Three ways a writer is like … a caterpillar

In a previous blog post, I wrote about the misunderstanding there can often be about writing and writers, and how I’ve used analogies to help the people around me get what I’m doing.  That post was ‘Three ways a writer is like a cowboy or cowgirl‘.

The next one up is this: three ways a writer is like a caterpillar.

My kids love caterpillars.  With their grandmother, they have set up a ‘butterfly garden’, which allows them to study, learn and follow the journey of a caterpillar from tiny, vulnerable garden-dweller through to fat caterpillar and, eventually, Monarch butterfly.

It’s fascinating to watch the transformation.  And it dawned on me a few weeks ago, as I was watching a butterfly emerge from its cocoon, that there are some similarities between caterpillars and those of us behind a notebook or keyboard.

There are three, in fact.

1. Sometimes you need to disappear for a while until you emerge with something beautiful.

When a caterpillar starts to build a cocoon, it’s quite exciting.  This creature builds itself a home; a comfortable wraparound that seemingly appears out of the ether.

Then it gets boring. Quickly.  Nothing happens; then it happens again.

But what we don’t see is the amazing transformation that has to take place away from the peering eyes and prodding fingers of others.  It is a transformation in the truest sense of the word, where something beautiful develops and the potential that was always there comes to fruition.

I thought about how that relates to a writer.  When the novel (or novella) starts to be built, it’s exciting.  Then, from the outside, nothing happens.  We withdraw into a cocoon and that is where the transformation takes place; characters emerge and develop personalities, quirks and responses to tragedy; storylines come forth, expand or are discarded.  Ideas become real.

This time in the cocoon is important.

2. You devour everything in sight.

I’ve got a vegie garden and can vouch for the fact that caterpillars eat everything in sight. They aren’t fussy.  If it’s green and available, they’ll devour it. And they are prolific.  I had one garden bed of broccoli, cauliflower and spinach that was there on Friday and gone by Monday. Decimated.

I talk to a lot of writers who are no different.  Their bedside table has a stack of books on it.  Not a book; a stack of them. They read a lot; as do I.  I’ll read my favourite authors or genres, but then also read something else because it catches my eye, I want to try a different style or just see another angle on a popular topic.

I’ve found that then filters into my writing: a turn of phrase, a stylistic approach, a quirk of character.  And gorging myself on creativity then helps to create something special when I emerge from the cocoon. Which leads me to the third thing …

3. When you emerge, you’re a fragile creature.

When it emerges from a chrysalis, a butterfly is a fragile creature. It can take a Monarch an hour for its untested wings to dry. Even a medium-sized wind can be enough to damage what is a perfect, new creation.

When you are watching a butterfly unfold its wings for the first time, it’s hard not to cheer for it; to tell it to hang in there as it lurches from one side of a branch to another, teetering on a edge from which it never seems to fall.

When I finished the first draft of my novel, in its first couple of weeks of life it was fragile.   I felt that even the gentle criticism or comment would damage it.

But I learned a thing or two about a butterfly’s wings when it comes to those gentle breezes when it emerges. Those winds dry them, they shape them and they help them to come alive.

If you can cling onto the branch, those critical winds can help shape your story and help it to truly come alive.


There are three ways a writing journey mirrors a caterpillar’s journey. What did I miss?

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