Writing is a bear

…as discussed in a writing class after an example by John McPhee.


By Todd R. Nelson

Illustration by Ariel Rose Nelson

You see, even if you don’t like to write you have a handy topic: writer’s block itself. You could start out with a letter, like John McPhee advises.* “Dear Mr. Nelson,” you might say, “I do not like to write! I have such a hard time thinking of a topic. This assignment is a total bear.” Then you could go on and on saying why, and what it feels like to have no ideas and feel blocked and stymied, whining about how useless it feels to persist. And yet write you must.

“It’s like strolling along a path through the woods, minding your own business,” you could write, “when you ’round a corner and you startle a bear. He comes thrashing through the bushes to investigate. Now you’re also startled.” This bear-writing assignment does not like surprises and he’s big and hungry because he’s fresh out of hibernation. So, he starts moving toward you with a famished look in his eyes. And you must decide, shall I run for it? But then you think better of that option since the bear is certainly going to outrun you. I’ll climb a tree! Silly. Bears are better tree climbers too. Play dead? You’re ticklish. Wouldn’t last long. And here his big furry self comes, heading straight toward your lunch bag, which his big black nose has detected, licking his lips and no doubt thinking, Easy pickings, this one.

So now you’re down to your last option which is to look the bear in the eye and prepare to stand your ground and out-fierce him — and you do — until finally you are toe-to-toe, breathing his hot stinky bear-fresh-from-hibernation breathe, thinking, My, what big teeth you have. And the bear is thinking, I am so misunderstood. All I wanted was a morsel of that peanut butter and jelly sandwich that smells so heavenly. And you wonder, Perhaps he would settle for my PBJ sandwich. So, you pull it out of the bag slowly and offer it on the palm of your hand, and the bear sniffs it and decides that it seems like a very fair deal and involves far less effort than picking your own berries, one by one, or invading a beehive and stealing honey from little buzzing things that sting, or hitting bird feeders again. And so the deal is silently struck, and the bear gets lunch and you get your writing assignment done. You take John McPhee’s advice and just remove ‘Dear Mr. Nelson’ from the page and retitle it ‘My Lunch with the Bear.’” Sometimes the bear eats you (or your sandwich), and sometimes you eat the bear (or, the assignment). Way to go. Waiting for writing to appear is akin to another McPhee wildlife scene, canoeing by Umbazooksus Stream. “We will stop paddling, stop talking, and stay until a moose shows up or the stream freezes. We settle down to wait. Stillness envelops us. It is the stillness of a moose intending to appear.” #Awaiting writing inspiration is the stillness of a bear intending to appear. It is the stillness of this paragraph intending to be read.

Now you’re thinking, I wonder if that bear has cubs? Of course it does. Just like this column will.


Todd R. Nelson writes, while he keeps a look out for stealthy bears, in Penobscot.


*Draft No. 4 by John McPhee.                       #The Survival of the Bark Canoe.

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