Unanticipated Astonishment

Writers take on projects because they lead to unanticipated astonishment. At least that’s what I do. I never know what is going to surprise me but I choose my books, stories, and articles to write on the basis of intuition indicating unanticipated astonishment. Sometimes I’m wrong, the project amounting to drudgery, but I must say that experience hasn’t been common at all. The most reliable outcome when committing myself to a project truly has been the inevitability of (let me say it again) unanticipated astonishment.

At present I am putting last touches on a manuscript that is due to the publisher soon. The book is unlike my others in almost every way. I’ve collected short stories, critical essays, written novels, and a monograph – and this funny little book is about moles.

I hear someone in the back asking, “Moles as in melanocytes, embedded spies, or fossorial mammals?”

The last one. The critters.

And what has writing a book about these animals afforded me? Why, I’ve discovered that moles are unanticipatedly astonishing things, of course. And they are, they truly are. In being tasked with casting out the net of research and turning over every fragment caught in it, I have been made to find out any number of things I never – ever – would have learned otherwise.

I’ve pulled my hair out reading scientific articles relating the cytogenetic phylogeny of South African golden moles, unearthed folklore recorded in past centuries about the benefit of plastering a moleskin to one’s chest with honey, uncovered a heretofore unrecognized school of dead-mole poets of the twentieth century, followed the experiments of scientists X-raying moles in tubs of cous cous, and learned that in seventeenth-century Japan the mole’s arch nemesis was believed to be the sea slug. These are just some of the discoveries I’ve made and have taken care to share with readers. I even got to spend time shadowing Louise Chapman, the only lady molecatcher in Norfolk, England, which was a grand adventure that left me feeling like I was living out an international episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Hopefully, when this book is out, others will be just as surprised as I most fortunately have been throughout this process.

The main thing I’m thinking about at this point is how fun this has all been. Being a writer doesn’t really pigeonhole you unless you let it. If you write, you can commit yourself to myriad undertakings; it isn’t a sentence to being just one thing for the rest of your life. My other projects have benefitted from this book, too. It’s invigorating to show oneself that you can write in new ways about things you never thought you’d write about.

Shaking up your own concept of the kind of writer you are by tackling something completely different will put a new feather in your cap – and, in exercising flexibility and courting less familiar narrative dynamics, it just might make you a better writer, too.