Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Revisiting the Woodpecker

And now another selection from Kristen's Little Shop of Metaphors...

I told Husband recently about Anne Lamott's metaphor (suggesting that writers carve out space to write just like woodpeckers drill holes in trees to make their nests) and the post I wrote about it.

His response?

"Don't woodpeckers peck to pick grubs out of trees?"

Thanks, Husband.

Deflated, I consulted my Bible Wikipedia. My heart sank further when I saw that he was right. Woodpeckers do indeed drill in order to extract food from trees.  But I regained a bit of buoyancy - the metaphor could survive his assault! - when I continued to read:
The diet of woodpeckers consists mainly of insects and their grubs taken from living and dead trees, and other arthropods, along with fruit from live trees, nuts and sap both from live trees. Their role ecologically is thereby keeping trees healthy by keeping them from suffering mass infestations.
Aha!  So, we writers, woodpeckers we, drill our holes to find our food - to find our material.  We then extract it; we write about it.  And we writers serve an ecological function, too.  Don't we keep society healthy by asking questions, thinking the big thoughts, and picking out, then picking apart, the nasty bugs mucking up the works?

Moreover, we do this stuff pretty well with our "strong bills for drilling and drumming" and our "long sticky tongues for extracting food."  We peck and peck - we look and look.  We suck out the material and nourish ourselves and our readers with it.  Like woodpeckers, our "species" is known for "being both highly omnivorous and opportunistic."  We can find material anywhere, anytime.  Our material is our lives.  Our lives are our material.

That Husband couldn't rain on my parade.  Indeed, he unwittingly provided more grubs for me to feast upon.

My cake was further iced (sorry for the proximity of "grubs" and "cake" in food-related metaphors; gross) when I learned that not only do woodpeckers peck to eat and therefore keep trees healthy, they do indeed drill in order to nest: "All members of the family Picidae nest in cavities...The excavated nest is usually only lined from the wood chips produced as the hole was made."

Take that, Husband.  Anne Lamott is nobody's fool.  She had it right all along:
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.
And his tip-off about the woodpecker-y diet only helps this metaphor to grow, I think.  Our society may be "dark and wounded," but it doesn't have to be as long as we woodpeckers keep picking out the grubs, as long as we writers set up shop and keep extracting the material that needs to be exposed, considered, and processed.

Oh, and one last way we writers are similar to our feathered friends: we share a distaste for being ripped off: "Woodpeckers may aggressively harass potential competitors, and also use other strategies to reduce the chance of being usurped from their nesting site."

Plagiarism?  No way!  Copyright all the way!

Alright, I think I'll leave it at that.  Anne Lamott was wise enough to stick with one woodpecker metaphor.  I should probably follow her lead and leave well enough alone.  Too late?

Which woodpecker-writer metaphor resonates most with you?  And - come on, be honest here - do I need to knock it off with the metaphors for awhile?

Image: Ladder-back Woodpecker on Cactus by Alan D. Wilson via Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license.


  1. Love the metaphors. And, as you know, love Lamott. Also, the fabulous Catherine Newman has a great essay about her relationship with her husband in which she says she loves him like a woodpecker, and I've always loved that too (I understand that analogy more about the endless & insufferable pecking than about rotten things being excavated!)

  2. Love the metaphors and this one particularly. Hope Husband understands what he did!

    You are so right about how we writers live and write and write and live. Without one, the other would be hollow.

  3. As you probably know, I have been a little overwhelmed in the real life and thus not able to keep up with the blogging life as I would like. But I need the writing like a woodpecker needs the food. And the metaphor? And your Husband's suggestion about hunting for food instead of home? You didn't even have to explain it, because either way it works. Words are nourishment. I hunt and peck for them because they are soul-satisfying. So even if I can't find the time read all my favorite blogs these days, I MUST find the time to write. Write the little things. Jot notes on an envelope. Post to the blog pieces that may not make me most proud, but that fill my soul with nourishment just because I took the time to find the words.

  4. Sustenance. Without question. (On that note, off for more lemons, and not to make lemonade. . . doe they count as sustenance?)

  5. See, You and hubby are both right...you just got to the meat of the subject! I loved "Bird by Bird". I haven't read anything else by Ann Lamott-any suggestions?

  6. Love this! 1. because I adore your analogy. 2. because you turned "grubs" into nourishment, beautiful life sustaining manna.

  7. Thank you for the hearty chuckle this morning! It was much needed in my congested state (make that triple congested state, me and the babies have it).

    Writing does provide nourishment, doesn't it! I feel more full when I have written my piece for the day.

  8. I love metaphors, especially where birds are concerned. Part of my personal totem is the bluebird. I've done a LOT of reading on bluebirds, and all of their behaviors fit like a glove. When I am looking to explain something in my life, I look to bluebirds. I love the ideas of woodpeckers being the totem for writers!

  9. I have to be honest....this one is me through and through:

    "Like woodpeckers, our "species" is known for "being both highly omnivorous and opportunistic."

    you got me!

  10. I'm all about stretching the metaphor. Keep it up! and yes, I love the idea of digging for material. Sometimes it's so easy to find, but when you write, I think you approach events and interactions differently. You are constantly on the lookout for words to capture them. So it goes beyond digging for the material...I dig for the words.

  11. Okay, I'll bite (or peck?). The only way I'm like a woodpecker is that I will knock my head against the same piece of wood over and over again persistently until either my head cracks or I get what I'm searching for. In other words, I have a nut for a brain.

    Thanks Kristen and thanks Anne Lamott!

  12. OK you wonderful writers what does it mean that I have a black crow following me right now? He seems to find me wherever I go. I know I'm the horror film lady but come on--too Edgar Allen Poe for me.

    I love this postings because you are making me think about why I write. I don't write to live but there are moments I wouldn't want to be doing anything else.

  13. ok, i just lost my whole comment. What's up with that?

    Please don't stop the metaphors because then I'll feel like I should and I'm having fun with them! I love the comparison of the woodpecker looking for food and the writer finding material (grub) anywhere and everywhere. I certainly do. I find my grub (or slop) while driving, while at the grocery store with two kids in tow, while showering... anywhere!

    Tell Husband to just nod and smile and agree with everything you say... it's easier that way!

  14. I love your new header!

    But you kind of lost me somewhere along the way on this one.

    Woodpecker as writer metaphors: bashing my head against wood trying to get a freaking clue.

  15. Oh my goodness, lady :) You crack me up! Loved this.

  16. @suzicate: I adore Operating Instructions, Lamott's account of the first year of her son's life, but that might have as much to do with the fact that I have an infant at home as it does with her fabulous writing. Lindsey @ A Design So Vast has recommended Lamott's books on faith, especially, I think, Plan B. I'm looking forward to reading more Lamott!

  17. @Terry: I know that crows are associated with bad omens, but I was once in Alaska and had the chance to visit an animal hospital where they recovered birds and helped them get back to the wild. There I learned that crows are incredibly bright, showing intelligence higher than most animals and young humans. So maybe that crow that's following you sees a kindred spirit?

  18. You are exactly right, I love the comparison of writing is about finding the material, extracting, and all the while making things more healthy. Well done!

  19. I also love metaphors and use them often. I wonder if woodpeckers ever get tired? Where do they get their energy? Is it finding that great piece of grub that it didnt know was there and voila! That's usually where my energy comes from. I do have to disagree about the competitive nature of writers -- while we may envy, I don't feel very competitive with my fellow bloggers. In fact, I am sensing a really cool community forming among some of my favorites -- and am completely warm and tickled to see familiar names in comments across a group of very talented writers. And if Im not mistaken, these are new relationships. Kristen - I think you have something to do with this... :)

  20. Love the woodpecker metaphor and love that Husband plays along.

    Keep the metaphors coming. I learned a lot about woodpeckers today.

  21. I love husbands and all the delicious writing grubs they provide us unknowingly. : )

  22. Another reason the woodpecker is an apt totem for you as a writer is that they are sensitive listeners, feeling and hearing what's going on under the surface.

    Terry, the crow is also connected with ravens and with the Norse trickster Loki, a dark bringer of light. This bird is also associated in some native American legends with stealing fire from the gods (again, the dark creature bringing the light).

    For a wonderful book on tricksters (which govern both good and bad luck, such as Hermes and Mercury, and challenge us to have a good relationship with them across the range of luck) see "Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth and Art" by Lewis Hyde


  23. Never knock it off with the metaphors. Metaphors are magic.

    Fellow Metaphor Monger.

  24. Yes! We seek - and find - nourishing stories that make the plain old everyday into something remarkable and universal and thought-provoking.
    And in your research and your own metaphor, I see a little Annie Dillard, too!

  25. Oh please do NOT knock it off with the metaphors. I love it! (And also? It's nice to know that I'm not the only one with a husband who generously dishes out the grief about my bloggy/writing stuff).


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