Shooting the Crow

John Ruskin at Glenfinlas, Scotland, painted by John Everett Millais.

I lead a monthly writing workshop called SHARPENING THE QUILL, details of which you can find elsewhere on this website.  I named the workshops that because a long time ago I heard an anecdote about John Ruskin (at least I think it was John Ruskin) (NOTE — as you can see from the comments below, apparently it wasn’t Ruskin.  Drat.  However, I’m leaving the painting because, heck, I really like it!) who was out rambling and shooting pheasant or grouse or something — you know, as one does — about the hills in his native England when an idea popped into his head.  Knowing it was an important idea, and also knowing he was bound to forget it by the time he trudged back to his desk if he didn’t write it down now, he scrambled in his pockets for writing implements, but had none.  He did, however, have a gun, so he shot the first bird he saw, a crow, plucked a quill from its wing, sharpened it with his handy pocket knife, dipped it in the crow’s blood and scribbled the idea on the hem of his shirt.

Somehow, calling a writing workshop SHOOTING THE CROW, didn’t have quite the same ring to it.

This anecdote implies, to me, (regardless of who said it!) that you never know when you’re going to get a great idea and you should always carry a pen and paper with you. It also implies walking is good not only for the body, but for the creative soul as well.

Sometimes you have to approach inspiration obliquely.  I’ve found one of the best ways to come up with a new idea, or to work through a block in my writing, is to head out for a bracing walk. Sitting at my desk and staring at the blank page is necessary, but if that’s truly not working after say, an hour or so, it’s time for more draconian measures.  So, with my delighted dog by my side, I head out of the house and off for a walk, while keeping my mind actively receptive.  By this I mean nothing more magical than thinking about things as I walk, turning a narrative problem over in the mind, or, if I have no ideas at all, simply saying, “I’m open to a new idea,” and paying attention to my thoughts.

Jack London once said, you have to “light out after inspiration with a club.”

Well, I’ll leave shooting and clubbing to the boys, but I do understand what London meant.  As creative people, courting inspiration is our JOB, and we have to actively work for it. Ideas arrive when we’re both open to them and ready for them, but alas, there is no little shop in Poughkeepsie  from which you can order them by mail.  Thus, ready, in this instance, means turning our intention toward our writing, and always having pen and paper ready.

I jot things down as they come to me, without judgment (editing comes later).  When I come back from my walk, the first thing I do is transcribe the new ideas into either a notebook, or directly onto my computer.  I fiddle with them, expand, brainstorm. . . play.  Then I leave them alone for a while, perhaps a day or so, letting them compost into something rich and fecund.

When I go back to them I always — I repeat — ALWAYS find something I can use, some new direction, some solution.

So, next time you’re stuck, or in search of inspiration, apply shoe leather to walking path and you might just be surprised what pops out of the gorse.


  1. nancy Rappaport on January 26, 2012 at 7:20 pm

    I love the idea of lighting out after inspiration with a club!
    I also find the idea that you are highlighting Brenda Ueland talks about
    as “creative idleness” key in helping you write.

    I am inspired by this blog to carry my notebook for new ideas and to will some inspiration.

    • Lauren B. Davis on January 26, 2012 at 7:27 pm

      Hi Nancy, thanks for commenting. Glad to hear you’re still inspired and writing!

  2. Wendy on February 3, 2012 at 2:26 am

    Hi Lauren,
    Love this month’s ‘story’ about your writing workshops. If I recall, the earliest British nib pens were quills from large birds, as you explained talking about John Ruskin. Weren’t some of the earliest ‘inks’ used made from soot, tar, pitch and coal mixed with water? And wasn’t animal blood the first pigment used for art on caveman drawings?

    In 1956, when in Grade 3, I have memories of my earliest writing attempts using a single nib pushed into a shaped pen with a curved slit in the base and with ink in the desk inkwell. Oh how this dates me!

    Being left handed, I had to alter how I moved my hand across the paper to avoid smearing the ink with my hand. Changing from the upside-down mannerism of writing like many lefties and unlike my right handed classmates. How interesting that your essay here would cause that memory to surface. I suppose all our memories are waiting for recognition.

    With the ballpoint pen and keyboard, writing has advanced so far from that painstaking action of loading up a nib, scratching letters until the ink fades away. Now, quick tapping and the words appear not even on paper. It makes me wonder, does creativity evolve with greater speed without that slow, steady action of dipping into ink and writing with the quill?

    So, thank you for your essay and all the ideas that challenge my thoughts about writing.

    • Lauren B. Davis on February 3, 2012 at 8:03 am

      Wendy — I remember those fountain pens. They had a ‘bladder’ that sucked up the ink. In fact, I just ordered a rather posh new fountain pen, and it came with just such an attachment, should I choose to go old school! Funny. As to your question as to whether creativity evolves faster when sitting at the keyboard . . . I’m not sure. I use both tools, but for different reasons. There are some passages that, for me, simply demand the slow thoughtfulness of pen and ink.

  3. Stephen Wildman on April 4, 2012 at 8:20 am

    Hello Lauren. I have just come across your blog. While it is always good to see Ruskin referred to, this anecdote could not apply to someone who detested field sports (hunting, shooting and fishing). In one of his Oxford University lectures he declared it one of his fondest dreams “that I may succeed in making some of you English youths like better to look at a bird than to shoot it.” He would not have owned a gun, nor ever have carried one. Neither, as a fastidious man, would he have scribbled anything in blood. I suppose it does say something about Ruskin that he remains famous enough to pick when looking to credit a half-remembered anecdote, but he is an inappropriate choice on this occasion.

    Stephen Wildman, Director, Ruskin Library and Research Centre, Lancaster University, UK.

    • Lauren B. Davis on April 4, 2012 at 8:46 am

      Hello Stephen — thanks SO much for this, but drat. I was almost positive it was Ruskin, but of course that explains why I can’t find the quote anywhere. I shall just have to keep looking . . . I really appreciate you taking the time to write.

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