magnum opus, My Struggle, took Scandanavia (and the world) by storm a few years ago, wrote thirty or forty pages a day.

But at the other end of the spectrum, there are writers who consider two or three hundred words a day a satisfying output. They stand patiently waiting for the right word to swim by, and spear it with an authoritative flourish.

So whatever you are – slow and steady, fast and impulsive – know that all that matters is the succulence of the fish you catch.

Happy fishing,


Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog: ‘Writing Secrets: Take the leap – we’ll leap with you

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