Monday Motivation: What being a heron can teach us about writing
We live, as I might have mentioned before, on a houseboat at the end of a pontoon in a lake fed by the River Great Ouse in Bedfordshire in the UK. We are virtually surrounded by water. Birds of various species inhabit the lake. From the deck on which we take our morning coffee we can gaze deep into the clear water where thickets of water plants rise like phantoms from the floor – and a number of fish species dart and glide through the forest.
Why this extended introduction to our world? Well, because when three large carp startled me recently by ramming the wall just below our study window, I was, like a character from a Chinese fable, sucked into the contemplation of what life as a fish, or more specifically, as a carp, might be like.
Silly, I know, but suddenly I experienced the rush of water over my scales, felt thoughts and speculations drain from my consciousness, realized that my world consisted now of sensation only: the water, the presence at my side of a couple of my kind, murky reaches stretching out on all sides of me. I am a muscle and a mouth, and I’m hungry.
Life as a goose is a very different proposition. You’ll need to choose your species, because different species have different outlooks on life. To inhabit the mind of a Canada goose, whom I have eulogised before, requires a passionate response to your fellows. It’s either love or loathing, I’m afraid, but as a Canada goose you’ll fight or frolic with equal abandon.
There’s a famous writing prompt that challenges writers to write from the perspective of a bat. You can see the difficulties involved. You live in a world of sound. You hunt relentlessly, eating on the move, zigzagging, plunging, reversing abruptly to intersect with your fluttering targets.
Why is this much more than a childish game? Well, it’s because this pierces to the essence of the fiction-writing project. This is what you’re required to do every time you sit down to write a scene.
You have to sink into the consciousness of your perspective character, feel with his nerves, observe his world, think in terms of his fears and trepidations, seek out the objects of desire that he favours. You have to draw on his vocabulary, his memories, even his perversities.
If you don’t do this, then to some degree or other you’re writing him from the outside. However good an observer you are, however fine a writer, there’ll be a dimension missing. And we, your readers, will sense that deficit and the effect on us will be to introduce some distance between us and your character. We will, in short, become less engaged.
We live, as I say, at the end of a long pontoon, from which a number of jetties protrude, like branches from a stem. To each of these jetties a house-boat will, in due course, be tethered. We’re alone for the moment because COVID-19 has put a halt to the efforts to market these moorings.
And so, instead of human neighbours, we have geese – not just Canada geese, but Egyptian geese and a solitary greylag. We have mallards aplenty, busy creatures who bustle about the lake, and pause to sun themselves on our walkways. We have the occasional coot migrant with his characteristic high whistle of a call.
And we have the most distinguished visitor of all, a haughty heron who stalks very deliberately along the pontoon with an air of slightly injured dignity. To be a heron for an afternoon is my next project. I anticipate that it’ll require a degree of anxious caution, but above all I’ll need to encourage within me an immense reservoir of patience.
Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog: ‘Writing Secrets: Do you have something to say? (I certainly hope not)‘