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A Snake & A Girl . . . and Their Writing Lessons

April 11, 2011

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Join me in welcoming Melissa Crytzer Fry today.

I hope you enjoy her guest posssssst.

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A Snake  & A Girl … and their writing lessons, by Melissa Crytzer Fry

I have a little story to share. About a snake and a girl. And the writing lessons the snake taught the girl … um, I mean, woman (Two years from the 4-0 mark means woman is probably the more age-appropriate moniker) …

Yes, said woman is me. And said snake had me nearly jumping out of my skin.

It was a typical morning jog through the now-excruciatingly-warm Arizona desert. We’re talking real desert, not paved subdivisions with manicured lawns, pools, and petite Chihuahuas in every yard (Can I be any more stereotypical? I mean, I did once have one of those yards myself – minus the Chihuahua – when I lived in the city). I’m talking dirt. Acres of saguaro- and mesquite-spotted rolling hills. Wild javelinas. Tarantulas. Slowpoke desert tortoises. Deer. Open range cattle. And, yes, snakes.

I’d been zipping along the desert trails on my ranch property for approximately 390 days. But who’s counting? I’m not proud of my new running routine or anything. Honestly. I’m not. I’m not fast. I don’t even “love” running. I’d always felt that my eyes – ever alert and always scanning, scanning, scanning the desert floor beneath me – gave me complete control of those oft-camouflaged slithery fellows. I can jump over one if I see it!

Last fall, that nearly happened. Fortunately, I did see the black-and-white striped tail beneath the rattle, even though the dangerous part of the creature – it’s head – had eerily melted into the cocoa-colored earth. Still, I had seen it. And even though I was two steps from landing on it, I managed to turn the ankle that wasn’t moving forward and retreat. I had seen it. I was in control. My eyes had not failed me.

Fast forward to 2011. Cruising around the corner on the way up to the “well hill,” I heard a rustling to my left. I generally ignore the lizards whispering through the bushes. But this noise seemed a bit louder than usual. So I looked over my shoulder. And there he was. Head poised. Statue-like. Coiled. Hissing.

The good news is that he eventually slithered away. I realized, however, that I was within striking distance. I didn’t even know he was there. My eyes had failed me. I was not in control. Yes indeed, I’d better darn well stay on the middle of the trails from now on, not toward the edges where snakes laze under the canopies of brittle bush and Hopi tea …

What on earth does this have to do with writing, you ask? Plenty. The event reminded me of the power of emotional fear – and how, when handled well – it can bring heart-pounding realism to fiction. I held on to that fear for a few days. I documented it. Wrote about it. I will draw upon it for my writing.

And that issue of control … Are you ever in control of your writing? Or do your characters take over – bullying, coercing, slithering about to different plot points? Can you control when the muse strikes?  Should you? Or are you just along for the jog?

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Melissa Crytzer Fry is a fulltime freelance writer, author of the What I Saw creativity & writing blog and a writer/enthusiast of literary women’s fiction. You can also follow her on Twitter.

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36 Comments leave one →
  1. April 11, 2011 5:20 am

    OMG! I heard part of this story from you on Twitter, but the long version is truly terrifying! What a great idea you had to document it immediately so you could draw on it in the future. That’s so helpful to get in touch with that fear, so you know how to write about it, but also so you can process it–I’d be terrified to run that route again! As for controlling my muse, that’s something I’m working to do everyday; and although not as physically dangerous as the rattler, sometimes it can be pretty terrifying! Great post Melissa. Just finished reading the one on your site–what a great a way to start my day, with two entertaining and thought-provoking blogs. Thank you!

    • April 11, 2011 8:55 am

      Thanks, Julia. Glad you weren’t turned off by all the snake photos ;-). Ahh, yes … controlling the muse CAN be terrifying.

      • April 12, 2011 10:57 am

        Julia, I love your suggestion to draw on the fear later. I thought the same thing when I read Melissa’s post. Isn’t it cool how we can take a simply emotion (like fear) and apply it to many scenes in our writing? Just the other day I was reading how we can write any scene believably because we’ve all experienced every emotion on some level.

  2. April 11, 2011 6:58 am

    I think the real truth in this lies in the fact that just like your jogs in the desert, characters only occasionally take control of the writer. When those days come, we must stop all else and let them lead until they recoil and slither back into the brush again.

    • April 11, 2011 8:56 am

      I agree with your sentiments that when our characters take over, we let them lead! Well said.

    • April 12, 2011 10:47 am

      journey,

      I’m loving your snake verbage: recoil, slither, brush. So appropriate!

      • April 12, 2011 11:21 am

        The funny thing is, I don’t think I did it completely consciously…I guess the snake just put me “in the mood.”

  3. April 11, 2011 9:20 am

    Great post, Melissa. I’m a big fan of all your critter-encounter stories and love the way you always seem to learn something from them that helps you in your writing life. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Leah permalink
    April 11, 2011 3:29 pm

    This reminds me of something I learned about my writing workshop this past weekend. And that is to embrace the fear. Go with the uncomfortable feelings. That sometimes the best writing comes from when you push yourself to go beyond what feels good. Although I do think if I encountered a snake like that, I’d run … far away.

    • April 11, 2011 7:31 pm

      Trust me, I’ve run when I’ve seen them :-). In the one where the snake is next to the rock, I was actually riding a mountain bike, looked down as I was pedaling, and nearly wrecked when I saw how close my toe was to the diamonds on the back. It was kind of too late, you know? I was already pedaling right past it! (Of course, then I went back to take pictures. He never even moved). Did that guy blend in or WHAT?

      • April 12, 2011 10:49 am

        That picture creeps me out more than any of them because the snake is practically invisible. Yet right there.

  5. April 11, 2011 3:51 pm

    Some fears are simply a lack of faith in the moment. But some are there to keep us safe. The fear of letting our characters lead should probably be ignored. The best stories result (in my experience).
    Beautiful photos of snakes, Melissa. You must have had a long lense to get those. LOL! I’ve never come across a rattler in the wild. But then I run on a treadmill, so what are the chances?

    • April 12, 2011 10:50 am

      I’m with you, Cynthia. The treadmill is my friend. Actually, I work-out on a Gazelle (bad knees.)

  6. April 11, 2011 7:34 pm

    Indeed, fear IS there to keep us safe. Each time I’ve had an encounter, it’s been a wake-up call to be more careful. Indeed, Cynthia … running on treadmills is much safer. But not nearly as much fun! I must have a knack for coming across rattlers. My first week living in Arizona, I stumbled across one by Squaw Peak (that tells you how long ago that was …. I mean, Piestewa Peak). Slithered right past me, as my friends were ahead of me. And being a dummy, I HEARD it first, stopped & said aloud, “What’s that?”… then it went by. Oh yes. I recognize that sound now. All too well.

  7. April 11, 2011 7:42 pm

    In case anyone is wondering, the photographed snakes are all Western Diamondbacks, the most commonly seen (though not most common) of the 4 rattlesnake species that live right where Melissa does.

    • April 11, 2011 9:15 pm

      Thank you, Bryan (field herpetologist in the Phoenix area).

      • April 12, 2011 10:52 am

        That makes me wonder what snake is more common and why isn’t it seen as often. Maybe small snakes that hide better?

        • April 12, 2011 9:13 pm

          On the right nights, the snake I find most often, by far, are sidewinders. Any of the sandy flats and washes in the area will be home to quite a few of these. Where Melissa lives is right on the Eastern edge of their range. They’re not common for people to see unless you’re looking for them, though, because of their strictly nocturnal nature and tiny size.

          • April 13, 2011 9:26 am

            I always wanted to see a sidewinder. Other than PBS, I never have. On the other hand, I wouldn’t recognize it as a sidewinder unless it was moving.

  8. April 12, 2011 10:59 am

    Melissa,

    Thank you so much for visiting my blog. Your snakes are wonderful . . . in a very distant sort of way. 🙂 It’s been a pleasure to have you and the reptiles over here. And I love the writing comments that you inspired. Hope to see you posting here again. Happy Blogging!

    V.V.

    • April 12, 2011 11:08 am

      Thanks, V.V. MY pleasure and honor. If I find the answer to Bryan’s question, I’ll let you know. I wondered the SAME thing!

      • April 12, 2011 11:13 am

        Imagine all the snakes you jog past unaware . . . 🙂

        • April 12, 2011 2:21 pm

          Oh, believe me, I’ve thought about that MANY times. Often they don’t even move or give any warning. I’m sure it’s been in the 100s.

  9. April 12, 2011 2:31 pm

    OMG it is so true about the fear and the writing! great parallel!

    • April 13, 2011 9:23 am

      I agree, Pearl. Sometimes writing scares me away. Other times I’m captivated, like watching the boa at the zoo.

  10. April 13, 2011 10:24 am

    I do not need to experience fear in the “wild.” At least as far as rattlesnakes. This post scared me badly enough. My heart’s still pounding.

    You went BACK to take pictures? I hope you have a 100X zoom.

    Nevertheless, great post! 😉

    • April 13, 2011 1:15 pm

      Melissa is a brave woman, don’t you think?

    • April 13, 2011 1:50 pm

      I got a great chuckle out of your response, Sandra. I’m a bit crazy like that – going back to get the camera to document my snake sightings. I can’t even tell you the number of times I’ve done it… Even the time my hand was THREE inches from a coiled baby I did NOT see while I was weeding, I came back to take pics. One would think, “ah… a baby… not so dangerous.” But I’ve been told that they are the more dangerous since they don’t know how to control their venom (which means they release more). Bryan can correct me if I’m telling a wives’ tale or if it’s true? Thanks for stopping by. Brave, V.V.? Maybe just stupid!

  11. April 14, 2011 7:26 am

    I would love to get to the point where I feel I’m along for the jog! I haven’t quite been able to submit like that yet. Great post! Creepy pictures. 😉

    • April 14, 2011 7:41 am

      Nor have I, to be honest. But sometimes I DO let them go … and when I do, they give me some interesting scenes.

  12. April 14, 2011 7:31 am

    Oh, Melissa! You are one brave woman! I was already impressed that you are such a commited runner and add this to it–wow!

    I love the comparison you make, and I think it is such a hard balance (rarely achieved for me) of guiding my characters and them guiding me. In my first drafts, I’m much more agreeable to letting them have the control, but I like to temper that more so as the revisions move forward. That’s not to say they don’t jump off the trail even then, but I do feel more in control of the story when they do.

    • April 14, 2011 7:48 am

      My husband would probably tell you I have a bit of the “control freak” nature in me, which is why it was nearly impossible for me, at first, to let my characters run free in my first novel. On the second, now that I’m giving them some space (within some general guidelines), they are pleasantly surprising me! I think that lends so much more realism to a story! I now much prefer an organic style to my writing. Thanks for stopping by, Erika.

  13. April 15, 2011 7:41 pm

    I thought running on country roads and having dogs come after you was heart-pumping scary. The coiled snake wins. A healthy dose of fear, the kind that makes you laugh nervously and thank your lucky stars, heightens our senses. I think that’s always a good thing. Careful on that trail, snake charmer!

    • April 16, 2011 6:35 am

      When I used to jog, I used the time to clear my head and wouldn’t pay much attention to my surroundings, lost in my own thoughts. NOT a good idea for Melissa. 🙂

      Thanks for dropping by, Jen. Have a great weekend!

    • April 20, 2011 10:42 am

      Thanks for the visit, Jen. Snake charmer, I am not. Oddly, the dogs-running-after-you scenario is more frightening to me (I’m a bit leery of dogs since I was bitten by one as a kid, and another chased me down a road until I crashed my face into a pothole)… :-). Good times! Yes – a healthy dose of fear DOES heighten our senses!

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