Killing Beautiful Moths

In her essay “Why Not Put Off Till Tomorrow the Novel You Could Begin Today?” Ann Patchett likens the writing process to pulling a beautiful moth out of the air and pinning it on a board where it dies:

For a long time before I start to write a novel, anywhere from one year to two, I make it up. This is the happiest time I have with my books. The novel in my imagination travels with me like a small lavender moth making loopy circles around my head. It is a truly gorgeous thing, its unpredictable flight patterns, the amethyst light on its wings. I think of my characters as I wander through the grocery store. I write out their names like a teenage girl dreaming of marriage.

In these early pre-text days my story has more promise, more beauty, than I have ever seen in any novel ever written, because, sadly, this novel is not written. Then the time comes when I have to begin to translate ideas into words, a process akin to reaching into the air, grabbing my little friend (crushing its wings slightly in my thick hand), holding it down on a cork board and running it though with a pin. It is there that the lovely thing in my head dies.1Ann Pachett, “Why Not Put Off Till Tomorrow the Novel You Could Begin Today?”in Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times; Introduction by John Darnton, 1st ed (New York: Times Books, 2001), 192.

Ideas are (almost) always pretty in the abstract. All of my favorite and best ideas are the ones that I haven’t done any real work on yet. Those are the ideas that occur to me when I’m in the shower, on a walk, and lying in bed at night, waiting to fall asleep. But as soon as I start to actually give those ideas expression through writing, design, and hands-on work, I encounter difficulties. The words come slowly and feel like trudging up a mountain. The thing that I want to do with code seems straightforward but ends up taking a hours just to identify the root cause of an unexpected problem.

I believe this experience is typical and totally normal. You think the idea is a slam dunk—a total breeze, but then the implementation and execution is fraught with difficulty. The idea has to die in order for it to actually take full expression.

But what does it mean for an idea to die? Why must we kill the beautiful moths?

First, it’s impossible to see the moth clearly, to examine it closely while it’s making loops. Pinning it down provides to opportunity to study its discrete facets—the intricacies of its wings, its delicate antennae—and to observe its beauty with greater focus. Second, if we don’t pin the moth down, then we can’t share it with others.

The thing has to die if we are to examine and describe in order to show and share.

The relationship between death and life with respect to fruitfulness is also expressed by Jesus, who in foretelling his death and resurrection said:

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

—John 12:24

We often hear folks talking about “bringing ideas to life,” but the reality is that ideas have to die first. As soon as you begin making it real—through writing, code, a business plan, painting, et cetera—the idea dies and the real expression comes to life. Ideas must be shaped by reality and refined in revision, and their final expression may look completely different than the original conception that fueled the creative process.

The seed dies before sprouting and bearing fruit.2In the verse quoted from John, Jesus is also describing the cost of discipleship. He goes on to say, “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:25) The counter-intuitive principle here is that we have to let go to receive; we have to give up what seems precious in order to gain what is everlasting. If that principle applies to life in general, as Jesus succinctly demonstrates, it follows that it would apply to every specific area in life—creative output included.

It’s great to have ideas—I love thinking of new essays I want to write or ways that I could solve problems at work, but ideas just loop and flutter and flit like lavender moths. I have to remind myself that ideas don’t actually accomplish anything apart from action. Frankly, it’s more comfortable to stock up on potentially brilliant ideas and be mesmerized by their potential than it is to run them through with a pin one by one.

And yet this is what is required for any good creative work that brings something new into the world and blesses people.

  • 1
    Ann Pachett, “Why Not Put Off Till Tomorrow the Novel You Could Begin Today?”in Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times; Introduction by John Darnton, 1st ed (New York: Times Books, 2001), 192.
  • 2
    In the verse quoted from John, Jesus is also describing the cost of discipleship. He goes on to say, “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:25) The counter-intuitive principle here is that we have to let go to receive; we have to give up what seems precious in order to gain what is everlasting. If that principle applies to life in general, as Jesus succinctly demonstrates, it follows that it would apply to every specific area in life—creative output included.


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