Explaining Pain: How I Wrote “A Murder of Crows”
October 12, 2018 § 5 Comments
by Jan Priddy
To understand how I wrote “A Murder of Crows,” my essay in Brevity‘s September 2018 issue, you must first understand why.
My husband and I feel a connection to crows, more as family than foreigners. About twenty-five years ago my husband came home from work with a baby crow in a paper sack. He had found “Elvis” beside his squashed brother on the shoulder of highway 101. Elvis was not yet fledged—that is, he had quills but not quite feathers and could not fly. His beak and legs were partly pink. His eyes were still blue. We rescued him but deliberately made no effort to tame him. Elvis lived in an enclosed garden for a few weeks. Local crows arrived to speak to him through the window. When he could fly, we let him go. Friends who rehabilitated birds in another state assured us that he would likely fare well as a juvenile, even re-released outside his original range. That proved true. For years we saw Elvis hanging with the local murder.
Since then I have read a good deal about ravens and crows. We talk to the crows during our beach walks, often engaging in lengthy exchanges of clicks and caws. When a raven pair moved into our community, we celebrated.
The story of the murder came from our eldest son who had attended and then worked as a counselor in a local children’s camp. One of his last summers, perhaps even the last, he came home from the first week with a terrible story.
So why use the form of a fable to recount this true event? I have taught fables as a narrative form. I once began my school year with “Blue Donkey Fable” by Suniti Namjoshi. Fables teach lessons. The boy who cried wolf. Fox’s sour grapes. Animals are often used as characters because they come prepackaged with known personalities and powers in the same way King might be a character or Farmer or Cook. Fables are told in past tense and third person. They are short. They are “once upon a time” and never intended to be believed as literally true. The author is not an actor in the story.
Since I always write the assignments I give my students, I have several conventional fables with crow characters. A crow plays with an abandoned garden glove. A young crow refuses to take practical advice from her elders. Each of my crow fables ends with a stated moral.
One wrinkle I add to my students’ assignment is to require revision to a different verb tense and using a different point of view. I tell students this is a “sneaky writer’s trick,” which it is. Choosing another perspective, even in nonfiction, may reveal deeper understanding and detail, though here my purpose is to help students develop control of rhetoric.
My fable about the summer camp murder violates the rules of a fable because it is a story about violation. The fabulist voice distances that pain while direct address and present tense intrude on the narrative. I ask questions. I include scientific facts. It is not a general tale set anywhere, but a specific event set somewhere. It is not a conventional fable with a stated moral. It is not a koan meant to twirl around forever. But even my fable is intended to warn while pushing the creative nonfiction envelope.
I do not believe in being sentimental about animals, but this brutal reaction to an ordinary annoyance still shocks me. The story of hubris outlives the event.
The life expectancy of an American crow is only seven or eight years. Elvis is long gone by now, but for some time my husband would spot “our crow,” the only local bird with white on his flight feathers, perched overhead on a cable line. The bird and my husband would call to one another. Gary would announce when he came home for lunch, “I saw Elvis!”
Jan Priddy’s writing has earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Pushcart nomination, MFA, and publication in journals such as CALYX, The Humanist, Liminal Stories, North American Review, and nonfiction anthologies on running and race. She is currently struggling with a utopian science fiction story in which nearly everyone dies. She loves birds.