5. Invisible Ducks (A Short Craft Essay)
Like an 8' bear, only different.
Hi all. This is sort of a work-in-progress.
When I was in college, I studied playwriting with a memorable instructor, the novelist, playwright, and commercial Maine fisherman Gladden Schrock. Gladden was something of a character, a kind of mythical figure on campus, doling out cryptic, twinkly wisdom, while exuding an extremely masculine, weathered, athletic-era Hemingway vibe. His classes were fun, and he peppered his critiques of our work with Gladden-specific phrases, the most famous of which was probably the concept of the eight-foot bear.
An eight-foot bear was when something in your story seemed to come out of nowhere, without any explanation, and wasn’t quite working for the script. It was like an eight-foot bear had just wandered onto the stage for no reason, and then wandered off again. It might be a non sequitur, a tangent, or a clunky bit of dialogue, or a Chekhov’s gun that never went off.
“There’s an eight-foot bear right here,” he might say in class after you’d assigned a few classmates to read your scene.
His written comments on the work we turned in almost always included mention of these bears of various sizes.
3’ bear here, he would write in the margin next to something small, or 20’ bear!!!!! if the offense was more egregious.
This is a long way of saying that I’d like to introduce a new animal-based writing metaphor that I’ve started to use recently, which is the concept of the invisible duck.
Back in June when I was writing an essay about another college writing instructor, Mary Oliver, I initially included about a thousand words on a pair of rescue ducklings that were then living in my apartment. Mary was always rescuing injured wild animals, and so their presence had reminded me of her. I was overly, emotionally invested in these ducklings, and had spent days on the floor with them, trying to get them to eat and drink when they would not. I’m sure I was projecting all kinds of onerous things onto them, these poor little beings, affectionately nicknamed Darwin Awards 1 and 2; they seemed so full of life and yet did not want any of the things needed to sustain life, despite all my efforts to snatch them from the dark maw of the world. They would talk to me in a touching series of two or three exploratory peeps. I would answer back in imitation, and then they would peep again, and I would answer back, like the scientists and the aliens communicating with musical tones in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
“Please drink,” I begged them. “Please eat something.”
To make a long story short, the ducklings survived. They went to a wildlife rehabilitation center to learn how to be wild ducks and grow up, along with other rescued orphaned ducklings.
I had written about them in the first draft of my essay about Mary, but then, before publishing it, I decided to take them out. I’m not sure why. Maybe the inclusion of the ducklings was too much, or took away focus, or wasn’t working. Maybe I didn’t feel like disclosing my ongoing rescue efforts. Either way, after I’d deleted all the paragraphs about the ducks, the essence of the ducks was still there. They had simply become invisible.
Thus the idea of the invisible ducks was born. I realized this was something I had been experimenting with for a while. I would write essays with autobiographical or otherwise personal information included, and then, before finishing them, I would take all the personal details out.
It reminds me of a famous writing prompt which may have originated from John Gardner’s book The Art of Fiction: Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war, without mentioning the man, the son, death, or the war.
The invisible ducks are the things you’re not writing about, but which inform your writing nonetheless. Maybe they start out as part of the text, or maybe they are never written down, but shape the tone of the piece in some way.
In Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Child, the character Lenu experiences an irrational artistic jealousy of her friend Lila, after Lila’s daughter, Tina, disappears and is never found. Lenu is convinced that the pain of losing her daughter, although not mentioned directly, will infuse Lila’s writing, making it brilliant in a way that Lenu could never compete with, having never experienced such a devastating loss. She was envious of the prospect of Lila’s invisible ducks.
I think what I mean is something different than subtext. We don’t always know what invisible ducks are lurking in our work. What is left unsaid can be as loud as what we render explicit. Sometimes what’s absent can be gleaned from the rest of the text, while other times it will never be detected.
In your own writing, do you have any invisible ducks?
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