Welcome to my blog. I am not a very regular blogger, but I try to keep this site updated with news and information. If there's none of the above I may just share my random ruminations.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

What has Writing Got to do With Owls?

Editing or making that ugly ill-formed lump into a thing of beauty

Early one summer, when I was fifteen, I found a fledgling owl on a pavement near our house. He couldn't fly. I took him down to the vet. I was told it was relatively easy to rear owls. But that rearing them in order to return them to the wild was more tricky. They are easily tameable. I named  him Timmy and took him home..........

I’ll tell you in a minute what happened next.

Editing is the best bit of writing because every time you do it you’re making your book better.  But before you can start the editing you have to have the raw material to work on.  Sorry to state the obvious! 

Writing doesn’t come easily to me. To get the original story out and onto the page is a slow, hiccupy sometimes painful process.  It was when I was thinking about the creation of that first ugly, misshapen draft, that the image of my owl came to mind. In the wild, owls eat the whole of their prey, bones, fur and all.  They then regurgitate a pellet of the indigestible part of the diet. So, if you’re rearing a young owl, you have to incorporate some of these elements, to keep this mechanism working.

My mum did not really relish the prospect of having a tame owl round the house, we already had a dog and a cat, so Timmy lived in a large box in our garage (my dad's car was banished to the drive). She devised the idea of shaking a jar of dried beans whenever I fed him, so that he would associate the noise with food.  In those early days I lifted him out of his box and he would sit on my lap to be fed.  It wasn't long before he gave me a surprise by taking off for a test flight. From then on he lived in the garage rafters, from time to time uttering strident screeches, which to me sounded more like Weee-eee-eeeeb rather than Tu Whit.  I now had to climb up a set of tall step-ladders to give him his food. He would still sit on my lap and would allow me to stroke his head while I gave him the scraps of meat wrapped up in rabbit skins (available from a local butcher in those days, and kept in the ice-cream compartment of our small under-counter fridge). I often watched him, sitting up there on his favourite rafter, regurgitating pellets.  It looked a very uncomfortable process;  it looked like it took a great deal of effort;  it looked like Timmy would far rather be doing something else as he gagged, retched and eventually brought up a surprisingly large and steaming lump of matter.

Back to writing. It’s only after the horrible process of excavating that first draft out of myself, that the fun begins.  It’s only when I read the whole thing through that I realise it’s not (usually) as bad as I feared. But even when it is pretty rough and ready, the ideas about how to improve it start to flow. And it’s not just the way I’ve expressed myself that can be tidied up.  New revelations come to me about the characters and their motivations - why did X say that and Y do this?  Flaws in the plotline show up, but also the solutions.  The story may even go off in new and surprising directions.  All of this is like magic and is deeply rewarding.

After we released Timmy we’d leave his food out in the garden every evening on the top platform of the step ladders. And we would shake the jar of beans until he flew into the garden and alighted next to his evening repast. Gradually he stopped coming and we could only hope that he had taught himself to hunt and survived.

One summer night, a year later, we heard a very loud - and very close - ‘tu-whitting’.  It sounded just like Timmy. My dad shone a torch onto a full-grown owl sitting in one of our beech trees.

As we watched he flew down and perched on the top of the side door to the garage where Timmy had lived.  He sat there for several minutes then flew off. It was almost as if he had come back just to tell us he was all right. He'd made it.

 I’ve since discovered that my conviction that Timmy was a boy was misplaced. It’s the females who go ‘tu-whitt’ and the males who go ‘tu-whoo’.


Kit Domino said...

Lovely post, Gilli. Love the analogy to editing process too. Owls are my favourite bird and think you are so lucky to have helped save and rear such a wonderful creature.
Best Wishes

Phoenix said...

Lovely story, I love owls but would never have been as brave as you to rear one. How lovely that he/she came back to say she was OK. Good to relate the regurgitation to editing too! Sherrie.

Gilli Allan said...

Thanks Kit and Sherrie. Very strangely the following year (you couldn't make it up!), my younger brother came home with a Little Owl he'd found near the bole of a tree in the park behind us. Ooh good, I thought, I know how to do this now, and prepared for a similar triumph of owl hand-rearing. Little Owl's are a very different proposition to Tawnies, however. Despite being half the size it was twenty times more fierce with very sharp, strong talons and beak. It had no intention of making friends with us. We didn't name it as far as I recall, and we very swiftly donated it to Regents Park Zoo, who were surprisingly happy to have it as Little Owls are less common.

Sheryl Browne said...

Awww, that warmed my heart, Gilli. A lovely story. Well done you! xx

Hywela Lyn said...

What a lovely story, I'm so glad you managed to help Timmy become a full grown owl and return to the wild. I completely agree about editing too - my first draft always seems dreadful but it gives me something to work on, and, exactly as you say, the proess of honing, polishing adding and deleting is a thoroughly enjoyable one and produces many surprises and often reveals things I hadn't known myself when I started the story. I know people who have to plan and say they hate editing - what suits one person doesn't suit another but I'm with you on this - and I love the analogy between a first draft and owl pellets! :)

Gilli Allan said...

Thanks Sheryl and Hywela. I can edit forever, Hywela, which can be a problem in itself! I need someone to look over my shoulder and say Enough now! let it go! gx

Jane Risdon said...

Oh wow, what a story and a fab way to describe the writing process. I would love to have an owl, they are such beautiful creatures and I love to photograph them. Every time I look at one now I shall think of you and your writing journey and agony and him with his pellets sitting in your rafters. It is worth all that pain and struggles when you see your book complete with cover, ready to go out into the world. Just like your beautiful owl. Good luck Gilli. :) xx

Rae Cowie said...

What a gorgeous post, Gilli. I'm quite envious of your friendship with your owl, they are such wonderful birds. Also, I share your pain when getting the first draft down!

Gilli Allan said...

Thank Jane and Rae. I can't recall how long we looked after Timmy, but although it remains important in my memory and feels as if it went on for months, it was probably only 5 or 6 weeks. Until I found my owl, and was susccessful in rearing him to adulthood, I had named all my rescue fledglings Jeremy. But they all died and I decided Jeremy was an unlucky name and chose Timmy instead. It should have been Timathina (or something more fmeinine). :)