Like a Flower of Feathers or a Winged Branch

This is Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s description of a bluebird. I read this one morning in a doctor’s office and have thought of it daily ever since. Every time I see a bird or a branch of leaves or a flower I think of it.

This is the job of writing, to carve indelible metaphors into the mind of a reader. Can’t you see, the writer must tell the reader. It is all one thing. Look outside yourself and see that we are all fashioned of the same forms, the seven basic forms of crystals. Look outside yourself. Look at me.

If that is the task, how can the writer achieve it? I think it is like building a wall. Let us suppose that the beginning writer is a man living alone on a piece of land. He wants to build a wall to keep other people from coming onto his land, but he has no tools or knowledge. All he knows is that he wishes to construct a barrier. He collects what he finds lying around, leaves and fallen branches. He stacks these things up. The first wind blows them away.

He finds stones and begins to make piles of them, but they are heavy and cumbersome and in short supply so he soon gives that up. Then he travels to the next piece of land and finds a man who is making bricks out of clay and stacking them up. Our man likes that idea. He goes home and makes a wall of clay bricks, but the spring rains melt the bricks and the wall tumbles.

He meets a third man who is making bricks and letting them dry in the sun before he stacks them up. Our man is very excited by this idea. He goes home and works twice as hard as before. He doesn’t care how hard it is to do, now he will make a wall that will hold.

As he works day after clay and week after week fashioning the bricks and setting them out in the sun to dry, he begins to imagine a wall so beautiful that other men will come to see it and marvel at its beauty He begins to make each brick exactly the same size, with sides carefully trimmed. He notices the clay from the banks of his creek makes more beautifully colored bricks than the clay near his campfire. He begins to make long trips to bring back this thicker, redder clay Now he doesn’t like the dun-colored bricks he made to begin with. He discards them. He is excited. He has lost his sense of time. He barely remembers to eat. He is going to make the most beautiful wall in the kingdom, the longest and the tallest and the most beautiful. Every day he gets up and works on the wall. He is a happy man. He has forgotten why he is building a wall. He has forgotten that he thought there was something that needed walling in or walling out. He is an artist with a plan and materials and skills. He has become a builder.

My life as a writer has been like that man making that wall. I have forgotten what I wanted from this work. I have never liked celebrity or having people ask me questions. Aside from being paid so I can go on writing, there is nothing the outside world gives me in exchange for my writing that is of value to me. I do not take pleasure in other people’s praise, and I don’t believe their criticism.

í love to make up characters and make things happen to them and then make them strong enough to survive their problems and go on to happy times. “Happy trails to you,” I say to my characters at the end of my stories. I nearly always let my characters have happy endings because I wish that for myself and for my readers. I don’t want to send my readers to bed with sad or malignant endings.

Pedro Calderon de la Barca lived in Spain in tragic times. His father was a tyrant, and the only woman he ever loved died in childbirth. She died giving birth to Calderons illegitimate child. Because of these things Calderon was forced to have a tragic view of life. He was concerned with guilt. He believed that a man can be responsible through his own wrongdoing for the wrongdoing of another. That the greatest sinner is also the most sinned against. These are deeply tragic beliefs, and yet the poetry with which Calderon expressed these beliefs was so beautiful that it has lasted all these years.

Like a flower of feathers or a winged branch. That is what we want to write. But first we must learn to make a wall. We must find what materials are available to us, and we must learn to shape them, and we must forget what we were doing it for. If you get lonely, and it is lonely work, invoke the spirits of past artists to stand by you and teach you by their examples. Today, for me, it is Don Pedro Calderon de la Barca, poet and playwright, born January 17, 1600, Madrid, Spain, died, May 25, 1681, Madrid.

About the Author

Ellen Gilchrist

Ellen Gilchrist lives in a stone and glass house built into the east-facing side of the hill in the Ozark Mountains. She reads and writes all day and is currently re-reading the works of John McPhee and worrying about the curve of binding energy.

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