Monday Writing Motivation: A tangle of stories

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Beynon's blog

In the final paragraph of his Origin of Species, Charles Darwin talks about the grandeur of nature in its many forms. He remarks on the fact that the complexity of something like an “entangled bank” – with its “many plants of many kinds,” the birds singing in the bushes, the insects at work, the worms burrowing through the soil beneath – is the result of just a few natural laws. It was his lifetime’s work, of course, to tease out the mechanisms of evolution – driven by variation and selection – one of the most powerful intellectual ideas of all time.

I’m not about to liken the process of writing or invention to evolution* – but there’s something in that final paragraph that I find intriguing. It has to do with the unostentatious nature of the raw materials – birds, bees, worms, plants – and the grandeur of the flowering bank.

Or let me put it in a much more personal way:

It’s spring, at last, in the UK now – and on our trips on the river and walks along its banks, we are struck repeatedly by the sublime beauty that surrounds us.

The trouble with these descriptions – both by C. Darwin and me – is that we’re driven to use words like “grandeur” and “sublime beauty”. And the trouble with these “generic descriptors”** is that they describe, not the bank of wild flowers (or the Grand Canyon, or St Paul’s), but the observer’s reaction to them.

The only way you can recreate that sense of awe and wonder in your reader, is to describe the details of the bank of flowers: the many plants, the many insects, the many worms, the many birds. And, of course, the more specific you are in doing so (shining cranesbill, a solitary bee, a busy earwig, a fat earthworm, an inventive blackbird) the better.

But let’s, with the earthworm, dig a little deeper into the richness of the unexamined detail. And let me, freely mixing my metaphors, cast my net a little wider – to the confusion in which life seems to flourish.

Every life that I’ve encountered – including most certainly my own – has been one that proceeds by fits and starts, is interrupted by failure and disappointment, and feeds on the unexpected coincidence. All in all, it is a higgledy-piggledy mix of what is planned and what simply happens.

In short, life is a mess (Yeats’s “rag-and-bone shop of the heart”). And it’s from that mess that we pick the details from which we fashion grand tales and stirring stories. But the roots of our stories, like the roots of Darwin’s “many plants”, extend down into the confusion and the clutter of life itself.

Happy writing,


* Although it seems to me that a useful study might be conducted on what factors present in certain books enable them to survive through the decades and centuries while others, equally or more popular at the time of their publication, fall by the wayside. And equally, why some books, dismissed with contempt when published, later stage a revival to be acclaimed as works of utter genius. (Moby-Dick, The Great Gatsby, Wuthering Heights, all received poor reviews and sold badly when first published.) It’s all very mysterious.

** This is a phrase we use on our courses to refer to all the words that signify the awe that the observer feels when she’s struck by something truly, well, here it comes: majestic, awesome, resplendent, impressive, stately – and so on and on.

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