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Day 288: Writing Is For the Birds, or, Why I Have Empathy for Penguins

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Day 288:  Writing Is For the Birds, or, Why I Have Empathy for Penguins


# of pages written: 7 (plus a 3-page book review)

# of literary mags submitted to: 1

Also, check out my newly published story at Cafe Irreal!

Weekends are for the birds. Literally. Last weekend my boyfriend, Paul, and I had a picnic by a duck pond then later saw a bird-themed burlesque show in which lovely ladies wore (and then removed) intricately-feathered costumes. (Our favorites were the owl, the turkey, and the sexy cat who ate the canary.)

This past weekend seemed to be all about birds, too. On Saturday Paul and I walked the pipe line trail in Richmond to the heron rookery. We saw at least fifty great blue herons! They stood on their skinny legs in the James River, darting long necks into the rushing water and coming up with silver fish flashing in their beaks. We even saw some of them flying up to their giant nests, high in the trees, to feed their young. Saturday night we went to a movie at the Byrd theater (that counts, right?), and Sunday we walked along the Pony Pastures trail to the marshlands, spotting ducks, geese, woodpeckers, and a raucously-loud murder of crows. Oh man, I love birds!

Also on Sunday, we watched The March of the Penguins, which I had picked up at the library. I already knew a little bit about emperor penguins, but I’d forgotten the details of the extreme lengths they go through in order to bring a new chick into the world.

In case you’ve forgotten, too, here’s the summary: emperor penguins leave the fish-filled Arctic waters and slowly trek across the icy tundra to a breeding ground seventy-five miles inland. After mating, each female transfers a single egg to her mate then heads back to the ocean to feed. The males balance the eggs on top of their feet and huddle together to withstand the winter temperatures, which can drop as low as eighty degrees below freezing. They wait, incubating the eggs, for more than two months. Finally the eggs hatch and the mothers return from the sea, ready to feed the chicks with regurgitated fish. Literally starving, the fathers stumble and slide towards the ocean. By the time they get there, they have gone 115 days – nearly four months – without food.

Naturally, Paul and I were amazed by the emperor penguins, plus we spent a lot of the movie laughing and cooing over the cuteness of the fat baby chicks. This is what I had expected from the movie. What I hadn’t expected was to feel sad. When an egg accidentally fell and cracked, its contents freezing, I was heartbroken. When a baby penguin starved to death before its mother returned from the ocean, I felt an overwhelming sense of loss for the father penguin.

“He tried so hard and came all this way only to have his baby die,” I said to Paul. “He must feel so defeated.”

“I’m not sure if penguins can feel emotion,” Paul said.

“He looks pretty upset to me.”

Maybe this penguin empathy was coming from the fact that I know what it’s like to toil day after day on a mission that seems ridiculous and daunting. And then to fail. Except, in my case, the baby I was incubating was a juvenile fiction novel. I finished writing it this past November and sent it out to agents, hoping for a bite, but ultimately, my egg cracked and the baby died. The novel just wasn’t very good.

Initially I got some positive responses: five agents said they loved the idea and requested the full manuscript. But after reading my novel, the agents said things like, “I didn’t connect with the material” and “I found your main character too negative.” One agent said that the pacing, the characterization, and the plot itself needed work. And the thing is, I think he was right. The novel had been a good idea, but ultimately, I’d fumbled during the execution. I had dropped the egg.

And for a while I felt defeated. I was depleted of energy just like those starving penguins. And yet, after a few months, I started again. I’ve now written 160 pages of a new novel.

This is what the penguins do, too: they try again. Year after year they try, against all odds, to hatch and raise their chicks. Their journey is long and hard and seems completely insane, but it is what they have to do in order to bring new life into the world. And isn’t that what I’m doing with a novel — bringing a new creation into the world?  The penguins use instinct and experience, just like I do when I write. Maybe the fathers of the broken eggs and starved chicks learn something from their mistakes. Maybe they have success the next time around.

And maybe I will, too.

Emperor penguin keeping its chick warm.

Emperor penguin keeping its chick warm.


About evalangston

Eva Langston is a writer, among other things.

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