Issue #64, Adaptation
Making a Hummingbird of Words
The Story Behind the Story
Making a Hummingbird of Words
I live in Oxford, Mississippi, which lies along the ruby-throated hummingbird’s migratory path. Did you know ruby-throats migrate? They do, spectacularly. Come late summer, ruby-throats drift from their breeding grounds in North America to points south. When they reach the states that border the gulf, they linger, juicing blossoms, storing up energy before their journey to their wintering grounds. They gorge until they’ve doubled their weight, to almost that of a nickel. A few take the longer land route along the Yucatan, but most fly over the Gulf of Mexico without stopping, a trip of five hundred miles, to winter in southern Mexico and Central America.
Because they loiter here, fattening up, I get to see them more frequently than most people, and as a result, I’ve become a little hummingbird-obsessed. I always have fresh nectar in my feeders. My binoculars are close at hand when I sit on the porch. I’m an active member of the “Hummingbird Hobnob” listserv (and maybe the youngest member by a good thirty years). A few years ago, I even went on a trip to Belize to band hummingbirds. All this time, I knew hummingbirds gave me a lot of pleasure. I didn’t know they’d give me a model for a literary form.
What happened was this. My husband and I wrote a collaborative novel. Called The Tilted World (HarperCollins, 2013), it was set in the flood of the Mississippi River in 1927, and it ended up being a big project. Although we’d each published four books, we’d never written one together. In addition to teaching ourselves how to collaborate, we had to do a lot of research. And it was high stakes: we spent four years writing the novel. Imagine, if it failed, how costly that would have been for our marriage.
Luckily, it didn’t fail. After we returned from book tour, tuckered, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write next. There followed a long, frustrating fallow period, in which I wasn’t writing. I mean, sure, I was scribbling little thoughts and ideas in my notebook, but nothing was adding up to anything. Many of my scribbles were just sentences, or a paragraph; the longest, just a few pages. I kept complaining to my patient husband that I was “not writing.” Eventually, however, it occurred to me that I was enjoying this scribbling in my notebook. After the high-stakes, research-heavy, character-imbedded thinking of the novel, my own life seemed like rich material again. The little memories or quirky thoughts or miniature scenes I was creating seemed refreshing. So, strangely, I identified the feeling of writing before I identified the activity. I thought, What if this “not writing” I’m doing actually is writing, and I just don’t recognize it because it doesn’t look like other writing I’ve done? What if I need to stop waiting for these things to add up to something, and realize maybe they already are somethings, just small? What if I’m writing hummingbirds?
It’s precisely because hummingbirds are so small that they can do things larger birds can’t. Some people find hummingbirds cute, but in reality, hummingbirds are badasses. They’re fast: they have the most rapid wingbeat of all birds, averaging fifty-three beats per second and reportedly up to two hundred beats per second. Their flight muscles make up 30 percent of their weight. They can fly sixty miles per hour during courtship dives. They’re smart: they have the largest brain-to-body ratio of all birds—4.2 percent of their body weight. They’re hugely kinetic: they have the greatest relative energy output and greatest heart-to-body ratio of any warm-blooded animal. They’re dexterous: they alone can rotate their wings in a circle, so they alone can fly forward, backward, up, down, and sideways, as well as hover, and even, for short distances, fly upside down. (The logo of the American Helicopter Society is the hummingbird.) Finally, they’re efficient: although their metabolism is one hundred times that of an elephant, they’re among the few birds that can enter a trancelike state of torpor. Come evening, a hummer can perch on a branch, fluff its feathers, slow its heart and breath, and lower its temperature—all to conserve energy for the next morning’s aeronautics.
I began to think: if there are things a hummingbird can do precisely because it’s small, what about a piece of writing? What topics, styles, and tones does a micro-memoir—that’s the term I started playing with—invite? How could it, too, be fast, smart, kinetic, dexterous, and efficient?
Get in and get out as quickly as possible: that’s the first rule I made for myself. Create the world in a bright flash. Easy on the exposition. Also, I didn’t want the pieces to have to accumulate to make sense, didn’t want them dependent on each other. Although some of my favorite writers—such as Maggie Nelson, Anne Carson, and Claudia Rankine—are doing interesting work with the fragment, I didn’t want my micro-memoirs to be read as fragments. I wanted them to stand alone, each a small thing but a complete thing. They should not need elaboration or expansion. After all, you don’t look at a hummingbird and think, “Wow, if only I had one hundred of them, I’d have a crow.” I figured the small size would allow a great variation in tone from piece to piece, so the experience of reading the book would be one of movement, zipping from mood to mood, music to music, as some pieces would be wry, some wistful, some acerbic.
The ruby-throated hummingbird weighs so little you could mail nine of them in an envelope for the price of a first-class stamp. My new book, Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, is also tiny. But size isn’t always commensurate with ambition. If I had a nickel for each time I’ve admired a hummingbird—or felt gratitude for the literary model it provided me—I’d have a lot of nickels. And each one would weigh more than a ruby-throat.
* Illustration by Anna Hall
Beth Ann Fennelly
Beth Ann Fennelly, Poet Laureate of Mississippi, teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Mississippi. Fennelly has published three... read more
An interview with Michelle Leveille
Michelle Leveille is a freelance artist specializing in biological illustration and scientific graphics. Her work is featured at the Los... read more