Category Archives: On Writing

H is for Hawk

I don’t normally read books about death and loss, something that comes all too often the older one gets. And mostly I don’t normally read them because all too often they seem insipid, skating across the surface of grief instead of plumbing its depths, holding it close, looking it in the eye. I find it hard to connect with them.

Not so this book.

H is for Hawk is really two stories in one. The main story, compelling and moving, is of Helen Macdonald’s struggle to move through and beyond her overwhelming grief after her father dies suddenly. The secondary story, threaded throughout the first, is her recounting of T.H. White’s failed efforts, some 60 years earlier, to train a goshawk. White I knew as the author of Arthurian novels, The Once and Future King most of all. I had known nothing of goshawks before now.

“Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace: it comes, but not often, and you don’t get to say when or how.”

Helen and her father shared a deep love of nature. As a child, she became enamored of  hawks and falcons, reading every book about them she could get her hands on. At the age of twelve, she pleaded with her parents to go out with a group of falconers, and they agreed. It was her first experience with hawks in the field. Over the years, she became an expert in hawking and falconry. After her father’s death, she decided to buy a goshawk and train it because she came to believe it would help ease her pain.

“But that was not why I needed her. To me she was bright, vital, secure in her place in the world. Every tiny part of her was boiling with life, as if from a distance you could see a plume of steam around her, coiling and ascending and making everything around her slightly blurred, so she stood out in fierce, corporeal detail. The hawk was a fire that burned my hurts away. There could be no regret or mourning in her. No past or future. She lived in the present only, and that was my refuge.”

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Creativity prompt: What do you see?

What do you see in this picture? What does it make you think or feel? Is it calming or unsettling?


When I look at this, it isn’t entirely clear what it is. Is it a snowy field, illuminated by the setting sun? A body of water in the early morning or late evening? A moonscape? Ripples of cloth-of-gold fabric? Maybe all of the above? Maybe none of the above?

Regardless, it’s calming, on the one hand. The scene is serene; there are no rough edges, no disturbances, nothing that doesn’t fit, that isn’t out of the ordinary.

But on the other hand, that same evenness could be disturbing, depending on circumstances. Think about Andy Weir’s The Martian: what if you were lost somewhere or abandoned, and this was all you saw. Would you find it comforting or unsettling?

Now, I took this picture so it’s a little unfair of me to ask you all these questions. But I raise them because it can be helpful to us as writers and even readers to think about what the characters in a book see and feel to the very same things. What’s soothing to one may be deeply troubling to another. (I’ve just tweaked a scene, in fact, to emphasize this difference in point of view.)

And here’s a photo of exactly the same scene, but taken from a different focal length. Does this change your opinion at all?


Because what you see in the first photo is simply a zoom of the rising sun reflected off the ocean (which you can see in the middle of this photo).

Point of view and perspective are everything. They reveal and hide so much, both in fiction and in real life.

Which photo do you like better?


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Creativity prompt: What do you feel?

For the creativity prompt this week, complete this sentence:

When I look at this, I feel…


ferris wheel


When I look at this, I feel both nostalgic and wistful. Nostalgic, because the ferris wheel reminds me of the county fairs of my childhood, when my friends and I would wander around the fairground, marveling at the sights, gorging ourselves on food, and riding every ride we could.

But it also makes me feel wistful. Wistful, because it’s overgrown, covered with vines and kudzu, forgotten by all, no longer remembered by the children it once delighted.

Is this the story of our past, of all our histories? The times of great joys, of childish delights, of magical experiences, intense and concentrated while they lasted but now as ephemeral as the fog that floats among the trees in this photo. What would it be like, I wonder, to be transported back in time to a moment when this ferris wheel was turning, its buckets full of laughing children, music playing in the background? To a time when all was alive again?


Filed under On Writing, Writing prompts