A BOWERBIRD’S GUIDE TO THE WRITING LIFE by Ammi-Joan Paquette
Have you ever heard of the bowerbird? Native to Australia and New Guinea, this bird isn’t particularly special in appearance, in size, or in shape—it’s pretty typical, in fact, in just every way but one. The special thing about the bowerbird is not what it is, but what it does. Namely? It collects things. Pretty things… shiny things… colorful things. Like its close relation the crow, the bowerbird is a scavenger of small treasures. While preparing for the mating season, the male bowerbird builds a large and elaborate nest. Then—then—it goes a step further, supplementing it with an eye-catching array of shells, berries, brightly colored bits of string or plastic. These items have been collected over days, weeks, or longer. The right thing wedged in just the right place.
Turning something built purely for function into a beautiful enticement.
Several weeks ago, I came across an article in Ploughshares magazine likening the bowerbird’s collecting habits to the writer’s act of collecting words. I’ve always loved the idea of building up a “word hoard”—that is, a sort of mental database stuffed with exciting turns of phrase, a collection of language that’s honed and curated over a lifetime of reading and writing and living.
This article, though, took my thinking in an entirely new way: connecting the process of writing to the habits of the busy bowerbird. As writers, our primary goal is to build a structure that’s just as functional as a bird’s nest. It needs to be strong, supple, spacious, solid. To me this is like the drafting process: the discovery, the frenzied shaping and crafting and pulling together the form of what will be. Until, finally, the nest is there, fully fleshed out and habitable. And maybe, for some birds, this would be enough.
But for us? We writers are no robins, no barn swallows. We won’t settle for dull, ordinary nests. No—we want to dig always deeper, push ever further. We want to go beyond function to flair, beyond the basics to breathe into our work the breath of life.
And where does that life come from? Well, from living, of course.
My newest novel PRINCESS JUNIPER OF THE HOURGLASS is a bowerbird’s effort in the extreme. The kernel of inspiration dates back more than 10 years, to a half-page story idea I jotted down and then set aside. In that scene, a young princess asks her father if she may have for her birthday a very small country all her own. Recently this story came back into my writerly focus, and the project quickly took on a life of its own, a quilted mash-up of my most treasured experiences. I knew right away I wanted to construct an adventure with a slightly old-fashioned feel, in the vein of the classic empowerment fantasies I loved as a child—The Railway Children, The Secret Garden, and Enid Blyton’s The Secret Island (a childhood favorite), among others. I also love stories with action, adventure, active plotlines. When I was young, we spent time at a campground which had a giant spreading tree which was the direct inspiration for the Great Tree, where the kids gather in their summertime kingdom. From these—and many other—building blocks, my story assembly began.
But the later stage… that’s when the fun stuff comes in. When I’m in writing mode, and certainly while I’m revising, I feel like I’m walking through my life with a wide-open mental filter. I’m like sticky fly-paper, looking for interesting tidbits to collect—recently, I heard the word “fissure” and realized I hadn’t thought of that particular way of describing a crack in a rock. What a great way to add detail to a moment! I follow Haggard Hawks’s feed on Twitter, and copy off interesting old-fashioned or obsolete words that might fit well within my medieval-era fantasy world. A visit to the Massachusetts State House for the Massachusetts Book Awards ceremony last year gave me an amazing perspective on what the inside of a palace would look like. Regular writing dates at the Boston Athenaeum steeped me in literary history and its majestic historical setting. I’ve been reading James MacFarlane to soak myself in truly masterful nature writing.
I love this stage of the process, because no matter how solid your story’s building blocks are, readers want detail. They want fun asides, rich descriptions, vivid characters. When I wrote my novel RULES FOR GHOSTING, I made a casual mention of a game called “Death by Chocolate.” My editor sent me back three separate times to add more detail to this game’s description—to make it a viable, tantalizing option for a child reader (in one paragraph or less, natch). In my PRINCESS JUNIPER revisions, my early readers asked, “Can you add a few more Boxcar Children moments?”—That is, moments of kids having fun playing at being grownups.
Shiny things. Frills. Just-for-fun moments that enrich the story, that catch the eye and sparkle.
Would the book work without them? Sure. But it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.—The end result or the process of getting there.
I think the bowerbird would approve.
Ammi-Joan Paquette is the author of many picture books including The Tiptoe Guide to Tracking Fairies and The Tiptoe Guide to Tracking Mermaids. She lives in Boston with her family, but often wishes of a country of her own. You can find her online at http://www.ajpaquette.com and on Twitter as @joanpaq. Today is the book birthday of PRINCESS JUNIPER OF THE HOURGLASS.