I’ve done a couple readings recently at colleges in my area, and I’ve spoken to some terrific students—first at DeSales University in Center Valley, PA, then at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA. The DeSales students were advanced creative writing types, working with Juilene McKnight and my friend Steve Myers. We had dinner together, all of us, before the reading, and man, did those students ask good questions. Really pointed ones—and behind a lot of them was a very understandable anxiety. How will I do this thing I love to do (making films, writing poems, being a good old-fashioned journalist) and manage to live, now, in this economic mess?
Similar questions and anxieties at Lehigh, where I spoke to students in my friend Ruth Knafo Setton’s creative writing class. I kept trying to argue that they shouldn’t rush, shouldn’t feel that they have to hurry up and publish and make a name and blah, blah, blah. And I fear that’s how I must have sounded to them (“blah, blah, blah”). Why shouldn’t they be hungry, and impatient for it all? And why shouldn’t they be anxious?
Anyway, there was lots of good talk about writing too, and lots of good questions about In Hovering Flight. I’m grateful to Steve Myers for making me aware, when he introduced me, of this wonderful line from one of Emily Dickinson’s letters: “I hope you love birds, too. It is economical. It saves going to Heaven.”
And also for reminding me that a mistle thrush shows up in one of his poems, and so sending me back to read the beautiful work in his book Memory’s Dog. The mistle thrush appears in a poem about Oxford called “At Magdalene”; here’s an excerpt:
Inside, everything’s in the making:
boy sopranos practice Britten,
hidden from us by a thick oak door; organmaster warming
in the chapel—several measures of a hymn,
opening strains of “Like as a hart,”
that Howells anthem.
Mistle thrush beginning at the window, calling in a storm.
There’s a story behind the mistle thrush showing up in In Hovering Flight, as the bird Tom watches as a boy, in the hedge outside his school. Originally I’d made it a redwing thrush, but then Tom Phelan, my generous consultant on all things Ireland, told me a redwing wouldn’t likely appear as far north as Falcarragh. So much for my fevered online searching. “Nests in hedges,” my notes say; a reference to the “Royal Society for the Protection of Birds” also appears there, as do several lists of beautiful names, like willow warbler, stonechat, whinchat, ring ouzel. And then some fabulous place names: Muckish Mountain, Inishowen, Errigal, Ballywhoriskey. Too bad I couldn’t use those.
Interestingly, mistle thrush was first on my list of possible birds; why did I opt for the redwing instead? Maybe something about “nests in hedges”? In fact I can’t remember. There’s so much I can’t remember about the writing of In Hovering Flight, which is related to what I kept trying to tell these students. I let myself go down mysterious paths; I changed course many times. The book is better for it, I think. But some of the students I talked to seem to feel that they just don’t have the luxury of time for lots of tangents, lots of wandering around on the page, in their own heads. I do understand the urgency they feel, but I also think it’s kind of a shame.
Had I not spent an afternoon at the site of, among other organizations, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (www.rspb.org.uk), I’d have never had the pleasure of imagining my character, Tom, as a boy, repeating those glorious names to himself over and over. I think writerly tangents are economical, in the long run. Like loving birds.