Bad Advice Wednesday: Write About Animals

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


             This morning, on the drive to school, my daughter Hadley issued a complaint.

            “One thing I don’t like about third grade is that they say a noun is a person, place or thing.”

            I asked her how this was different than earlier grades.

            “It used to be a noun was a person, place, thing, or animal.”

            We talked about it for a while. Apparently, someone somewhere had decided that third grade was the time for animals to lose their noun-ness, to be reduced to mere things. We agreed that a better definition of a noun would be an animal, place or thing, with humans taking their correct spot as a subset of the first category.

After I dropped her off,  I thought about animals, how they are not only nouns but absolutely vital to my own writing life, and to the writing lives of many others. To prove the latter all I had to do was take a sampling of my last sixteen hours: the afternoon before I had taught a workshop that featured a beautiful, funny and ambitious essay on pelicans by my grad student, Lucy Huber. Then, seven hours later, struck my insomnia, I spent some midnight hours reading and editing a chapter of John Lane’s brilliant forthcoming book on Southern coyotes, with the hope of placing it in Ecotone.  In my own house the daily evidence was compelling: not a day passed without my daughter writing a story about dogs or wolves; my wife’s first book was called Of Cats and Men, and my breakthrough book was my third, Return of the Osprey.  

            So today’s bad advice is simple: find an animal, watch it, think about it, empathize with it, read about it, study it, write about it. If you do, it will do something to your writing. Writers, along with primitive people, understand that animals have magic in them. They have the power to transport. I mean this practically, not mystically. When a writer starts looking beyond him or herself, something happens to the work. It becomes less claustrophobic, gets outside of itself, gets out of its own way. It airs itself out. I can think of no better single way of jolting your own writing out of habit than by spending time focused on some of the non-human creatures we share the planet with.

            I don’t mean you have to dress up as a shaman, take peyote, roll bones, sniff scat (though these things won’t hurt). I mean simply observing, taking notes, seeing what’s up with your local birds and mammals, for instance. This is fairly easy where I live: we have dolphins aplenty, and foxes, and the birds are already coming back for the early spring. Bald eagles have returned to our neighborhood, an event that deserves an essay in itself.

            I should say I was skeptical about the idea of writing about animals at first. I’d always liked birds but my relationship changed about twenty years ago in a nature writing class I took in Colorado with Linda Hogan.  The assignment she gave me was the same one I just gave you: go outside and study an animal. I rolled my eyes. But, okay, I decided, I’d do it. I took my art pad down to the creek and watched a great blue heron for a while, sketching the bird. I’d had no idea there were so many heron postures: head down in a hunch, then periscope up with stretching neck, then poised to hunt, the whole bird leaning forward. I spent hours watching and went back the next day. And the next. The next thing I knew I was writing books about birds. It seemed I couldn’t stop myself.

            I’m not saying you have to go that crazy. But maybe give it a try. Spring is almost here. It’s a good time to take a break from your brain, from the human, and step outside and take a look around. The results may surprise you.

  1. Ryder S. Ziebarth writes:

    Thoughful prompt on a blustery spring day in NJ, where the birds returning from Southern climes will have to fluff up their down coats.

  2. Sage writes:

    Nice lead in story about your daughter–another trick is to look at the world with a child’s understanding and awe. Good advice.

  3. Kenrick Vezina writes:
  4. George de Gramont writes:

    Great Essay. Delighted to see my photo ( or Nina’s ) in one of your essays. The Osprey photo is incredible . Anyway our future essayist Hadley and you make a wonderful point and I hope her teacher takes notice.

  5. Matthew Taylor writes:

    Today’s bad advice is pretty good. In fact, I’ve completed the assignment already: .

    I will plan to do more.