Beyond Instinct: (Not) Writing Like Weasels

In her much-anthologized essay “Living Like Weasels” Annie Dillard locks eyes and brains with a weasel, launching an essay on calling. Weasels teach us how to live, Dillard writes, embodying an instinctive mindlessness, all energies pointed toward their “one necessity.” One weasel latched onto the throat of an eagle and never let go, even in death, its skeleton attached to the eagle’s chest. The essay ends here:

“I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot tear you part. Seize it and let it seize you up aloft even, till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields, over fields and woods, lightly, thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles.”  

It’s a stunning close to an inspiring essay. But the beauty of the language disguises the horror of the scene. The weasel latched onto the wrong bird. His actual death was not likely very poetic. As writers and as people of faith, we’re not as horrified as we might be: death is not our final fear, and we understand the larger metaphor of death. But we needn’t seek it out. There are so many ways to die as a writer already; I’d like to save us from an unnecessary demise or two with a few simple words:

Choose the right bird. When you discover you’ve chosen wrongly, let go.

This is a simple way of saying that as writers we labor under more than one calling, more than “one necessity.”  There is the calling to write, the sense of being appointed a wrestler with words, a storyteller, even a prophet at times. But there are callings as well to particular projects and subjects. When we don’t distinguish between the two, we’ll find trouble, maybe even death.

In the last twenty years I have let go of a number of essays-in-progress, articles, even book manuscripts. Despite seeking God’s direction—and feeling that I had found it, two book projects I felt very “called” to pursue, ended up withering. As each  atrophied, I latched on yet harder, spending costly attention and effort trying to revive them—to no avail.

I did not expect success to meet every writing endeavor, but some losses hit hard. We question our worth as writers; we question our very calling. But we often ask the wrong question. Rather than asking, “Am I really called to write this novel (this essay, this book) right now?” we often ask, “Am I really called to be a writer?”  In these moments, we’re not so much rising on the wings of eagles as we are devoured by our own insecurities and disappointments. We may even stop writing altogether. This is the second death—and the least necessary.

The weasel operates by instinct alone. We can do better. We can’t see into the future to know whether a project will ultimately succeed, but we can follow our given passions, testing them thoroughly with research, prayer, and rough drafts. If a project falters, as all seem to do at some point, we persevere until—-we cannot. Then, we pry ourselves loose and let it go.  Not easily, and never prematurely, but our bones will stay hinged, and our musky flesh will live to choose another subject, another day, one that may indeed send us soaring.

A Gift for the Holidays – Part I

Come.

Do you hear the Master calling?

There’s a twinkle in His eyes and a gift in His hands. Notice how the golden paper glistens with a metallic gleam. And don’t you just love the big, blood red bow?

A present. Just in time for the holidays.

Your Best Friend is excited about your gift. He’s done all the work—choosing what you need most, going to great sacrifice to procure it for you. All that’s left is for you to open it. Won’t you focus on Him and unwrap His gift?

You pull the red bow apart and lift the lid. You can’t see what’s inside, but you can smell it. It smells like lilacs and fresh cut grass and sunshine. You can feel the present, too. It’s solid as iron, soft as a baby’s cheek, and makes you warm all over. You can even hear your gift. One minute it swells with symphonic melody, the next it sings with the sweetness of a child. You can almost taste it on your tongue. It’s meat, potatoes, and vegetables—all that is solid and healthy—and it is also silky chocolate and all that is sweet.

“What is it?” You ask.

“It’s my grace.” He speaks with hushed voice, a tinge of emotion lacing His words.

You stare at the box. You’ve heard about grace before, but you’ve never really experienced it. Who knew grace had a smell, a feel, a taste?

He suggests you reach inside.

You pull out a “G” and frown.

Jesus chuckles. “G is for guilty no more. Too often you heap condemnation upon yourself. You are overwhelmed with your many tasks and feel guilty there’s dust on the mantle.

“But it goes deeper. You beat yourself up for faults and failures I’ve erased from your record. I’ve already forgotten them. There’s no need to be angry with yourself. I gave my life so you could live without condemnation. You are guilty no more. If you don’t believe me, read Romans 8:1. Read it a thousand times and tape it on your bathroom mirror. Live as you are, my dear: Free from condemnation.”

You have a big lump in your throat and since you can’t talk, you reach back into the box. The letter “R” is in your hand.

The Lord gently lifts your face to his. “R is for Rest in Me. Come to Me when you labor and are heavy-laden and overburdened, and I will cause you to rest. I will ease and relieve and refresh your soul.” *

“It’s hard to rest,” You say.

Jesus tilts his head. “Think about a nursing baby—how a mother cradles him in her arms, and he nuzzles to her breast. He is nourished, body and soul. As he’s fed he never takes his eyes off of his mother, gazing with complete satisfaction, trust, and peace. Rest in me as that baby rests. I will nourish you. I will lead and comfort you.”

Your eyes are glued to the Master, hungry to believe all He is saying, but there is hesitancy, a fear you don’t deserve to rest.

My Child, did the baby do anything to earn love?”

You shake your head. “He could do nothing to help his mother.”

“In the same way, I don’t expect you to earn My love or the right to rest. I simply come and say, ‘Are you tired? Let me help you. Are you burdened? Let me carry it.’”

Little tears gather in your eyes as you listen to Him. There’s still more to discover. You peer into the gift box.

What special ways do you embrace His grace?

*Matthew 11:28 (AMP)

Holy Deadline, Batman!

Back in November, I received an e-mail from my editor.

My FIRST editorial letter. I was giddy with excitement!

A little while later, she sent a follow up e-mail noting my FIRST deadline of 12/16/11.

Again, excitement bubbled out of this newly contracted debut author! A deadline! And it wasn’t so scary… all those silly published authors who complained about being “on deadline” were going to eat my socks, because I was going to make my deadline and triumph.

That said, I KNEW that someday I’d have that pit-in-stomach at the dreaded deadline. But not now. This was a fun “first” and I was determined to enjoy it!

Then I read my wonderful first (16 page long!) editorial letter. The word “overhaul” was used at least once. That is enough to put fear into the heart of ANY debut author!

I looked back at my deadline and cried.

Then pulled my bootstraps up to my armpits and dug in. For the first week or two, I determined to be organized about my massive rewrite/edit that was going to be needed. I made sticky notes, printed out the edits and manuscript and started to carefully plot a plan.

Then Thanksgiving happened. Read: First time making a turkey for my extended family of 17, at MY house, while my 4 kids were off school. So there blew a whole week.

When I came out of my turkey and Black Friday enduced fog, reality slapped me in the face.

My deadline was fast approaching, and I was still in my planning stages. And I had presents to purchase. Weekends filling up. Doctor and therapy appointments for my special-needs daughter coming out my ears.

I’m here to tell you:

DEADLINES IN DECEMBER STINK!

I tried. I really really did. My house resembles a warzone as I haven’t cleaned it in about two weeks.

I’ve made frozen pizza and frozen waffles for dinner WAY too much.

I made my daughter dig through the dirty laundry on at least two occassions for jeans to wear to school as I had edited instead of doing laundry.

And when I DID do said laundry, folding it was not in the cards. It laid heaped in a large pile covering half of my bedroom floor for a week, and kids were required to dig through it for school clothes. You think I’m exaggerating. I am not.

Deadline-Eve came. And I was still a good ways from being done, and not pleased about the work I had done, mostly because I was in “hurry” mode instead of “quality” mode. So I did the one thing I had refused to allow enter my brain.

I e-mailed my agent and told her how much I hate December deadlines and that if I turned this in on the 16th, it’d royally sucked.

She in turn got me a couple day extension.

So now, today is my NEW deadline. And as I got through the final read through, I fully plan to push send later today and meet my revised deadline.

I am officially a humbled, thankful debut author. Never again will I look at deadlines the same!

Now, I have to go finish my edits. Wish me luck!

A Writer’s Life

My son sat across from me at the kitchen table with a notebook in front of him — Phineas on the cover, I think, or maybe it was Ferb — and a pen in his hand.

“What’cha doin’ there?” I asked him.

“I need to get this down.”

“Get what down?”

He looked at me and shrugged. Said, “I don’t know. I can’t get it right.”

I nodded. “I have that same problem all the time. Can I see?”

He slid the notebook across the table. Written on the page were three squiggly lines, the numbers 4 and 67, and a smiley face.

“Whaddaya think?” he asked.

“I think it’s brilliant.”

“I’m gonna be a writer when I grow up,” he said. “You know, like you.”

“Oh?”

“Yeppers. I like to write. Writin’s fun.”

I stared at him, tried to say something wise, and said instead, “Well, you have plenty of time to figure that out.”

The answer was good enough for him to accept. He finished his squiggles and then left me to ponder his words.

One day six years ago, something very special happened. My son sat down with a sheet of paper and a blue crayon, put the latter to the former, and made a waxy streak from the top left to the bottom right. Magic. And when he scurried off and came back later, he found more magic — that streak was still there.

And though the truth he’d stumbled upon then was incomprehensible, he’s been creeping closer to it ever since: if he wrote, he could leave something behind for others to remember. And it would be fun.

That, in a broad sense, is why many writers write. To plant a sign into the hard earth that says I Was Here. To know that to someone somewhere, what you say matters.

I had to admit that what my son said was true. Writing is fun. As frightening as a blank sheet of paper or an empty computer screen is, it is also marvelous. It is a canvas upon which to paint a story and a map by which to explore the world. A place where anything is possible.

But I also knew what he did not, at least not yet. Many times, writing is not fun. Writing is work. Difficult, exhausting, painful work. It takes courage to look genuinely, whether into the life around you or the heart within you, and more courage to share what you find there with others. To write is to bare you deepest self, naked of sham and disguise.

It is lonely work, a solitary walk through a land of little light and deep shadow. It is a life of irony in that by exposing yourself to the world, you inadvertently construct walls around you to keep the world away. And though you may indeed be surrounded by friends and loved ones, you know that in the end you are utterly and completely alone.

You write. They do not. That gulf is not easily bridged.

Because for many of us, writing is neither job nor hobby. It goes deeper, permeating every aspect of our lives. Every conversation we have, every face we see, every moment to which we bear witness, is seen through the lens of the page. We play our trade from the moment we wake until the moment we sleep. And even then, our dreams are often grist for the mill.

Success is fleeting. Failure is constant. You are turned away by agents and editors, the gatekeepers of your aspirations, and deemed unworthy of your dreams. You struggle with doubt and fear. You drown in desperation.

You face the agony of knowing that no matter what you manage to get down on the page, it will never be exactly what you want to say.

That’s a writer’s life. And I was left with this one question: was this the life I wanted for my son?

Yes.

Because despite it all, there is to me no greater pursuit in life than the search for meaning, and there is no better way to chart that search than with pen and paper as our compass.

To tell the world that we were here.

Post Author: Billy Coffey

Billy Coffey is the author of both Snow Day (2010) and Paper Angels (Nov. 2011), both by FaithWords. When he’s not writing, he can likely be found tromping through the woods near his home. He lives with his wife and children in Virginia’s Blue Ridge mountains.

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