Why Learning About Other Animals Makes Us Better Writers
Gina Chung on How Bats, Octopuses, and Other Animals Helped Her Better Understand Humanity
There’s a short essay I love by the late writer Brian Doyle called “Joyas Voladoras” in which he examines various animal hearts to talk about the emotional capacity of the human heart. “No living being is without interior liquid motion. We all churn inside. So much held in a heart in a lifetime,” Doyle tells us three-quarters of the way through the essay, after five paragraphs about the hearts of hummingbirds and whales.
This is the point of the essay at which I felt chills run down my spine, as I realized that we were in completely different emotional territory than where we had started. I knew that I wanted to write something like this someday, using the natural world as a means for conveying complex emotional truths.
Years after I read Doyle’s essay, during my first year in my MFA program, I wrote, for a final project in one of my classes, a story that I had started in Austin, where I’d gone for a friend’s wedding that fall. While in Austin, I went to see Congress Avenue Bridge, home to the world’s largest urban bat colony and where, every night at sundown from the summer months into the fall, Mexican free-tailed bats fly out into the darkening sky to hunt.
Something about the flight of the bats and the fact that they had found shelter in such an unexpected place, under a concrete bridge in a major city, moved me deeply. I found myself wanting to write about these often feared little creatures of the night, and I decided that, like Doyle does in “Joyas Voladoras,” I would use the bats to tell another story, about a character who, like a bat, is drawn to darkness and flight and is similarly misunderstood.
I began by doing research and taking notes on everything that seemed interesting to me. I studied the photos and videos I had taken that evening in Austin, read interviews with chiropterologists, and listened to and watched footage of the bats themselves. I learned that only mother and baby bats live in that particular colony (adult males live in another part of town), that the wings of a bat are really its hands, and most surprising to me, that bats sing to one another, both to defend their territories and to seek out mates.
I found myself wondering how I could use these facts in my story. What was the connection between my main character and these bats? In what ways would my descriptions of the bats reflect back on her and her emotional landscape? The story that came out of these musings, “The Love Song of the Mexican Free-Tailed Bat,” went on to become one of my first short story acceptances, in F(r)iction, and it taught me how writing about animals could lead to new understandings about my characters.
When I began writing my debut novel Sea Change, which is about a 30-year-old Korean American woman named Ro Bae who is grappling with loss, I began with the idea of an octopus changing colors. “This morning, Dolores is blue again,” I wrote. From there, Dolores the giant Pacific octopus came alive for me, in all her shimmering, color-shifting glory. “Who is telling this story,” I thought to myself, “and why does Dolores matter to her?” And then, my protagonist Ro came into being, as did her voice and the aquarium where she works and interacts with Dolores.
I realized that Ro had just had her heart broken, and that her relationship with her parents (especially with her marine biologist father, who discovered Dolores before disappearing at sea) would be important to the story, as would the setting of the aquarium itself.
And yet, Ro herself, despite being rather forthcoming about her external problems (a breakup with a boyfriend who is leaving her to join a trip to colonize Mars, a difficult relationship with her critical mother, an ambitious best friend who might be leaving her behind on the path to adulthood), remained frustratingly elusive to me. Why was she the way she was? And why had she let down so many people, including herself, over the years?
Octopuses, which are both predators and prey, are known for being solitary and secretive, and it took time for Ro to reveal herself to me, too. Like I had done before with the bats of Austin, I researched my way into answering the larger narrative questions I had. I learned, among many other things, that octopuses have three hearts, that they can be playful and curious, and that when female octopuses breed, they usually die, brooding over their eggs for months, sometimes years, not even eating until they simply fade away, in a process known as senescence.
This last fact seemed especially poignant to me, especially when I decided that Ro’s mother and her conflicted relationship with motherhood would be key to the story as well. While all animals, including humans, go through senescence, the female octopus’s slow and difficult death is particularly brutal, and it seemed to me like a metaphor for a particular kind of model of motherhood, in which a mother is expected to sacrifice everything just to ensure that her children can survive.
While drafting, I kept a running document of relevant octopus facts, with links to several articles and videos that I thought might come in handy. In that same document, I noted anything that jumped out to me as interesting, funny, or moving, or that I felt I could use to flesh out my protagonist—her worries, hopes, fears, concerns. I realized that Ro’s response to her problems was to hide away, just like a wounded octopus might.By paying attention to and learning more about the animals that might snag our attention, we can better understand what makes us human.
Withdrawing and brooding was her first and strongest instinct, and I couldn’t blame her—it was all she had known and seen modeled throughout her life. In a way, what I had learned about the slow death of a mother octopus felt applicable to Ro, too, as a daughter who has inherited her mother’s ways of seeing the world.
But I didn’t want that kind of ending for Ro. I wanted her to learn how to live. Just as an octopus must eventually leave its lair in order to hunt and eat, Ro must learn how to hunger and hurt again, to identify and fulfill her own needs. To understand her place in the world, she must rejoin it.
“It’s a muscle, you know. It takes practice, talking about yourself and asking people for what you need or want or expect from them,” Ro’s cousin Rachel tells her later on in Sea Change, and it’s one that Ro must exercise in order to break free from her traumas and self-defeating perspectives.
In C. J. Hauser’s essay “The Crane Wife,” she writes, while on a research trip on the gulf coast of Texas, about what is needed for an animal to survive: “It turns out, if you want to save a species, you don’t spend your time staring at the bird you want to save. You look at the things it relies on to live instead.” Animals are incapable of experiencing shame for their needs or denying them in the way that we humans so often do.
This is why I find the act of observing or learning more about animals to be extremely clarifying and grounding, and one that can help us, as writers, learn more about our characters and allow them to be honest with us, so that we can plot their courses and steer them home. By paying attention to and learning more about the animals that might snag our attention, we can better understand what makes us human, and how we—and our stories—fit into the fabric of our incredible, complicated, and always-fascinating universe.
Sea Change by Gina Chung is available via Anchor.