Are not mockingbirds annoying creatures that keep one awake all night with their maniacal singing? Do they not perform mere mimicry of other animals and sounds? Aren’t they aggressive? Did I not see one just a week ago attacking a terrified squirrel? Yes indeed I did and they have ruined my sleep numerous times. The Northern Mockingbird is the State Bird of Florida (Louisiana got the Brown Pelican first). Kind of makes sense in a state full of transplants from the north and with our reputation many northerners think we have mimicked only their worst traits. I digress, as one might expect.
But the same traits that one might see as negatives can be turned around. Mockingbirds aren’t stupid, they’re tenacious, they know how to hang on, don’t easily let people or other animals fuck with them, and they know a lot – a lot I say – of songs, anywhere from 50 to 200. When you’re beset with the unrelenting singing of a male mockingbird it sounds like a random shuffling of a set of sounds, ever-changing, like a demonic improvisation or the weirdest case of stuck tune syndrome you’ve ever heard. It sounds like that to us because we aren’t capable of memorizing their songs. They know too many, and too many combinations. True, they lift their sounds from other birds, animals and even machines, but the combination and the ever flowing stream of song on song is all mockingbird.
That is something like what a writer does. The notion of literary originality as a wholly new discourse without ties to any others…. well, did anyone ever believe that? One begins writing because one has to respond to the sea of discourses all around. Writing is a response first of all, and the developing writer begins by mimicking others because he doesn’t know how to make up his own song yet. Eventually, through repetition and practice, the songs emerge, and he’s very lucky if he can come up with 50. Take the work of any well-known poet. She really only sings a handful of songs, ever repackaged, dressed up, reconfigured. The same elements, with their roots in responses to others, ever reshuffled. The writer as mockingbird.
And with the idea of the writer as mockingbird comes that of repertoire. How many songs are in your book? Another false notion: write what you know. If a writer only wrote what she knew then she’d rapidly come to the end of her concert. A good writer knows a lot of songs, meaning that through repetition and practice she has learned a lot of combinations based on a limited set of elements. The end result is to defy boredom. Not to drive readers away with the same old again, but to improvise on old themes in a manner that sounds like right now. And that I hope to do, to keep my songs fresh.