What kind of writer-bird are you? Gayle Brandeis looks at different species of birds and their nest building techniques and considers how our fine feathered friends’ creative processes might intersect with our own as writers.
Creativity abounds in the natural world. I love learning about the wild ways creatures construct their homes, the stunning variety of materials and techniques they use, and thought it would be fun to look at different types of nest building and consider how our fine feathered friends’ creative processes might intersect with our own as writers.
Take a look—what kind of writer-bird are you? How do you build your own nest of words?
The Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) builds its nest out of ephemeral things—dandelion down, thistle, spider silk, moss—crafting a thimble-sized home that is both flexible and surprisingly strong.
If you’re a Ruby-throated Hummingbird as a writer, you often start with a wisp of idea, a flash of inspiration—an image, say, or a compelling word; if you keep building and building upon this, you can craft a piece of writing that can hold you, that can surprise you, one that can withstand the elements.
Specimen: Margaret Atwood
“When I'm writing a novel, what comes first is an image, scene, or voice. Something fairly small. Sometimes that seed is contained in a poem I've already written. The structure or design gets worked out in the course of the writing. I couldn't write the other way round, with structure first. It would be too much like paint-by-numbers.” (Source)
Specimen: Toni Morrison
“I am interested in the complexity, the vulnerability of an idea.” (Source)
The Common Tailorbird (Orthotomus sutorius) creates an intricate frame first, stitching leaves together with its beak and silk thread, then building its nest within the frame it has constructed.
If you are a Common Tailorbird as a writer, you like to know your structure before you start; you create an outline, a skeleton to carry your story, then flesh out all the details as you go.
Specimen: Orhan Pamuk
“I’m a relatively disciplined writer who composes the whole book before beginning to execute and write it. Of course, you … cannot imagine a whole novel before you write it; there are limits to human memory and imagination. Lots of things come to your mind as you write a book, but again, I make a plan [and] know the plot.” (Source)
Specimen: Marlon James
“I plot meticulously. I have books and books and charts and charts. And then I promptly ignore all of it. Because I think what I really wanted was to get my head in order, and then I’ll write.” (Source)
European Bee Eater
The European Bee Eater (Merops apiaster) digs a trench into the sand on a river bank. It drills with its bill and digs with its feet, and then burrows itself into the earth.
If you’re a European Bee Eater as a writer, your work is deeply grounded in place. Place holds you as a writer, inspires you as a writer, becomes an endless font of material, becomes a character in your work.
Specimen: William Faulkner
“I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it.” (Source: The Paris Review Interviews, vol. II)
Specimen: Louise Erdrich
“Through the close study of a place, its people and character, its crops, products, paranoias, dialects and failures, we come closer to our own reality. It is difficult to impose a story and a plot on a place. But truly knowing a place provides the link between details and meaning. Location, whether it is to abandon it or draw it sharply, is where we start.” (Source)
The Sociable Weaver (Philetairus socius) nests in groups. They create a giant compound, a co-housing complex of nests that can accommodate up to 100 sociable weaver families.
If you’re a Sociable Weaver as a writer, you love to work in community, to be part of a writing group, or a workshop, or be in collaboration with other creative folk. You feel isolated in solitude and get energized when you share your creative process with others.
Specimen: Lin-Manuel Miranda
“The fun for me in collaboration is, one, working with other people just makes you smarter; that’s proven.” (Source)
Specimens: Organizations like VONA, Cave Canem, Kundiman, Canto Mundo and others offer retreats and conferences for writers from marginalized communities, building a collective, empowering nest that holds a vast number of voices; see also organizations like Women Who Submit, a group that brings women together to support one another as they send their writing out into the world.
The Great Hornbill (Buceros bicornis), on the other hand, settles alone inside an abandoned woodpecker hole or natural cavity it finds in a tree. Before it lays its eggs, it seals itself inside the nest behind a wall of mud (and, sometimes, poop).
If you are a Great Hornbill as a writer, you need solitude to write. Isolation doesn’t bother you—it nourishes you. You are your own best company and like to shut out the world when you write by whatever means necessary.
Specimen: Virginia Woolf
“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” (“A Room of One’s Own”)
Specimen: Jonathan Franzen
“On Franzen's desk sit a pair of earplugs that he wears when he writes, over which he places noise-cancelling headphones that pipe "pink noise" – white noise at lower frequency. His computer has had its card removed, so he cannot be tempted by computer games. The ethernet port has been physically sealed, so he can't connect to the internet. While writing The Corrections, he even wore a blindfold as he touch-typed.” (Source)
The Edible-Nest Swiftlet (Aerodramus fuciphagus) makes its nest completely out of its own saliva, building layer upon layer of its own sticky secretions on the walls of dark sea caves.
If you are an Edible-nest Swiftlet as a writer, you write directly from your own experience, building stories from your own body, from the deepest caves of your life, your self.
Specimen: Khadijah Queen
“In writing the body pours onto the page for me; it is what I inhabit in thought and in physicality, top of mind and in the forefront of experience.” (Source)
Specimen: Lidia Yuknavitch
“…I wrote story after story. There was no inside out. There were words and there was my body, and I could see through my own skin. I wrote my guts out. Until it was a book. Until my very skin made screamsong.” (The Chronology of Water, p. 184)
The Satin Bowerbird (Ptilonorhynchus violaceus) decorates its nest with a wide variety of objects, anything that catches their fancy—spoons, coins, drinking straws, bits of foil, shells, flowers, even a glass eye, have all been spotted in the bowers of a bowerbird—making each nest a unique creation.
If you are a Satin Bowerbird as a writer, you find inspiration all over the place. You are a wide, voracious reader and have an insatiable hunger to learn about the world; your work reflects a synthesis of all your obsessions, all your influences, all the varied phenomena that spark your curiosity.
Specimen: Patricia Smith
(When asked where her poems and stories come from) “Every damned where. Honestly. Snippets of conversation, news clippings, the past, the present, “My Strange Obsession,” the future, buried hurt, Honey Boo Boo, unleashed joy, etc., etc., etc. The trick is to know that everything, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, contains a story. As soon as I open my eyes every morning, I have to narrow them against the onslaught of ideas hurtling in my direction. I’m sometimes hampered by an incredible sadness, knowing I’ll never be able to write everything that inspires me.” (Source)
Specimen: Carmen Maria Machado
“I consider myself a little scavenger. I go around and take elements from different genres that can serve my needs. I build it all together in a little trash-nest, and that’s my story!” (Source)
Which nest feels most like home to you? It’s likely you connected with more than one—as humans, we are thankfully not restricted to one style of creation; sometimes one project will require a certain type of nest building while the next demands a whole different technique (and of course every project can hold a multitude of approaches. All the writer specimens listed above could fit into a variety of nests.). I flit most strongly between Ruby-Throated Hummingbird/Edible Nest Swiftlet/Satin Bowerbird nests in my own writing life, although I see bits of my process reflected in all of these structures (except, perhaps, the Common Tailorbird—I have never been a plotter, although I am open to giving this approach a try.) I love knowing we can find common ground in our creativity with the creatures around us, love how writing can connect us not just to other humans, but to the wider natural world if we pay close enough attention. So, here’s to spreading our wings. Here’s to building writerly nests that can best hold and lift our song.
Gayle Brandeis is author of the craft book Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne) and several novels, including The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins), winner of the Bellwether Prize for Fiction. Her most recent book is the memoir The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother's Suicide (Beacon Press). You can find out more at www.gaylebrandeis.com