The Ox or the Lion?
We are in the midst of packing for a move. It's exciting and stressful. Of course, a priority when packing is to make sure you don't pack away too many books. Because what would you possibly do if you read all the books you kept out and couldn't locate any of the others? This is coming from someone who, when packing for vacation, spends more time debating what to read on the flight than what to bring for the rest of the trip. As I said: priorities.
Anyway, along with packing shelves and shelves of books, at the end of 2020 I had succumb to a severe case of magazine backlog. A large and somewhat intimidating pile of magazines dating from -- gasp -- July was staring at me, daring me to recycle them without reading. But, dear reader, I held strong. Issue by issue, I doggedly flipped, skimmed, and sometimes read entire articles. Some New Yorker cartoons I cut out. And, as this post finally gets to its point, I discovered a few gems like the concept of the Ox and the Lion which I found in "The Art of Poetry No. 108" from The Paris Review Summer 2020. The poet was Robert Hass.
The interviewer brings up the notion of two different types of poets, the ox and lion, as an allegory of the methodology behind writing. Hass elaborates:
"The ox puts on the harness every day and pulls. The lion sits around digesting the last meal and then pounces and then sits around again."
I found this very charming and tried to decide which type I was. After puzzling a bit, I have to admit currently, I am neither. There hasn't been much writing going on here for several months, I'm very sorry to say. But, if I reflect on times when I have been more prolific, I'm . . . both? Can my answer be: it depends? For my novella which is in its final editing phase, I have been very much the ox, plugging away, but only when the time is right. Months will go by and I won't touch it at all. Then, when in the mood (lion?), I'll strike and chip away at it for weeks until I feel the next version of it is finished.
For short stories, again, I come up as a hybrid. In the heat of the moment, it's full lion. If I need to finish something for a deadline or to allow myself to move onto my next project, it's ox. Can I be a oxion? A lox? Is this a symptom of the fact that I am not a full time writer? Is it a luxury to be able to be both or a sign of lack of commitment?
Still, I enjoy when human activities are illustrated by animal archetypes. How fun it is to imagine myself as either an ox or a lion. In a way, either is sort of something to aspire to.
As a post script, here's something else relevant to my current writing situation which I found in the Summer 2020 issue, from "Perfection", a non-fiction piece by Sarah Manguso:
"Having nothing to write isn't writer's block. It's just the dormant phase of the work. I used to write all through this phase, and it looked like productivity. It wasn't."
Until next time: happy reading, happy writing and stay curious.