Getting Out My Butterfly Net

I finally started reading Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, which is–as I knew it would be–wonderful. I’m part way through her essay, “The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life”–also wonderful.

When I read the part about the difference between carrying a story idea around in your head and trying to put it on the page, I almost shouted out loud, “YES!!!” Instead, I just nodded my head. A lot. Hard.

Here’s the idea part:

The book makes a breeze around my head like an oversized butterfly whose wings were cut from the rose window in Notre Dame…a think of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life.

And here’s the part about trying to write all that down.

…when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing–all the color, the light and movement–is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s my book.

Yesterday, I started reading the fast first draft I wrote over the summer, the MG WIP. Unlike what I feared, it didn’t send me into despair at how bad it was. There were a few smiles–I even let myself put a few smiley faces into the margin for myself. And there were lots of ideas–some in the form of Aha! moments that made me grateful, but many others in the form of big, big questions.

I think this reading, and these ideas–not the first draft–are my attempts to catch the butterfly.

I had the feeling–to continue with Patchett’s metaphor–that I wanted to use the gentlest net possible–something made out of fine, gossamer threads of cashmere, maybe–something that would barely brush against the butterfly’s wings. A net that would more encourage than force, that would just create a gentle breeze to nudge the butterfly to land for me.

But maybe I need to just steal Patchett’s SUV and press that gas pedal to the floor.

Either way, this morning, I’m carrying around that feeling of: if ANN PATCHETT feels this way when she writes…then, yes, I can and had better keep moving forward, net in hand.


  1. Jenn Hubbard says:

    When I read that book, I too kept quoting it and applying it to my own writing!


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