Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Writers With Wings

Every summer our family makes butterflies from scratch. Okay, maybe not our whole family—it’s my partner Marcy who does most of the work—and maybe not completely from scratch: Marcy finds the tiny eggs clinging to the milkweed leaves in the alley behind our house, then keeps them in a bucket until they hatch into caterpillars. She feeds them milkweed and cleans their frass (that’s caterpillar poop to you lay people) until they are big enough to be moved into the little butterfly house she built out of mesh and wire. That’s where they start their transformation.

The Rede family never does anything small, so we usually have about twenty caterpillars—or “cats,” as caterpillar enthusiasts call them-- at a time, and almost all of them live to form a chrysalis, the sleek green pod studded with tiny golden dots like fairy gems. They hang, green ornaments decorating the bare twigs in their cage, until one day the chrysalis becomes transparent like a theatre scrim when the lights go up behind it, giving us an intimate glimpse of the damp new butterfly huddled inside. The butterfly slides out into the world and uncrumples its wet tissue paper wings and beats them to dry them and pump them full of life. And then the butterfly flies away.

But there are always a few caterpillars who don’t make it, and I’ve noticed that the ones who die usually die right when they should start making their chrysalis. The caterpillar gets in the right position, “J-hanging,” as they call it, upside down like the Hanged Man on the tarot card, its body curved like a fishhook set to catch its future self. But when it comes time to actually make the chrysalis something fails. One caterpillar may get partway done and then mysteriously quit, its half-chrysalis hooding its head like a shroud. Another caterpillar may not make a chrysalis at all. It just hangs there as its body gradually straightens and darkens, withering like a leaf on a vine until we sadly take it away.

Who knows why this happens. Sometimes it seems like the caterpillar got confused at the crossroads, mistook death for transformation and absent-mindedly stepped down the wrong path. Other times I imagine that the caterpillar just chickened out. After all, transformation is scary. I used to believe that the caterpillar simply spun a cocoon around itself and changed inside it, like we might duck under our comforter to put on our pajamas on a cold winter day, but that isn’t really the case. The monarch caterpillar actually becomes its chrysalis. What I used to think of as an outer covering is actually something that comes from inside; the caterpillar sheds its skin to reveal the chrysalis within. Pieces of the caterpillar are lost, edited out in the process. Anyone would be afraid.

I’m telling you this because I have seen so many writers do the same thing: the writer who seems to loose interest in her book just when she’s about to write the climactic scene, or the writer who creates brilliant short stories but never sends them out, or the writer who writes story after story but never quite gets to revising them. Writers who quit, for whatever mysterious reason, right on the cusp of transformation, right on the threshold of the next stage of their creative lives.

I have been that writer myself a few times over. Luckily, writers—unlike the “cats” at our house—have nine lives and then some. It is never too late to make this the moment when you push through to the next step, whatever that may be. I truly hope that this time you do, and that you find your wings on the other side.


Gretchen Ash said...

Beautiful thoughts, La. One of the most profound things I discovered about the caterpillar-to-butterfly transformation is that the caterpillar literally disintegrates in the transformation process: to become a butterfly it must reduce to building materials and start over. It is this part of transformation that is awful and scary and potentially devastating for so many, and the thing that can keep us from what we are to become.

If we are brave enough, however, the result does involve flying. :)

HRJ said...