I was recently at the Highlights Foundation and had the opportunity to read the guest book journal in my cabin. A couple of the guests talked about a large spider they cohabitated with. I never saw the spider (and am thankful for that), but it did make me think a little about how much writers can learn from spiders.
Be More Than You Appear
Spiders are small creatures and they are fairly fragile. They have delicate legs. And as scary as some folks find them, they are pretty easy to dispatch. But spiders create this amazing thing: silk. Spider silk has an incredible tensile strength, meaning it can take a surprising amount of stress without breaking. This is helpful since the web is designed to trap creatures that definitely prefer not to be trapped. But the web the spider creates with this silk is often amazingly beautiful. Sometimes I’ve seen these beautiful spider webs, sparkling with dew in the morning sun, and I look for the spider and find this small, ordinary looking creature huddled in the corner.
As writers we’re a bit like the spider. We labor to create from our own amazing tool: words. Words appear to be fragile, but they can be strung together to make something powerful and breathtakingly beautiful. And when we’re done, we have this word creation that is far more impressive than we are. In fact, it’s not that unusual for fans of a writer’s work to have some kind of heroic image of the author, only to learn writers are actually quite ordinary as we huddle in the corner of our art. But despite our very plainness, we are more than we appear. We spin words into worlds. We are tiny and mighty, even if it’s in a plain package.
Spider webs quickly tatter. Wind can unravel them. Creatures too big for capture can crash through them. Brooms can sweep them away. And yet, the spider simply spins more. Setbacks don’t stop spiders. And they have lots and lots of setbacks. When faced with a huge area that will be covered by webbing, the spider simply breaks up the task and follows the plan until the web is complete. This process literally requires the spider pour out of herself this silk that is metabolically costly.
As writers we build out webs from words and creativity. And the building process can be costly. A book can be emotionally costly and it costs you time. It can also require you pass up other activities. And when you’ve poured yourself out to the point of weariness, sometimes someone comes along and knocks your web down. And facing the task of continuing on can be emotionally hard. But remember the spider. So tiny. So determined. So undaunted. Sometimes you have to take a rest, but you never stop.
Sure, spiders can be squished, but they are encased in an exoskeleton that acts like armor against injury. Without it, every hard wind, every time they’re knocked to the floor, every flailing thump from “visitors” to the web could cause the spider so much injury she couldn’t continue in her task of building webs.
As writers, we probably shouldn’t slip into Kevlar each time we sit down to work, but we do need to armor up against the buffeting winds of scorn that each of us faces. The people who think we’re wasting our time (and sometimes those people include ourselves). The people who think children’s books aren’t “real” books. The people who see us as not good enough. We need to armor up against the sharp bumps that come as we try to complete our task and receive rejections or harsh critiques or even harsher reviews. That doesn’t mean we won’t feel those things. Anyone who has watched how a spider reacts to being blown around or bumped against knows those things have an effect, but we need enough armor to keep them from crushing us. We need to keep our soft squishy bits safe.
So behold the spider. She spins. And she never gives up. Be the spider. At the very least, you’ll scare a lot of people that way.
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.