I pluck the butterfly from the air…

Reading time: Less than 2 minutes

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss a recent Brain Pickings article about writer Ann Patchett…

I’ve been a fan of Ann Patchett ever since I read her spellbinding novel, Bel Canto, 12 years ago. Thus, when Maria Popova — in her popular Brain Pickings blog — recently wrote about Patchett, I paid special attention.

Turns out, I’d already read the book Popova was highlighting, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. But I didn’t remember the passage. How was that possible? In this book, Patchett gives what is perhaps the best description I’ve ever read of the act of writing. Here are her words:

For me it’s like this: I make up a novel in my head…This is the happiest time in the arc of my writing process. The book is my invisible friend, omnipresent, evolving, thrilling… It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see. 

And so I do. When I can’t think of another stall, 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.

For me, this captures the real reason people struggle against writing a crappy first draft: they don’t want to kill the butterfly. When the book (or article) they’re thinking about remains in their heads it is beautiful and three-dimensional. But to capture it and put it on the page, they have to kill it.