Thursday, September 9, 2010

What Parrots Know About Writing

By Beth Terrell

Awhile back, I wrote about things you can learn about writing from your dogs. Today, I'd like to talk about things you can learn about writing from your parrots (or someone else's parrots, if you don't happen to have one handy). Yes, my friends, we can learn writing lessons from anyone, any species, anywhere. Does this mean you can expect later posts on what you can learn about writing from your fish and what you can learn about writing from your praying mantis? Well, maybe. It all depends on how desperate I get for material.

But first, a little background. I have two parrots, both African Greys, a male (Corky) and a female (Kesha). I inherited Corky from a high school friend 18 years ago, just a few months after I had bought Kesha. He was four years old. She was just a few months old. I'd made a down payment on her egg and gone to visit her throughout the weaning process. Greys are smart birds with a sense of humor. Once, Corky had to spend a few days at the vet's office. There was a kennel next door, and Corky would bark until all the dogs in the kennel were barking frantically. Then Corky would laugh quietly and wait for the dogs to settle down. After several minutes of peace, he would bark again, and the cycle would continue. There's no doubt in my mind that he understood what he was doing and that he found it amusing.

My Greys are underachievers, though, compared to Alex, an African Grey who was part of a research project by Dr. Irene Pepperberg. It was a project on language acquisition, and since Greys learn language the same way children do (babbling for about a year and then using words in appropriate contexts), Alex was a perfect subject. He could name more than 100 objects, identify colors, tell what an object was made of, identify same and different, and identify sets to six. He too played tricks on the people around him, and he even combined familiar words to describe unfamiliar objects (such as "cork-nut" for an almond and "banerry" for an apple--white like a banana and red like a cherry).

What better muse could an author have than a creature that can use words with creativity and humor? So without further ado, here are some tidbits of writing wisdom we can learn from our parrots.

Don't just eat seeds. Many moons ago, people thought parrots could thrive on a diet of seed mix. Now we know that's just not true. While seeds are a great treat, a nutritionally balanced pelleted diet, along with a variety of fruits and vegetables, are necessary for healthy, happy parrots. If we think books as foods and our favorite beach reads as seeds, you can see where I'm going with this. As writers, we need to devour all kinds of good writing, not just a few favorite kinds. By reading good books in a variety of types or genres, we can absorb the rhythms of written language, learn techniques that can be adapted to our own work, and stretch our writing wings.

Change things up a bit. Experts used to recommend following a strict routing with Greys, because they love patterns and routines. They like to do and see the same things and the same people at the same times every day. It makes them feel comfortable and secure. That is, until the day you're late from work, or your old TV breaks and you have to buy a new one, or you shave your head or purchase a new hat. If all they've known is their routine, the sudden change will throw them into a tizzy. Maybe they'll start nipping your fingers. Maybe they'll pluck their own feathers out. Not a pretty sight. Now experts know that it's better to teach your birds to be comfortable with change. "See? We turned your cage a quarter turn to the right--and everything is still okay!" "See? You got breakfast in a different bowl, and it's oatmeal with blueberries--and isn't it yummy?" They learn that change can be good and that, whatever happens, they can trust you to take care of it. Writers sometimes get stuck in a rut too. We do the same things the same way, even when they're not working as well as they used to. Change is tough, but it's the only way we can grow as writers. Try something new every now and again. Are you a novelist? Try a short story. Are you a playwright? Write a poem. You'll feel refreshed and maybe learn something you can take back to your novel. Do you have a series character that's starting to feel stale? Can you introduce something new into that character's life?

Swing a little. My birds love their swings. They'll rock back and forth, singing to themselves (not whistling like birds, singing like people, sort of a "dum dee dum dee dum"). They're taking a break from all that hard bird work, like cracking sunflower seeds or shredding paper towel tubes. Sometimes, when the going gets tough, we writers need to take a break too. Do something that makes you happy. Taking a walk is good, because that sort of repetitive action often leads to a breakthrough. Been struggling with chapter five? Walk a mile on the greenway, or go to the playground and swing for a bit. The answer may come to you.

Swing a lot. (In other words, do something exciting). Sometimes, one of the birds will reach up and grab the top of the cage with a beak, pull themselves and the swing up as close to the top as they can get, and then let go. The result is a wild ride that they obviously find exciting. It can be a little risky too, as one or the other will occasionally get a little too exuberant and slip off. They always climb right back on and swing again. I don't know about you, but as a writer, I find it all too easy to get most of my excitement vicariously, through the movies in my mind, but if I want to write convincingly about life, I have to get out there and experience it sometimes. Doing something exciting or having an adventure can add that extra boost of motivation, too. Attending the FBI/TBI Citizen Academy was exciting for me, and I expect Lee Lofland's Writers Police Academy (held later this month) will be as well. Have you had an adventure lately?

Beware the evil vacuum cleaner. Both my parrots hate the vacuum cleaner. Obviously, this is because vacuuming is housework, and housework interferes with writing. Of course, it's a thing to be feared! Other scary things? Full laundry baskets and dirty dishes. Someone's got to do them, I suppose, but I think my birds are onto something.


Anonymous said...

Love your post! I have an African Grey as a character in my WIP and have done a ton of Internet research, but your personal experiences are so helpful. I'm printing out your post. Thanks!
Pat Browning

Beth Terrell said...

Thank you, Pat. Please feel free to call on me if you have questions. I think I have every African Grey book ever written, LOL.