The Thing About Butterflies

6:00 AM

“For me it's like this: I make up a novel in my head (there will be more about this later). This is the happiest time in the arc of my writing process. The book is my invisible friend, omnipresent, evolving, thrilling. During the months (or years) it takes me to put my ideas together, I don’t take notes or make outlines; I'm figuring things out, and all the while the book makes a breeze around my head like an over-sized butterfly whose wings were cut from the rose window at Notre Dame. This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.

“And so I do. When I can't think of another stall, when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It's not that I want to kill it, but it's the only way I can get something so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing -- all the color, the light and movement -- is gone. What I'm left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead.

“That's my book.”


- ANN PATCHETT



The first time I heard this quote was from my dear friend, Sierra. I didn’t quite understand it at first. "Didn't quite understand", as in, really confused and slightly horrified. Like, what on earth?! Dead butterflies? Those are what my books are? How morbid!

But, as I began the second draft of The Thief’s Conspiracy, as I began having to make big changes and decide on things and ideas for my story … I began to realize just how true this quote is.

Our ideas are butterflies, fluttering about in the beautiful gardens of our brains. And, when we try to capture them and pin them on the page, they die. It only makes sense. They lose their magic and beauty when forced into a 2D world.

But you see, it’s not just the book as a whole. Every idea works like this. Every scene idea, character idea, plot idea … they just don’t measure up when you first throw them out on the page.

Why?

When you write your first draft, you’re throwing up. More than that – you’re puking your guts out. (I know that sounds a little gross, but it’s the best way I can describe this.) This book has been brewing inside you, and you’ve got to get it out. So you puke it up.

If you're like me, this form of brain puking is strange. You don't realize you've vomited until you see it again later. In other words, first drafts are a dream for me, full of beauty and discovery. It’s the second draft where I start to see draft one for what it really is: puke. Gross, clumpy brain vomit.

But how can this be? It was so beautiful. So perfect. So exciting.

So when I see this mess I've created, I get frustrated and annoyed. I throw up my hands thinking, "What happened?" 

I wrote it. That’s what happened.

For a long time, I didn’t understand that. I didn’t understand that simply ‘writing’ it was the problem. So I came up with new ideas, 'better' ideas, that I thought would solve the brain puke issue. I thought these brilliant new ideas would clean up the mess I’d made before. That if I just did it a different way, then finally it would be good.

But these new ideas lived and fluttered in the garden of my brain, too. They, just like the ones before them, were magical, ethereal, otherworldly beings. They were butterflies. So the same thing happened as before: when I put them on the page, they died.

And so this went on repeat. Again and again. Every time, that new idea becomes so enticing. The little butterfly dances right in your peripheral as you type, its beautiful wings catching the light and tempting you to ditch what you’re working on and go for the new, pretty butterfly instead.

Do you get what I'm saying here? Do you see the problem?

We don't give ourselves, or our ideas, a chance. We puke them out on the page, and when we read them it's like ... What is this? What was I thinking? This is terrible!

Of course it's terrible. You haven't even edited it yet! It's puke!

Every idea you come up with has its own set of problems. Its own set of plot holes. Its own issues you'll have to work out in the next draft.

So what's the answer? What's the answer to this butterfly problem?

The thing about butterflies is that they can almost always be saved. Once you pin a butterfly, you just have to be gentle and patient. You need a lot of pins, sometimes. A lot of light, a lot of patience, and a lot of time.

Your ideas, your delicate butterflies, are still beautiful. They just need some work. It's such a sad thing to see our ideas - beautiful, flawless bits of our imagination - plucked from our brain and pinned on the page. But that's life, guys. That's what we have to do if we want to share our creations with the world.

Let me give you a word of advice on this. When that idea you were so excited about just doesn't seem the same on the page, don't give up on it. It still has that potential. If you can, try to remember the beauty you saw in it, when it was just you and the butterfly-idea floating in your brain-garden.

Don't give up on your ideas. You just have to give them a chance. Some ideas will fail. They'll turn out not to fit with the story. But always try to give them a chance, unless you're positive it's not going to work out. They're a whole different thing once edited. Give them that chance to shine beyond the first draft.

It will never be the same as when they floated free in you head, but with a lot of time and effort, your enchanting, magical ideas can become beautiful again.


I wholly acknowledge this post was slightly sad (and a little morbid). I will try to plan a happier post for next week! XP Maybe I'll talk about rabbit trails and cute, fluffy bunnies. *nods to self and goes to plan next post*

Do you struggle with this, ditching your butterfly-ideas before they have a chance to be edited? What's a piece of advice you've learned, with ditching ideas or saving them?

<3

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24 comments

  1. I have never heard of this quote until now! And it's definitely a call out to me with my first drafts.

    I've written two first drafts that in my head would be utterly perfect as soon as I spewed it onto the page. That was a year ago, and until now I still cringe at the thought of editing.

    Right now I'm back to first drafting, and I always get a little uncomfortable with my story because the way I imagine it in my head doesn't play out like I expect it to in my writing. Thank you so much for this reminder, that I need to be patient with my butterflies.

    Your posts just keep on getting better and better, Hannah <3

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    1. Yeah, I looked for it for foreverrrr and finally had to ask Sierra to send it to me again because I couldn't find it. It's so good, but it's really long so that's probably why it's hard to find.

      Thank you so much! Yes, keep being patient with your butterflies! They just need a little work, is all. <3

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  2. I'd never heard that quote, but I absolutely love it. Working on being a little more patient with my butterflies XD

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    1. You've got this! It might take several drafts, remember, but have faith! I believe in you <3 It's hard, but that's what writing is. You've got this.

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  3. Hannah, have I ever told you that you just have incredible wisdom? God has surely given you a true way with words. In each of your posts, you delve into the very heart of the topic you chose, and you just demonstrate hard things and our response to them with such wisdom. Wow. Keep writing! :D

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    1. Awww Emily you just gave me all the warm fuzzies merrr *hugs* You're so so kind! I can't wait till you make a blog! <3

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  4. James Oliver8/13/16, 7:22 PM

    I LOVE the butterfly picture, since I was on pinterest I almost accidentally pinned it to on of my animal boards, but then I was like 'OH WAIT ITS A BLOG POST WITH BUTTERFLIES HOW DID I NOT SEE THIS IN MY EMAILS EARLY?!?!'. Love the quote and post!

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    1. Lol! That makes me laugh XP I think blogger sends the emails out around noon? I don't have control over it though. Thank you for reading! :D

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  5. I really relate to this, and it applies to more than just writing for me I feel like when I take a picture or paint, it's never as beautiful as it was in my head.

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    1. Ah, good point Skye! Definitely true. Art is tricky like that. It's so deceptively perfect in the purity of our imaginations, but when released into the world ... Just remember that with work, it will be beautiful in its own right. It might never be equal to with what was in your head, but it will be beautiful in its own new way. <3

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  6. Ok wooow I could just go sit and contemplate this for like 4.6 hours because it was super profound. XP Nice job!

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    1. HOW DID I LEAVE TWO COMMENTS I'M SUPPOSED TO BE TECHY *headdesk*

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    2. You're fine! It was probably a computer glitch or something. XP

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  7. Ok wooow I could just go sit and contemplate this for like 4.6 hours because it was super profound. XP Nice job!

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    1. (Also, I like your new profile pic. Are people now nicknaming you Rainbow Trout? XP )

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    2. OHMIGOSH *dies laughing* no shhhhh I actually just figured out that that worked today but I don't think anyone else has yet so I'm safe for now. XP

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    3. *gleeful laughter* You should make it the profile pic on your blog, and make your bio, I AM THE RAINBOW TROUT.

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  8. Okay are you sure you aren't sneaking around in my brain and then writing blog posts based one what I need to hear? Because it sure as heck seems like it.

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    1. I promise I'm not, mommy! *bats lashes and smiles innocently* I'm so glad this post resonated with you! <3

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  9. *gapes at the glorious post that HOW ON EARTH DID HANNAH WRITE*

    Oh my goodness, this was so beautiful, Hannah! I absolutely loved it. Thank you SO much for posting it! It gave me a lot to think about *nods*. And I LOVE the image of our stories as butterflies!

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    1. I'm so glad you like it! :D Yes, me too! They're so pretty, fluttering about our heads. It's so sad to put them on paper. *sigh* But it must be done at some point!

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  10. Oh yeah... I have crushed butterfly ideas before... but I still have some written on paper in my ring binder so that's okay ^^

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    1. Aw I feel yah. *pats* So harrrd. But that's good that you were able to catch some without too much damage ;)

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