Friday Writing Experiment No. 33: A Little Bird Told You


This week’s Friday Writing Experiment celebrates the publication next week of Donna Tartt’s very exciting new novel The Goldfinch.

It’s getting the fantastic reviews it deserves, but I do suggest you don’t read any of them until you’ve read the novel itself, as too many reveal far too much. Even things such as the settings are best left to unfold for themselves – the second (or maybe it’s the third) act of the book took me someplace quite unexpected, and it’s richly rendered and full of further surprises. And that is what much of reading for pleasure is about: the surprises, the narrative tension.

This is touched upon in this very inspiring (and spoiler-free) clip from an interview with Donna Tartt shown on the BBC this week:

When asked what she wants people to read her books for, she answers:

First I want them to have fun. Reading’s no good unless it’s fun … What I always want is the one quality I look for in books and it’s very hard to find … I love that childhood quality of just that gleeful, greedy reading, can’t-get-enough-of-it, what’s-happening-to-these-people, the breathless kind of turning of the pages. That’s what I want in a book. But I also want something that’s well constructed, too. I like to be able to drop down in. Dickens goes so fast, he goes like lightning, but at the same time any sentence you can lift up and it’s a marvel and it’s a miracle. To me, I want those two qualities, the two qualities of any great art: density and speed. Density and speed.

Kirsty also says that her books are about secrets, and Donna replies that all books are about secrets and have mysteries at their heart. ‘Every book has some secret, there’s always a secret.’

One thing that can probably be revealed (something I knew before reading – not least as it’s on the cover) is that the story involves a painting. A painting of a little bird: ‘The Goldfinch’ by Carel Fabritius (and if you don’t know much about it, maybe don’t follow that link till you’ve read the novel either: let the novel bring it into your world in its own way). It’s a beautiful, beautiful painting, or so I believe – I’ve never seen the original, but we’ll all want to now, and thanks to Donna Tartt for describing it so well.

This set me to thinking about ekphrastic writing, which is writing that in some way describes art or uses it as an inspiration. Some examples are mentioned here. I remember my friend and co-teacher Stephanie Heit using Pictures From Brueghel in a workshop at Naropa.

Something further: that bird, that little bird. My goddess, that little bird really haunted me – its exquisite form, its vulnerability, ‘a yellow finch, against a plain, pale ground, chained to a perch by its twig of an ankle’. A little bird painted three and a half centuries ago comes to stand for so much, and mining this meaning allows for the depth and richness of reading this great book.

For this week’s writing experiment, create a piece that takes The Goldfinch as a model for writing:

* As an inspiration, use a painting of a bird or an animal, or maybe a fish or a lizard or an insect.

* And then also place a secret at the heart of this piece.

* And it might not hurt to aspire towards density and speed in your work, too: perhaps some of its sentences can be marvels and miracles.

* Most of all, your readers must have FUN.

If you’d like to explore some inspirations, try Animals In Art or even visit the Animal Art Fair. Or take yourself on an artist date to one of your favourite galleries, or root around in gallery websites. Really take in all the details of an artwork featuring your own little bird or animal, and in your own writing embody whatever it – and its subject – might mean.