Friday Fables | Why Writers are Blackbirds
Friday Fables is a series of long reads exploring ideas that belong very firmly in the heart and soul of Forth and Fable. Fridays, as well as having fortuitous alliteration, are traditionally the day that the working week winds down. It’s also one of my favourite moments, I walk to meet my husband after work, we collect our daughter on the way home and then we know it’s time for us. I’m lucky to have this model at home, as in the modern world it isn’t perhaps the working life you recognise. But that doesn’t stop the particular magic of a Friday night and my hope is that you can brew a tea, curl up on the sofa and just read for a while.
With elbows propping me up, and binoculars leaving pinched-pink rings around my eyes, I watched. My brother and sisters did the same; we’d fidget and whine and wait. Our fingers inky from a well-chewed biro, we’d mark the paper with a tally and keep count of the birds we had seen.
We never concentrated for long. There’s something strange about bird watching from behind a large glass patio door, the carpet scratching our bellies and beakers of squash, also chewed around the edges (also by me), precariously full on the floor. It’s not quite the same as watching from within a whistling hide, knelt on the wooden bench to see the scrape ahead.
And yet there was then, and is still now, something about the blackbird that fascinated me. I remember a time when I saw more of these elegant birds with their beloved soul-song than pigeons or seagulls. I suspect that’s a false memory; I was drawn to blackbirds. It was my first example of the difference between a male and female of a species, the perfect black of the males, the star-flecked brown of the females and always those vivid orange beaks poised to peck hopefully at the earth. (The act of birds finding worms was also a rather enthralling wonder of nature in my early years.)
It’s a slightly strange moment when I first refer to a writer under my wing as a blackbird. I can only picture the side eye if I were to say it in front of them. But the blackbird is a creature of myth, of folktales and a rather strange journey through natural history.
The Thing with Feathers
The common blackbird of the British garden is not alone when it comes to legend. The stories about them may just as easily be about a raven, or a crow, or a rook – all birds that have a rich history of fable.
Blackbirds themselves are a symbol of knowledge and magic. These two things together are the perfect analogy for a writer. As writers, we’re always searching for answers even when we don’t realise that’s what we are doing as we look to make sense of the extraordinary mechanisms of our world, and often on a smaller scale, of those internal musings that keep our curiosity aflame.
The legend of the black bird has belonged to all time. In Norse mythology, Odin sent the ravens Huginn and Muninn to fly over the world, bringing their knowledge back to Odin. Although their names, and their subsequent translations (‘thought’ and ‘mind’) belong to more modern times, it is accepted by scholars that the Vikings saw ravens as a symbol of Odin among them. Over time, black birds of all species came to be the symbols that they are still recognised as today. They represent potential and possibility and in modern understandings, humans are expected to work hard to find the secrets that they hold. They are a reminder that the world is not an easy answer; we need critical thought and commentary, creative thinking and exploration. They undo the modern expectation of immediacy and entitlement. And, they remind me, that writing a work of fiction or 5000-words of web copy, is no small thing, that the prose must talk to the reader with poetry and lucidity – and magic.
A Flock of Solitary Creatives
While I chose the common garden blackbird to represent my coaching clients due to a love of the dark-plumed thrush that is recognised throughout British gardens and whose song has begun to pierce these early Spring mornings, throughout Literature, myth and legend, those other black birds - jackdaws, crows, black swans - they all have their own stories. We are drawn to them with a kind of head-tilting fascination. The only birds that have ever sat beside me with patience are crows, hoping for a seed from the top of my bread roll. They wait and look, and in my case, I didn’t feel completely silly talking to them.
These are the birds we salute to ward off bad luck, whose wings we clip so jewels are not stolen from towers. These are birds that we regard with such difference to the turtle dove or blue tit. That’s not to say that we don’t enjoy those birds, that they don’t elicit smiles and good feelings, but when you think about it they seem so very real, so very here. Black birds? Those are the birds that we associate with not just our world, but the other worlds.
As writers we quite literally create other worlds; worlds with their own myth and legend, worlds filled with answers and questions; worlds that can be oh so very different to ours but remain built on writerly foundations of knowledge and magic.