Lisa Samson ~ Guest Post ~ Chicken-Flavored Writing Lessons

Lisa Samson, winner of Christianity Today’s 2008 Novel of the Year, lives with her husband, three children, one cat, and thirteen chickens in downtown Lexington KY. The author of 28 books, her latest, The Passion of Mary-Margaret, is now available. She speaks on writing and social justice.

Click here for a review of The Passion of Mary-Margaret.

What I’m Learning About Writing from My Chickens

Lisa Samson

Our family made a huge transition almost four years ago. We relocated from suburban Baltimore to downtown Lexington, Kentucky, moving from the place we’d lived for eight years. It took us a while to adjust to the rhythms of the city, the slower pace of our new state, being in exile. (Jeremiah 29)

In my old neighborhood, our back yard bordered a protected wetland that happened to be acres and acres of woods. Over a thousand acres for the price of half an acre—what a deal! The hills sloped down to a stream that zippered tight the arboreal floor always littered with fallen leaves, twigs and stones. Boulders muscled through the fabric of the ground and when I’d sit in my kitchen I felt a peace in the gentleness back there, the fragile willy-nilly of the random placement of falling sticks, tumbling stones and running water eroding ever-new markings. Yet it all looked so very much the same day after day to my eye. And I have to be honest and admit, I’m not one of those walking-stick, walking-shoe ladies who pulls a wool hat over her ears and tromps through the woods. I believe that sort of thing is reserved for the likes of writers like Annie Dillard or Wendell Berry. Had I been that woman, I would have seen the changes. “Oh yes, look at that fresh growth of moss there.” Or, noting a new bridge over the creek for the squirrels, “Lightning must have struck that limb.”

My favorite scene, however, played before me in a silent stillness when the forest settled down under a snowfall. You could almost see the hills turning over under their covering, shouldering down in for the quiet sleep. It was then the deer, who we’d take note of every day (the thrill of them never waning, really) as they passed through our yard, close to the house, or weaving delicately between the trees, would settle into little deerish mounds dotting the hillsides. They’d tuck their slender legs beneath them, watching, motionless, as the snow piled around them and atop their close fur.

Every so often during a snowfall, I’d check on them, comforted by their presence on the one hand, yet so sorry for them, out there in the cold and all. I always think animals should have little homes somewhere with overstuffed red velvet couches, dark wood end tables with doilies, and a bright samovar with tea at the ready. I’d sigh and touch the panes of glass. Somehow we were connected, those does and I. At least I felt that way.

Behind my yard now there are no woods. The Dixon Electric Company sits in cinderblock right angles across my asphalt ally and trucks headed out to work sites provide the only stream I see. And yet, nature is closer than ever. This past autumn, my husband Will built a chicken coop in our back yard. We raised six of the chickens from one day old chicks, and were given ten more on Christmas Eve. (Three of those younger chickens didn’t make it though the winter. I have to be honest and admit it broke a little piece of my heart.)

I love my chickens. When I go out in the morning to open their coop, feed them, and check on their water, the original six run up to me, squatting to be petted. The New Gals gather round, but didn’t grow up with people like us who stupidly assign little creatures multiple intelligences and highly developed personalities. And while I can’t write picturesque detail about my new setting: snow gets dirty more quickly than your microwaved coffee will turn cold, and alley cats are the closest you’ll come to nature in the buff, I can say I’m closer to the cycle of life than I was before. Because even as I take care of those feathered ladies, they take care of me. When I pick up the eggs out of their nesting box, the chickens who laid them come forward and watch. I thank them for being such good chickens.

As I become more attuned to the cycle of giving and taking, even in creatures as small and insignificant to most as chickens, I begin to understand the nature of my own creativity. Each day, inspiration comes, dropped like eggs in a nesting box. It sits there amid the brassy straw waiting for me to do something with it. Some it’s a bigger deal than others, every once in a while it will come quite large with a double yolk! That can be intimidating and I have to admit, ideas still sit in that nesting box of mine waiting for a time when my skills have increased and I can do it better justice. I hope I don’t leave it in the nesting box to rot. Well, I shouldn’t anyway. Okay sometimes I do, I have to admit.

But like my chickens, inspiration doesn’t stop offering us her bounty. For the writer, as we make ourselves constantly attuned to the world around us, listening to the rhythms of nature, of our communities and our world, watching for beauty and love and wisdom in the strangest, least likely of places, more and more inspiration will makes its way to us. But, like when I gather eggs, I need to show up and own a heart of gratitude, cultivate the spirit of curiosity and respect, and in humility, gather something I could not have created on my own, but something I can use to make something beautiful.