Using Ideas: The Metaphor of the Honey Tree

Have you ever put off a writing assignment because you feel uninspired, dull, and uncreative? Have you ever “waited” for the creative bug to hit you and then, even in the crunch of time, written furiously on the crest of productivity? God knows I have. I have written about procrastination before and I think about it all the time. Most writers are intimately familiar with the process – feeling guilty until the actual writing moment then feeling as if even the jaws of life cannot tear them from their work. This thought summary is not about procrastination; it is about creativity: when, where, and how writers start feeling creative enough to write, or whether writers plug through periods of uncreativity and write anyway.

So what do you do when you itch to write, when you have ideas that pour out of your head and your hands, and when you scarcely have the time or brainpower to write them down? I recall a passage by Annie Dillard in her book The Writing Life, in which she compares the writing process to finding a honey tree – a true treasure, full of sweetness and nourishment:

“To find a honey tree, first catch a bee. Catch a bee when its legs are heavy with pollen; then it is ready for home. It is simple enough to catch a bee on a flower: hold a cup or glass above the bee, and when it flies up, cap the cup with a piece of cardboard. Carry the bee to a nearby open spot – best an elevated one – release it, and watch where it goes. Keep your eyes on it as long as you can see it, and hie you to that last known place. Wait there until you see another bee; catch it, release it, and watch. bee after bee will lead toward the honey tree, until you see the final bee enter the tree. Thoreau describes this process in his journals. So a book leads its writer.”

What Dillard describes here in the metaphor of the honey tree is the painstaking, joyful, frustrating, utterly consuming process of writing. The writer must actively catch ideas but then release them if need be. Only by the catch-and-release process can the writer’s ideas really develop and grow into a full honeycomb, relevant and purposeful. I think that this metaphor can be used even in academic writing, where the development of argument and intellectual relevance is paramount.

I will be thinking about the honey tree metaphor this spring as I revise my own work. Dillard of course goes on to say that, over the course of a long writing project, a good writer hardly keeps any of her original ideas. Rather she keeps sentences like bricks and use them to build an even stronger structure. We must therefore think of writing as a whole process, one that involves the catch-and-release of ideas, and one that may lead us in the end to a fine product.

Patience and honey! Now who’s ready to write?


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