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On Being Nestless

You need a nest.

That’s the most important lesson I’ve learned this year about being a good writer, or a creative of any sort.

Up until this year, I thought I was an expert at nests. I am an introvert disguised as an extrovert and I want nothing so much as to curl up in a soft, safe place and reflect on the world around me and inside of me. I am an expert at settling and tucking and generally hunkering. I like this about myself. It is a sign of a content soul, in my opinion. And it has served me well. I was able to write a very nice little novel and see it published, face critics, build a platform and social media presence, arrange many appearances and speaking engagements, and remain relatively unscathed by the experience, all from my nest.

And then, I fell.

For me, I’d been one of the lucky ones who had somehow reached my forties with a sense of supreme security still intact, from which came a glorious nest that gave me the freedom to write without fear. Read that again. I had no fear. None. I mean, I had general fears like how something might happen to my children or I might become a widow before my time or my parents might die or I could get breast cancer or we could lose everything and have to move into a double-wide behind my parents’ house. That sort of thing.

But those were distant possibilities. I wasn’t really afraid in the present. I thought I’d already pulled through some pretty dodgy situations and I was sort of in the clear in my midlife. I’d fallen out of my first nest really early. I’d survived being born a preemie, the twin who lived. I’d survived alcoholism in my grandmother’s family. I’d survived abusive relationships. I’d survived an extensive spinal fusion. I’d had plenty of experience compared to Suzie Q. I had lots of true grit. I brought all of that to the page with an assurance in my breast that I was safe, high up off the dangerous ground I’d already covered, up in the clear, fluffed and feathered and ready to sharpen another quill and set to work on my next tale.

What no one ever told me was that birds instinctively know how to build nests because they’re going to need more than one to get through this life. People, too. Writers, especially.

Have you been there? Is it just me? 

Do you know that place, that feeling that you can write about anything because you’re happy to let your imagination take you there? Any journey is one you’re willing to take, whether it’s one of extreme joy or challenge or misery? You’re willing and full of enthusiasm – not naivety. Naivety is sometimes what others will call this but it’s really something else. It’s your nest. You know that no matter how far you may fly, you can circle back. Nests, it turns out, are really a state of mind.

If you won’t or can’t take the journey that your writing demands, it’s not because you’re naïve. We write about all sorts of things we have no real experience with because we long to understand them, not because we are experts on the topic. No, if you won’t take the journey, it’s because you’re nestless.

So, there I sat on the ground. My life had taken a devastating blow and when I peered up at the damage and I was no longer certain the little wad of sticks I’d stuck together would hold my weight. I was without shelter, without comfort, without a home. And without all of those things, it happened that I could no longer follow the stories where they needed to go. I sat on the ground a long time.

On the ground, you learn there are plenty of folks who are just as happy to be there and you might try it out for yourself for a while. You’ll stop writing. You’ll wonder why you ever did to begin with and maybe decide it was really all a lot of trouble for nothing. But eventually, I promise you, you’ll miss the better view. Writers are just like that.

I read something this week and I wish I’d save the source. It was a piece of narrative from a new novel. It caught my attention because the character compared herself to a baby bird that has been knocked from the nest. Ah-ha! She gets it, I thought! And she did. She went on to say how she was returned to her nest by some benevolent hand but the experience wasn’t what she expected. Back in the nest, she was the odd bird. The other birds knew she’d been out because she smelled wrong. The character believed she smelled wrong. She was suddenly uncertain of herself.

Being knocked out of your nest will make you an odd bird even if you can get yourself back home. You won’t be the same and neither will your nest. The truth is, you might smell wrong. Your nest may smell wrong. It may not even hold the weight of you anymore. As a young writer, I’d always believed being an odd bird, an eccentric or a loner, was a requirement for literary greatness. You had to be weird to have anything original to say. I guess that could be true to some extent, but as weird as I felt, I also felt muted by self-doubt.

Nests, like stories, it seems, are made of courage.

Building a nest takes time. It’s a little familiar, actually. Stick by stick, rather than bird by bird. A little piece of ribbon here, a twist tie for good measure, maybe a bit of fishing line. Eventually, this new nest I’m creating will hold me and all the stories that will dare me to follow from my safe perch. Soon, I’ll have a safe place to roost again, a high place with a good view of things, where I can ponder and question and start to take stock of myself and my surroundings with a clear perspective.

And then, I’ll write.