Killing the Butterfly

I love reading about how other authors write. How they start with the hint of an idea, and slowly, sometimes tortuously, shape it into a book. Often, it seems, there's magic involved. And yet the biggest part is always the sitting down and doing it.

Below, are thoughts on writing from novelist Ann Patchett, just a snippet from an incredible article. All quotes are from Patchett’s “This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage.”

Novelist Ann Patchett describes the process of thinking up a novel as the happiest time in her writing life. This yet-to-be-written book, though not a word has been set down on paper, is beautiful and piercing, the best novel yet.

And then, when she can no longer put off the actual writing, she sits down to write. And that's where it all falls apart.


“… I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and 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 is my book.”

This idea resonates with me completely. And, it’s been helpful. Because for awhile, when I experienced my inability to take a fluttering idea and portray it well on the page, I thought I had utterly failed. And I questioned whether I should forge on.

Maybe my idea wasn’t so great to begin with. Maybe my book wasn't the one I really wanted to write. Maybe I was never meant to write in the first place.

Patchett goes on to say that this feeling of failure can be a stopping point for many of writers. But it shouldn’t be. She herself still hasn’t figured out how to put that imagined idea down on paper without feeling as though it died in the process. But here’s what she has learned:

"I did, however, learn how to weather the death, and I learned how to forgive myself for it. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing."

Because, she goes on to say, there is something just she has to say. And because through the process, she can “touch the hem of the gown that is art itself.”

Phew. Exactly the sort of encouragement I need to hear when I set out on a new project, and feel that my poor excuse at writing merely kills off ideas, instead of giving life to them. And yet, as the “death” of a caterpillar results in the “birth” of a butterfly, it's our job to travel through all of these stages.