How Writers (and Cicadas) Work

I’ve been rereading Annie Dillard’s fine Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, for the third or fourth time. It’s a marvelous work, almost like drinking in the molten stuff of imagination itself, for the language of the book is a series of fireworks, pinwheels of whirling thought, cascades of explosive insight, and then soft candles of introspection.

Dillard gets her nose right into nature, flopping face down on the ground and opening her eyes wide, and—with her alchemy of observation forged into words—tells us what she sees and how to see it, in a way that makes pages breathe. Among the many things that struck me in this reading was a passage about how cicadas go about their business:

“In the South, the periodical cicada has a breeding cycle of thirteen years, instead of seventeen years in the North. That a live creature spends thirteen consecutive years scrabbling around in the root systems of trees in the dark and damp – thirteen years! – is amply boggling for me. Four more years – or four less – wouldn’t alter the picture a jot. In the dark of an April night the nymphs emerge, all at once, as many as eighty-four of them digging into the air from every square foot of ground. They inch up trees and bushes, shed their skin, and begin that hollow, shrill grind that lasts all summer.”

Now, that passage is much less poetic than countless others in the book, but the thought of those burly insects biding their time, working the years, establishing and refining all things cicada threw me into considering how long as writers we might be buried, mere potential, waiting for wings to harden. It’s always amusing when there’s a new writing sensation, some breakout author who’s touted as the newly crowned best and brightest, and you learn that they also have three other novels that never made a stir, and four that they abandoned or are still gestating. Loud (and potentially annoying) as those cicadas might be, they earned their shrill grind. The long seasons of work are often invisible to outside eyes, buried to all except the worker.

Words Have Sound, as Well as Shape and Sense

Sometimes writing work is a shrill grind. Yesterday I started reading my newly completed novel aloud, in order to hear the rhythm of the words, to see if the sentences made music. I’d already edited it on screen, but putting voice to the page let me hear the places where the saxophone squawked rather than soared. In the space of twenty-five pages, I made at least seventy-five corrections, sometimes just transposing two words, sometimes shifting a phrase from sentence middle to end. It reminded me of when I’ve been given something to edit by a writer who thinks it’s near done, and I return it to them dripping the blood of the red pen—the horror!

So, more than 200 more pages to go—a bit tedious, but it’s cicada work: something buried will burst forth. I’ll be happy if the damn thing crawls, much less takes wing. Let’s end this with another passage from Dillard’s work, this time from another book I highly recommend, The Writing Life:

“One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. …Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

Open your safes, writers. Whether you let the silver lie thirteen years or seventeen, you must let it go. Otherwise, it will tarnish. (Besides, you might be able to make the latest sale on quill pens at Walmart.)