Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Pleasures of the Woodpecker: Do You See Like a Writer?

During my recent Holiday Hiatus, I took a break from daily writing.  I fired off a few trifling posts, set up Blogger to post one each morning, and then closed my laptop, giving it two weeks of true hibernation.  Up to that point, I had made time every day since launching Motherese to sit down and write.  But only when I stopped this routine did I realize that I had not only made time to write, I had also made time to think.  The act of writing had allowed - had ushered in really - the acts of thinking, of observing, of seeing the ordinary in a new way.

And I wondered: if I stop writing, will I also stop seeing?

Since starting to write, everything I do, everyone I talk to, everyplace I go has become possible material: a baking session with Big Boyan annoucement from a new mother, a visit to playgroup.  And that is both good and bad.  On the one hand, I have begun to find new meaning in each moment and have started to think more about being present in every encounter.  But on the other, I worry about making characters out of the people I love most; I do not want to mine my family and friends for stories or truths they had not intended to broadcast to a wider audience.  I do not wish to use them as means to a revelation.

I went into my vacation thinking about finding a balance, contemplating turning off the x-ray vision of the writer, and wondering if I wanted to.

And then I found some help.

I am in debt to Lindsey at A Design so Vast for introducing me to Anne Lamott.  Over the hectic past couple of weeks, I have blazed through two of her books.  Her writing bubbles over with the wisdom, humor, and truth of the everyday, whether she is writing about her first year with her son or about, well, writing.  In Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Lamott offers some clarity and encouragement for those of us fledgling writers trying to figure out what role writing should play in our lives:
In this dark and wounded society, writing can give you the pleasures of the woodpecker, of hollowing out a hole in a tree where you can build your nest and say, "This is my niche, this is where I live now, this is where I belong."  And the niche may be small and dark, but at last you will finally know what you are doing.
I love this image of myself as a woodpecker, carving out some space in the world for my ideas.  And Lamott's metaphor also helped me find a solution to the question of how to apply a writer's scrutiny to the business of living and interacting with real people.  Now I might just think of the stuff I do, the people I meet, the places I go, the fodder of my life as the twine and twigs that make up my woodpecker's nest.  These fragments support me, they are the foundation of my little hole in the tree, but ultimately it is my pecking - my writing - that tells the story.

Do you see like a writer, gathering the threads of your experience for your own woodpeckerly tales?

Image: Sphyrapicus_nuchalis1.jpg by Factumquintus via Wikimedia Commons.  Photo is in the public domain.


  1. Wow! Just wow! I have read Lindsey's words on Anne Lamont and now yours. I have to find her books for my growing collection of books. I have to clean out books I have so I have room for more.

    I do think I see my writer self as a woodpecker, though I would not have picked that image myself. Even in my novel writing - yes, I have started two, I find that my experiences have played into what my characters do. The characters are not the same as the people in my life but similarities abound.

    Thank you for these words, Kristen!

  2. Ok, I give in. I'm going out today to buy one of Anne Lamont's books. Not like I have time to read them but I need to try.

    I also feel like I'm constantly looking for material. Everything someone says to me I wonder if it is post worthy, if there is a message waiting to be found underneath the words. It gets exhausting! But when I take a break, I miss it. So I'm going to keep pecking, and looking and writing.

  3. Yes, yes! I love this. I'm so glad you are liking Anne. I think you have the best three ahead of you, too (at least to my personal taste).
    I wonder all the time about the tensions between living and writing, observing and making a subject of my life in a destructive way. I'm not sure any of us have the answer yet, but I confess it gives me great comfort to know that at least I'm not alone in thinking through these challenges!

  4. Lamott's metaphor is not exactly how I see it, but it is an effective one. And does it illustrate how we (who are often never at "home" and always in our heads) begin to define a place that feels like a home, peck by peck, twig by twig, through our acts of writing.

    When I do not write, I must carry little pens and notebooks with me - in pockets - because words "arrive" in the daily observing, living, and non-stop stream of thoughts. I must capture them or I feel less... so, close my laptop or not, my head is still writing - my hand needs a pen so I can capture the words, or I am frustrated as hell.

    I've been known to stop strangers on walks and ask for a pen, to write on my arms. Thus - I walk with writing materials. Read Writing Down the Bones as well (Natalie Goldberg) if you haven't. She's wonderful in giving us permission to write imperfectly - but to write everywhere - all the same.

  5. Lamott rocks!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I love the woodpecker analogy. I also love that Lamott always carries a notecard in her pocket, just in case she sees something that she needs to remember for future material.

  6. I wish someone had given me Lamott to read before the first year with my twins. I would have felt a little less totally insane and freaked out by my own terrifying thoughts.

    About writing....I have years of notebooks that result from that immersion that you are talking about....trying to capture the fleeting ideas...trying to figure out which ones matter. I love seeing the world this way, but it comes and goes for me. Often I can feel a writing binge starting to surround me, like some sort of aura. Then pretty soon a song comes along! I have learned to pay attention to that feeling and make time for songwriting, because if it passes you by THAT particular song will never come back.

    I really enjoy reading about others' writing processes. Great question!

  7. I love, love, love Anne Lammott. I learned as much about writing from her as I did from four years of university. Well, maybe not quite, but I love her. Did I meantion that I love her? :)

    Writing IS thinking, and seeing, and finding that balance is so hard. Today is my first day back at novel writing after a hiatus, and I'm excited!

  8. writing is, for me, as necessary as oxygen. when i don't write, it does, as you mention here, change the way i see, the way i am in the world. (and i now have the cutest little silver pen that hangs around my neck . . . just in case.)

  9. David Sedaris has a great essay where he compares himself to a magpie, searching through the bits of his life in search of shiny material. After he became successful as a writer -- his prime source of material those closest to him -- his family would preface every story with, "You have to PROMISE me that I won't read this in one of your books someday." I have a small taste of that when I take photos at social gatherings and my friend warily ask, "This isn't going to show up on your blog, is it?" It's hard when you write nonfiction and draw your material from your own life experience. I think you're right: there's a balance point in there somewhere.

  10. How irksome, I just wrote a wonderful comment and closed out of your blog before posting it! Oh, well. Now that the babes have begun screaming, I will have to abort my mission. Know that I had something significant to say to your meaningful words. : )

  11. Such a thoughtful and thought provoking post. And I love the woodpecker analogy. And so perfect for me to read today. I started my blog as an experiment for another, bigger, "better" blog that I wanted to create. But with my original blog I'm realizing that I don't really know exactly what my niche is. I'm still creating my home here and I can't build a new one until I "finish" the first home I started.

  12. Bird by Bird is an amazing book. I don't know how to even breathe w/o doing it like a writer. I guess I've just kinda accepted it. And pray for understanding friends and good discretion.
    Nice post!

  13. I am always looking for the tiniest nuggets in my everyday to blow life into and expand upon. It has become a joke in my family as the boys will often do soemthing and turn to me and say "youre not going to blog about this are you?" And I have definitely strengthened my writing muscle sunstantially since I started my blog. But for me writing is exhausting and not as relaxing as I want it to be. I usually finish up a piece feeling compeltely drained but completely content - like a good workout.

  14. I love Anne Lamott :) Heather of the EO put a bug in my bonnet about her through one of her posts, and I picked up Bird by Bird at my mother's the last time I was there on vacation. I have blown through four of her books since (some essays, others fiction). I feel inspired and refreshed after reading her. Ahhh... Anne...

    Thanks to her I keep a pen and paper nearby to capture the fleeting thoughts that could turn into something much more.

  15. I feel like I was a writer long before I was a writer, if that makes any sense. I remember my childhood as if I was standing there observing it. I remember scenes, dialogue, and, what's really weird, when I put it together, themes come out.

    I didn't write a word (except for feeble attempts at romance novels!) till I was 41 and then, when I took my first class at a community college, it was like the flood gates opened. I've filled up about 4000 pages of notebooks now. My first professor told me about Anne LaMott - Love her. I also like her first book on faith.

    My biggest problem is keeping the blog manageable so that my writing life isn't just about blogging. I have a list of projects I'm working on and one of my "writing resolutions" for the year is to work on those before I check up on blogs. And today? Broke my resolution.

  16. well, my goodness. wonderful stuff. and i can tell from your comments that you attract a smart crowd of writers.

    i believe there's a big difference between writing and blogging. some of my posts are written like a writer, but many are written like a blogger. i'm new to blogging, but i've learned that if you want hits, you gotta post. if you gotta post, you need to be prolific. if you need to be prolific, everything you do could go get put in a 500-word box the next day. and that's not a bad thing. at all.

    BUT, my very best writing comes when this woodpecker lives life without worrying about where my next post will come from.

    after all, stories happen to people who can tell them, right? i enjoyed this!

  17. Kristen,

    I love this post. Love it. That's why it is an ILI charm this week :) In all seriousness, I love metaphors and I love natural metaphors.

    "And I wondered: if I stop writing, will I also stop seeing?"

    I love this line because you are hitting on something big. Writing is not just recording. It is *seeing*. We see our lives not just through our eyes, but through the stories we tell, through the words we write. Through the holes, small and meaningful and unique, that we peck in the wood of this world.


    (And lovely to see my buddy John joining the ladies. Hey, John!)

  18. I think Anne Lamott should be required reading for the entire human race.

    Delia Lloyd

  19. Hi Kristen.

    Thoughtful post. I like it. And I love Anne Lamott. I have read most of her nonfiction, and I love absolutely all of it. I identify with her on so many levels and what she says -- and the way she says it -- resonates with me.

    As to your question about writing and seeing - I believe that if you are a writer, you will always see as one, whether you're getting it down or not. It's a way of seeing the world, of processing your experiences and senses. It's a compulsion to narrate, it's observing yourself having a thought, it's seeing the world in metaphors, in sentences strung just so, in hearing or speaking a phrase and filing it away because you just now it's worth pulling out again someday.

    I have written all my life. Honestly, I have all the poems and stories and diaries to prove it. But I took a big fat break from writing for a couple of years, and during that time, I still saw things the same way. I still wrote essays in my head, as it were. I thought I was a little crazy at times -- my thoughts coming together in phrases I would use in writing but never speak. And I obviously lost all of that. I never wrote it down.

    But I still *saw* it that way. And I think there's a benefit (to yourself) to seeing like a writer even if you can't or don't want to get it down.

    And I have just written a post-length comment. Sorry about that....:P


  20. Really compelling thoughts. I love Anne Lamott, but have only read her fiction. I will certainly be checking out some of the titles you recommend shortly.

    As for the woodpecker... I love the sense of identity in this metaphor. But it seems to beg a certain level of safety. Once we have our little hole carved out we must not forget to leave the nest periodically. We must forage for food, thoughts, ideas, and interactions that will fuel the life we live in our cozy nests.

  21. Welcome, Gale! I love your connection between nesting and holing up. Too often I forget that it is the living of life that gives me the fodder for the writing about life!


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