When A Writer Gives Up, Part 1

pexels-photo-269451In Big Magic, author Elizabeth Gilbert writes about the notion of story ideas drifting about in the ether, coming to rest with one writer or another. If given attention, the ideas stay and grow. If not, they eventually move on to a more receptive audience.

I believe this.

More than two years ago, I visited Gettysburg for the first time. If you’ve never been, do yourself a favor and go. If you possess an ounce of sensitivity in your soul, you can’t help but be affected. There’s a quality to the space … the silence … the sense of energy, of presence, behind that silence. Anyone who thinks it’s a boring old bunch of empty fields dotted with memorials is missing the point. Because of that visit, I will never be the same. I’m grateful for that, and can’t wait to return.

At any rate, shortly after that visit, a line of narrative popped into my brain–a description of a minie ball blasting into the abdomen of a young soldier from Maine on the fields of Gettysburg–and I knew I had the idea for my next book.

But I also had an idea for a book of narrative nonfiction about this man I’d met 20 years earlier who spent 30 years lovingly caring for the largest breeding herd of elephants in captivity. My research into that book–my tentative forays to locate this gentleman–had suddenly borne fruit, and here I was juggling two ideas.

My first inclination was to go after the Civil War story. But the minute I decided that, I heard–literally heard–a voice in my head say, “If you do that, you will lose the elephant book forever.” And I just couldn’t accept that. I couldn’t risk it. Telling the story of Roger Henneous and his pachyderm family was more important to me. It felt vital. It felt necessary. And, in truth, it felt like a goal I’d been working my way toward my entire writing life.

So I set aside the Civil War story and threw myself into the elephant book. In six months, I had a first draft. A very rough first draft, but at least it had a beginning, middle, and end.  I’ve since lost count, but my guess is the manuscript went through something like six iterations before reaching a point where I could search for an literary agent–happily accomplished when I signed with Bonnie Solow–and begin the ongoing task of offering the book to publishers.

At long last I could turn my eyes toward the Civil War and all the research books I’d collected in anticipation! Except the power of the story had left me. The drive to write it had withered and vanished. I suspect the idea got tired of being ignored and wandered off to a more fertile field, one ready to accept it.

Every now and then I toy with going back to see if I can revive that sense of vigor and excitement, but I don’t know. I may have missed my chance this time. But that’s okay. Something else miraculous occurred.

Favorite Animal Books

hanako1From the time I learned to read, animals were my favorite subject. I devoured their stories–fiction and non–with a hunger that couldn’t be quenched. Discovering the library at my elementary school was like opening the door to Aladdin’s cave. I chewed through stacks of books per week: Aesop’s fables; classics like The Yearling, Rascal, and Old Yeller; the dog novels of Albert Payson Terhune; the wilderness tales of Ernest Thompson Seton.

Over 50 years later, that love of animal stories is undiminished. They remain my favorite topic, my boon companions. And so, this: a list of ten beloved animals books, in no particular order.

  1. King of the Wind (Marguerite Henry) – though I loved others of her books, this story of the Godolphin Arabian remains my favorite.
  2. A Wish for Wings that Work (Berkeley Breathed) – A gentle life-lesson delivered by two of my favorite people – Opus the Penguin and Santa Claus.
  3. The Snow Goose (Paul Gallico) – The Hallmark movie of the same name was my introduction to this story of crippled artist Philip Rhayader, orphan girl Fritha, and the bird they love. SPOILER ALERT: I recently learned that Gallico was made to change his original ending–wherein Rhayader and Fritha, now grown, fall in love and share a brief time together–because publishers felt that the reading public would oppose the notion of a deformed man united with a healthy woman. Such nonsense! (Oh, and for anyone interested, Gallico’s The Silent Miaow, Thomasina, and Jenny are also excellent.)
  4. The Catwings series (Ursula Le Guin) – a darling set of books with lovely illustrations about an alley cat who gives birth to a litter of kittens with wings.
  5. The Whales’ Song (Dyan Sheldon) – What first drew me to this story of little Lily’s communion with whales were Gary Blythe’s astounding illustrations. The story is an added bonus.
  6. The Book of the Dun Cow (Walter Wangerin) – The stirring tale of the rooster Chauntecleer and loyal companion Mundo Cani in their battle against the evil Cockatrice. One of my all-time-favorite books.
  7. The Incredible Journey (Sheila Burnford) – I have Disney to thank for first introducing me to this story–NOT with the most recent incarnation (which, I’m sorry, is an abomination)–but with their original movie in which the animals never speak because, thank God, they’ve no need to; they’re quite good actors without dialogue.
  8. Born Free (Joy Adamson) – Oh,  how I wanted to grow up to be her! Who wouldn’t want to bottle-raise a lion cub, raise it to adulthood, and reintroduce it to the wild?
  9. The Mouse and the Motorcycle (Beverly Cleary) – Adventurous Ralph the Mouse receives the gift of his dreams and ultimately saves the life of the boy who gave it to him.
  10. All Creatures Great and Small (James Herriot) – by far the strongest book in the series, this story of the English veterinarian gave me hours of enjoyment and laugh-out-loud moments.

    There are others books, of course–Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, Doctor Rat, The Poky Little Puppy, Gorillas in the Mist–but I’d be here all day listing them. What are yours?