I’m sitting in a restaurant at LAX. My flight out of Lihue last night was delayed an hour due to stormy weather in Dallas. Now, those storms have moved north, resulting in the cancellation of my flight to St. Louis. Much to the consternation of my dad who reports clear skies and no extreme weather whatsoever in St. Louis.
But what can you do?
Except read. And write.
The well-known biologist Edward O. Wilson published another book* recently. This one recounts his walk through Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, Africa, a landscape pocked by termite hills.
We have them in Hawaii. And the appearance of tiny, transparent wings decorating my screen door indicates spring is their season in Hawaii.
But we don’t get termite mounds the likes of those in Africa—comparable in size to a Volkswagen Beetle and, in some cases, a school bus—and after reading Wilson’s description of how termites build their mounds, I have this statement to make: Writers are the mound-builders of the termite world. I am a writer termite.
“The mound-building termites are not instructed by architects nor do they work off a blueprint in their tiny minds,” Wilson writes.
In turn, mound-builders would be considered “pantsers” in the writing world. That is, they don’t outline before they sit down at their typewriter, or as is more accurate in today’s world, their computer. They write by the seat of their pants.
Wilson shared an experiment from the 1950s in which Pierre-Paul Grasse put some hard-working termites in a container with pellets of building material, which, by the way is made up of excrement and soil. That’s right, termites build homes made of poo.
At first, the termites in the experiment wandered aimlessly. Did I mention they are blind? They are. Then, a few termites picked up some pellets. And wandered aimlessly. That is, until they eventually dropped them. In no apparent fashion. They continued picking up pellets, wandering, dropping, picking up pellets, wandering, dropping. Then, somehow, a couple or three pellets landed on top of each other. Jackpot. Termites now started to stack their pellets, one on top of the other, in an apparent design, and if another column happened to be nearby, the termites started placing their pellets in such a way that the two columns bent toward each other. Result: An arch. And so on. And so on. And so on. Ad infinitum. Until, ta-da, a giant termite mound.
Here comes the metaphor: Writing is like building a termite mound.
A writer moves through this world pondering a story. To the casual observer, she looks busy. She walks the dogs. She does the grocery shopping. She mows the lawn. She goes through the motions. At some unknown and unpredictable point, the writer puts a few words on the page. Some words may even coalesce to form sentences and those sentences paragraphs. Eventually, an order is formed, and to the great delight of the writer, story emerges from the words, sentences and paragraphs.
“The termite algorithm is as follows,” Wilson writes. “At the beginning, while there is little or no order, the termite takes the first step. When that is completed, it takes the second step, and so on, one step at a time, each trigger by completion of the first and receipt of stimuli created or amplified to that point. The algorithm commands: Proceed to the next step, and at the end of the sequence, stop. You have a nest.”
There are different roles in termite society. There is the queen and her king. And there are worker termites. Of the workers, the males go out into the world to gather nest-building materials. The females use those materials to craft the nest. In essence, the males go to Home Depot, and the females decorate the house.
“It is genetically programmed self-organization, the same principle by which cells are built from molecules and organisms are built from cells,” writes Wilson.
So, I am genetically programmed to write, apparently. At some point, when I was a hot mess of molecules, I pulled one with the word, “writer” imprinted on it. Whereas, the sweet, little retirees sitting an elbow’s distance away from me in this packed restaurant did not. That’s why I am the one who moves her breakfast plate aside and pecks these words on her laptop in the hopes they form some sort of logical story. While my neighbors talk about the beautiful granddaughter and grandson they just visited.
As I do my genetically-programmed thing, I imagine this happy couple asking, “What are you writing?”
And because I am a word-building termite, I will have to answer, “A big pile of poo.”
But they don’t. And I don’t.
This is what I am thinking on an early Friday morning as humanity streams by me in this nexus of a place called LAX.
*A Window on Eternity: A Biologist’s Walk Through Gorongosa National Park.