In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard writes about stalking muskrats. As she relates, muskrats are particularly elusive creatures. After seeing a muskrat for the first time, she waits and watches for a second one, even though she feels like the muskrat sighting might have just been a stroke of luck:
I began to look for them day and night. Sometimes I would see ripples suddenly start beating from the creek’s side, but as I crouched to watch, the ripples would die. Now I know what this means, and have learned to stand perfectly still to make out the muskrat’s small, pointed face hidden under overhanging bank vegetation, watching me… You must just have to be there, I thought. You must have to spend the rest of your life standing in the bushes. It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and you’ve had your once.
What struck me most about this chapter was how every person, at some point, experiences the same thing. Maybe not with muskrats, but with humans, events, or ideas. All of us have things we’re trying to figure out, things that are difficult to articulate and complex, things that we’re probably going to spend the rest of our lives trying to unravel. And once in a while, we see them very clearly. And most of the time, they elude us.
To many people, these hard-to-access concepts are frustrating. They’re something we can’t quite reach, can’t quite see, can’t quite predict. That’s why most people don’t stalk muskrats– neither the real nor the metaphorical ones. It takes a significant amount of time, effort, and patience. It’s not something you can just Google. So how do you do it? Well, for most people, as Dillard says, “You must just have to be there.”
To a writer, these metaphorical muskrats are invaluable. These fleeting encounters and understandings are the types of things that make interesting stories. When the reader gets that glimmering epiphany that pulls the whole world into focus for a moment, it’s always a read-the-passage-out-loud-to-whoever’s-around, become-obsessed-with-the-author-who-just-blew-your-mind, call-your-parents-and-tell-them-you’ve-figured-out-the-meaning-of-life kind of moment. And we all love those moments.
And, of course, as Dillard laments, stalking muskrats is a kind of mind game. If you see a muskrat once, you want to wait and see another one, even though nothing guarantees that you will. You could stand by a creek your whole life and maybe never see another muskrat. You could write a very beautiful, true line once, and never, ever write anything as good again. But just as your chances of muskrat-viewing increase when you’re standing by the edge of a creek in the bushes, your chances of writing something beautiful increase when you’re writing consistently. Being there is important.
Reading about Dillard’s adventures stalking muskrats reminds me that arriving at these epiphanies takes a lot of time and patience, and that it’s worth it. Oftentimes, I read these incredible lines in novels or short stories, which sound so amazingly effortless, just like the author simply tossed them off, but they’re so true, I feel like they’ve just explained the entire world to me. Sometimes, it just drives me crazy how people can write things so authentic, so gorgeous, so articulate, and make it sound as easy as writing “hello.” But what I don’t often think about, and what I doubt other readers think about, is how much time that author spent at the side of that creek before getting to that line. As writers, we all stand at the side of our own creeks, watching.