I’ve been working through Ursula K. Le Guin’s excellent Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story. I’m on chapter 3 now and I highly recommend it. I’ll be posting my responses to the short exercises she proposes here. Always glad for feedback or comments! (And if you feel inspired to join in – even better!!)
“Chapter 1: The Sound of Your Writing
Exercise 1: Being Gorgeous – Write a paragraph to a page of narrative that’s meant to be read aloud. Use onomatopoeia, alliteration, repetition, rhythmic effects, made-up words or names, dialect – any kind of sound effect you like – but NOT rhyme or meter.” – Steering the Craft, Page 8.
Right after high school I volunteered at our municipal zoo – I used to conduct evening tours for groups spending the night. We’d leave the group at the “sleepover safari pavilion” and then had to walk to our cars through the empty zoo…
Nighttime at the Zoo
Nighttime is the absolute best time in a zoo. And I’m not talking about one of those nights the zoo simply stays open late. No! The magic only conjures forth when the zoo is closed. One has the space and time to enjoy the sights and sounds of an assemblage of animals found nowhere else on Earth. The silhouettes of dozens of different animals against the darkening sky or illuminated by the warm red glow of their heat lamps. The monkeys lean against the chain link fences of their enclosures, tufts of tawny tails sticking through at odd angles: they pause in grooming the silky black hair of their babies and take a good long look at the sunset smear of pink and orange. The smell of exotic manure – not plain old horse manure – but manure aroma with the hint of something extra. What exactly depends on the ungulate: extra moisture, extra miles down special serpentine guts, extra regurgitations, who knows? The elephants fart with abandon, the decibels of their farts echoing across the empty visitor plazas. Nothing stops you in your tracks like a sustained reverberating bluuuuuurph from an elephant bum.
The bats hid all day, wrapped in their thin leather bathrobes, caring not a fie for the surges of disinterested visitors or the sinister suspirations of strollers squeaking towards the orangutan exhibits. They are now active, lurching wing claw over feet on the ceiling of their cage, tipping their heads back to assess the selection of fruit on offer. Ever see a southern wombat do anything but sleep, Buddha belly rising and falling, stubby toes pointed firmly at the sky? Come to the zoo at night and the wombat will be upright, nose in its food bowl.
The wildlife isn’t all contained either. The peacocks scream eiiiiiiiiiiii triumphantly from their roosts high in the eucalyptus trees. Skunks waddle down the deserted paths with purpose, like assistant zookeepers. “Business to attend to, whot whot!” they seem to say. It is not recommended that you attempt to interrupt them; a blast from a skunk butt will make you not want to be with yourself. No one else will want to be with you either, the sulfurous compound lighting lesson-teaching fire to every mucus membrane it meets. Best to let the wild skunks get to their meetings unhindered; even the great cats, the lions and jaguars and tigers, leave them be, knowing the skunks are the perfect bureaucrats of the nighttime zoo.