Saturday, April 23, 2011

Novel Envy

The truth is, I was a lousy panther capture assistant. I fumbled with the crash pad. I cringed when Rowdy, the tracker, let his hounds loose. When the cat was treed and darted, I just wanted to let it go instead of help the vets pull teeth and take blood.

At first glance, panthers and writing seem to have very little in common, even for me, a person who can, and often does, stretch a metaphor beyond its breaking point. Just remember the panther. It will become important later.

I spent this last week at a writer's retreat on the Imnaha River. Every day I woke in my little cabin,

started a fire (Confession: I stole a coveted shingle to start my fire. The ones Janie and Pam use for the main house. Once. Sorry, Den Moms),  visited the outhouse (there were three. I didn't use this one)

 and ran up Freezeout Road.

The other four women were novelists, poets,and prose writers  who have lists of publishing credits longer than mine. Way longer. Like, you can find their books on Amazon. And they've won prizes. They teach workshops. Every evening when we gathered to read, their paragraphs rich as dark chocolate, smooth and sweet and satisfying.  In contrast I struggled with each word, unsure of each sentence.

I was seriously intimidated. These are women doing what I'd like to do, making that leap, and working hard at it. Every day Molly and Betty sank deeper into the sagging couches, intent on each line of their work. Janie baked sourdough bread and tended the fire (Oops. Right. That shingle) and read us stories so funny we couldn't stop laughing. Katey spun intricate and intense short stories that made me feel like I was in Afghanistan. In my cabin, I paced. I ate raisins. I read a book. I sighed, the framework of a TFN slowly taking shape.

(Small aside. T=That. N=Novel. F=you guess. Said in frustration over a novel that is not going well. I learned this phrase this week. Thanks Molly, I love it)

In South Florida, the panthers were barely hanging on. Their habitat fragmented in a sea of condos and golf courses, only thirty were thought to roam the swamp. Not enough. The Fish and Game brought in Texas cougars in a last ditch effort, removed some kittens for captive breeding. Interns rode on swamp buggies bristling with telemetry equipment, searching for the steady pulse of radio collars.

What does this have to do with writing anyway? Not much, except that one of the writers I admired had looked me up online. In one of my anthology biographies I had self-importantly listed all my various jobs, including panther capture assistant. Betty later told me this was intimidating; I suspect she anticipated some rope-slinging, hard-bodied, flinty-eyed creature.

So how does this all tie up in a bow? Maybe this way: we sometimes think of other people as so much more interesting, more exciting, more accomplished than we are. Maybe they are. In the case of these writers, they have reached pinnacles I have not. But have they touched a panther's tawny fur? Maybe not. We all have novels within us, stories waiting to be read.


  1. It would definitely be intimidating to be holed up in a cabin with such extensive writer resumes. I feel like I write the best when I'm not intending to do so. Maybe just carrying a notebook around and adding things as they magically pop in your head? :)

    I majored in music for year in college. And they told me the key to improving was to listen to other saxophonists. And listen. And listen. I think writing is a lot like that. You learn to develop your own voice by drawing inspiration from others. And with saxophone and writing, practice makes perfect.

    For what it's worth, I absolutely love your blog and the way you express yourself. Keep on practicing and reading others' writing. :)

    PS- I want a kitty like that one in the photo.

  2. That big cat looks flinty-eyed and the outhouse is intimidating. I like the phrase flinty-eyed.

  3. Loved it...juxtaposition between panthers, writing and seeing "oursels as ithers see us." (Robert Burns) Glad you had a chance to see your experiences and your writing reflected in "ithers" eyes. The new masthead photo/design are great, too.

  4. great post. and if i'm intimidating, then so are you. :-) your novel AND your memoir readings both stayed with me...and are still with me now that i'm "out up top." thanks for a great week and this great post. i'll link it on my blog b/c i want my readers to get your perspective, too. what a great set up Imnaha Writers' Retreat is. we were all so lucky!

  5. I can only say: Wish I'd been there with my own TFN.

  6. I liked the post and can see how capturing panthers is directly related to writing novels. There is danger, fear, and personal risk in both endeavors. I appreciate Katey linking your post from her blog. It is always great to find another writer struggling down the same path.


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