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The Squirrel in the Attic

January 21, 2018

Not long ago, someone asked me about my writing strategy. Where did I get my ideas from, and how did I turn them into a story? At the time, I muttered something along the lines of, “Well, stuff just sort of comes to me and I get it down as best I can, and then I rework it until it forms a story.” Not the most profound exposition on how to write a coherent tale, but the question had honestly caught me by surprise.

I was thinking today about how ideas actually do come to me (because, let’s face it, thinking is easier than actually doing something productive on a dull, dreary Sunday afternoon) and I recalled an excerpt from Anne Lamott’s book (on writing and life), Bird by Bird, that dealt with that very subject. She put forward the idea that our unconscious (which is where a writer’s most insightful ideas form) is sort of like a child (or, in her case, “a long-necked, good-natured Dr. Seuss character”) who lives in the cellar, spending his or her days creating characters (as if playing with paper dolls) and handing them up through the cellar door for us to use in our story-telling. She encourages writers to come up with their own image or metaphor for this “collaborator” who resides in the non-rational, unconscious mind.

ScaredySquirrelI immediately pictured a squirrel in the attic.

Not a real squirrel, of course, but one that looks like Scaredy Squirrel from Mélanie Watt’s storybooks – a little wide-eyed and eager to please. I envision him running around in the narrow space above my writing room, gathering and hoarding not nuts and nesting materials, but random people, situations, settings, and snippets of conversation he’s found who-knows-where. Things I never could have come up with on my own, even if I’d sat in front of my computer for a hundred hours.

I picture him dropping them through a teeny, tiny hole in the ceiling, right next to the cedar beam that runs across the centre of the room, where they land on my head, seep into my brain, and rush through my nervous system. They emerge through my fingers, which hammer rapidly on the keyboard, forming words which get strung together, as if by magic, into sentences and paragraphs and pages. Then, ever-so-gradually (but not effortlessly), these disparate pages weave themselves together and form a story. With luck (and some perseverance), the end result is a tale about flesh and blood people living complex but authentic lives in places we can see and hear and smell. They’ll have convincing conversations about real problems, and overcome any number of obstacles to reach their goals. Ultimately, they will survive and thrive, while growing and changing dramatically before they reach “The End”.

Clearly none of this could happen without the assistance of my collaborator – the squirrel in the attic. I suppose I should take the time to thank him (I think I’ll call him Musey, because I see him as part muse, part research assistant, part general dogs-body) for his contributions and his participation in my creative endeavours.

ScaredySquirel_PeekI suspect, though, he’d just stare back at me with his beady little eyes, through the hole in the ceiling, twitch his fluffy tail a time or two, and get on with the business of gathering more nuggets of brilliance to pass along.

Because that’s what he does!


And now you know how I write what I write here on … the other side of 55!


  1. January 22, 2018 4:30 pm

    Oh my goodness, I love this! I’m picturing your little attic squirrel with a whole horde of writing nuggets saved up for you. I’m not sure I have a squirrel in my ‘attic,’ more than likely bats in my belfry! 😉 LOL

    • January 22, 2018 4:33 pm

      I read that description in Anne Lamott’s book and I just SAW the squirrel … running around right over my head and sending down what I needed just when I needed it. He’s a lifesaver! LOL!

  2. shelleykrupagmailcom permalink
    January 21, 2018 3:33 pm

    That’s a fun way to write, Anne would be proud of you! Her book is great and I enjoyed reading how you incorporated her lessons from Bird by Bird!

    • January 21, 2018 4:57 pm

      Its the best book on writing I’ve ever read – more of a ‘best practices’ than a ‘how to’, which I found profoundly more helpful and inspirational.

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