Writing For the Birds

I love haircut day. I get to sit in a chair and be pampered by my friend Ashley, who always seems fascinated by whatever project I have in the works at any given time. So this last visit, I somehow found myself summarizing for her the “finished” short stories I’m pitching just now. Half of them are heavy with birds – two especially so. She squinted at me in the mirror and said, “Okay, what’s with the birds?”

I had to laugh. It’s a pattern I hadn’t recognized until that moment. I do love birds. I’ll stop the car (safely!) to go back and park somewhere so I can watch egrets or herons on the hunt in the numerous waterways around our area. I look for pelicans or osprey when crossing the longer bridges. All crows, shimmering and sometimes playful, are named Jerrald. I’m always thrilled to actually spy a shy bittern or catbird, or a yellow-bellied sapsucker (yes, there really is a bird by that name). I know by sight (and some—those I can hear, anyway—by sound) many birds common to my region, and have several dog-eared birding books where I look up those feathered beauties I don’t immediately recognize. I’ve written here numerous times that those things that are a part of us must surely show up in our work, so the imagery of birds in my work should be expected. But it made me wonder what other patterns my words demonstrate. It also made me wonder if this was a strength or a weakness.

Certainly there are writers who frequently include a specific motif across multiple works, like John Irving’s bear or Samuel Beckett’s bicycle, or even the cameo appearances made by Stephen King and Alfred Hitchcock in the films associated with their works. Irving waved off any significance to his recurring bears. As far as he was concerned, they were simply a common appearance in his everyday life, thus they also appeared in his stories. For Beckett, who was once a keen cyclist, a bicycle often symbolizes the light of hope or love for his characters. Hitchcock’s cameos were a playful attempt at self-portrait, a permanent mark of his role in the production. King just loves being in front of the camera and brings his remarkable sense of humor to most of his brief roles.

For me, birds symbolize many things, from freedom to spirituality, from beauty to the mundane. The idea of flight gives wings to my imagination! I remember once, during lunch break in my car on a particularly frenetic and harrowing day, I sat with the windows down in a Wendy’s parking lot and tuned out the traffic noise. Instead, I leaned back, closed my eyes, and imagined I was a bird. I flew up out of my car and over the parking lot, past the crowded boulevard and the crackerbox neighborhood beyond to the park a few miles away. I swear I could feel the sun on my back and the rushing wind in my feathers. The sense of liberation lent an exuberance that followed me the rest of the day and lifted me out of my earlier sense of despair.

In hindsight, I see that the birds in one of my stories are surreal spirits sent to do that very thing for a character anchored to unending responsibility despite fatal illness; they lift her out of her earth-bound life and into the clouds above the canopy in her homeland. Another story portrays them as saviors, too, though in a slightly more ordinary way. In a third, they are spirits of place, as well as a shared connection between two unlikely friends that transcends daily life. In my novel series, one particular rare bird is seen as a spirit of transcendence.

For the most part, I didn’t set out to write birds as such hefty symbols. They just turned out that way, and I’m not surprised, given their importance in my life. I wonder if readers down the road will see in them the same things I do now, but that isn’t up to me. Every reader must take away what they will, and that’s okay.

I’m not sure I’ll intentionally put birds (or any other specific motif) into every book or story I write, only those where it makes sense. I think that from now on, however, I might be more vigilant to recognize those symbols as they make their way onto the page, instead of waiting for Ashley—or any other reader—to point them out. Perhaps that way, I can use them more effectively.

What about you? How do you use motifs or symbols in your work?