Working and Writing from a Piece of Yourself


This may be the most lovely – and simultaneously terrifying – descriptions of the writing process I’ve ever come across: In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard compares writing to tracking down a honey tree. First, you catch a bee (presumably not with your bare hands), and then…

“Carry the bee to a nearby open spot—best an elevated one—release it, and watch where it goes. Keep your eyes on it as long as you can see it, and hie you to that last known place. Wait there until you see another bee; catch it, release it, and watch. Bee after bee will lead toward the honey tree, until you see the final bee enter the tree…. So a book leads its writer.”

Which is an exceptional life-metaphor on many levels – you don’t always know where you’re going when you begin, take one step at a time, etc. BUT THEN…

You may wonder how to start, how you catch the first one. What do you use for bait?

You have no choice. One bad winter in the Arctic, and not too long ago, an Algonquin woman and her baby were left alone after everyone else in their winter camp had starved. Ernest Thompson Seton tells it. The woman walked from the camp where everyone had died, and found at a lake a cache. The cache contained onesmall fishhook. It was simple to rig a line, but she had no bait, and no hope of bait. The baby cried. She took a knife and cut a strip from her own thigh. She fished with the worm of her own flesh and caught a jackfish; she fed the child and herself. Of course she saved the fish gut for bait. She lived alone at the lake, on fish, until spring, when she walked out again and found people. Seton’s informant had seen the scar on her thigh.” 


I guess, in a sense, many endeavors in our lives must at first be baited with pieces of ourselves. Sometimes that’s just the only resource we have from which to begin. Starting a book, project, job, or relationship—even offering help to someone else when on our last nerve—all of these things draw from our deepest reserves.

However, just like the woman in the story, we must save something for the next day’s bait, or we’ll simply have to cut more out of ourselves to keep from starving.

Ernest Hemingway knew this, and would force himself to stop working, even when there was more to be done:

“I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.” (From A Moveable Feast)

So there’s value in a good recharge: Letting your reserves restore through self care, whatever that may be. Hemingway recommended simply getting out and going about your life, because “In order to write about life first you must live it!” (Though for him, this “living” may have involved a substantial amount of booze….)

Whatever it is, do it, because there will inevitably be dry spells when we run out of extra bait, or need to start start fishing in a whole new pond. During these times we may be forced to re-bait the hook with yet another piece of ourselves, and we’ll need something substantial to draw from.

What do others think? How do you recharge, whether it be for writing, work, teaching, or just life in general? Or is there a better way to “bait the hook” in the first place that will leave us with fewer scars on our thighs?

Feel free to comment below or on the blog’s Facebook page.

Follow on Twitter @chriskbacon

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