And Now, the Octopus

I’m working on a chapter that’s based on a monologue I performed a few years ago at Live Bait Theater in Chicago. Every summer, my friend Tekki, the artistic director of Tellin’ Tales Theatre, curates an evening of solo performance based on a theme. That particular year she titled the show “Potholes on the Path to Enlightenment,” and she asked us to write about an epiphany. That’s not really so hard, I thought: almost every story is about some kind of discovery – some little or big a ha! But she wanted it to be something pretty major, something that could, like, change your life. When I started working on the piece, I became a little obsessed with octopuses. For weeks, I read and wrote about octopuses. (By the way, octopuses is the correct plural – either that or octopodes. Octopi is frowned on by most references because the –pus derives from Greek and not Latin.) I wrote about an octopus I remembered from Sesame Street, which I watched as a kid. A man’s voice said, “And now, the octopus,” then this octopus swam around a tank for a minute, and that was it. Anyway, I was trying to write this piece about epiphany; I thought I should be writing about God, transcendence, the search for meaning, and I kept coming back to the octopus.

Figuring out what my brain is onto is one of my favorite parts of writing. The work is making clear the dot-to-dot of connections I’ve made in my head and finding a way to take the reader along on the journey. I don’t want to make it all too obvious or the reading won’t be any fun. But I can’t make it too obscure either – I can’t lead the reader into the woods and leave them with no trail to find their way back. I want the reader to make the discoveries I made in the living and the writing of the story – in this piece, for example, how the search for God and meaning relates to octopuses (also Clash of the Titans and Esther Williams).

An epiphany is an insight that comes about because of something ordinary. I probably watched my octopus on Sesame Street every day. It was ordinary. But the octopus itself, all rippling flesh and unfurling suckers was extraordinary. The octopus was an epiphany billowing across our black and white TV.  It said, wake up! Look at what’s out here in the world. Look and look and look.

Tell me, friends. What is it that makes you wake up and look?

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wild truth

I love this quote:

Philosophy is really there to redeem what lies in an animal’s gaze.                                                                                                    – Theodor Adorno

It’s the epigraph of the book I just read by Gordon Grice called The Book of Deadly Animals.  I’m working on a chapter about survival — the ways we find to keep our physical and emotional selves intact.  At least I think that’s what it’s about.  When I start a chapter I don’t know exactly where it’s going to wind up. I have a murmuring in my head — words, images, fragments of stories.  I have to investigate this murmuring and see what kinds of connections develop.  Thinking about survival led me to predator and prey.  Hence the rather bloody research.

The idea for this chapter started with me remembering the way I thought about animals when I was a kid — a certain look my uncle’s dog had in his eye that suggested to me a different way of knowing the world.  Then I started wondering about the ways we are animal — the ways we hide and protect, fight and defend, nest and mark our territories, the ways we communicate with one another outside of language.

The chapter is also about being a kid and becoming aware that although the world is home to abundant beauty, it can also be brutal.  It’s about how I struggled (and struggle) with that awareness.  So I’m reading about predators and prey, watching old episodes of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom on youtube and writing about tooth and claw and hunger and flight.  I think writing for me sometimes is an effort to articulate things I know but don’t yet know that I know.  So I like that quote about philosophy somehow being an attempt to recover or uncover a wild truth, to know something about ourselves we didn’t know we knew. And I like that the key to that truth might lie in the gaze of an animal.