The Dancing Ox-Mouse, or: How to Ask a Writer about Their Work

1.  Creativity is a different beast in every brain, but there are similarities in process no matter the brain into which you look.

2.  The youth and size of a project correspond to its delicacy.

3.  Writers are vain little creatures, and awkwardly uncertain besides.  I should know.

Given these statements (the truth value of which we will not be examining) I propose a set of terms to help poor blundering writers and their long-suffering well-meaning friends discuss the state of any given narrative project before its completion: mouse feet and oxen.  During the beginning phases of creating a narrative, the writer is often chasing after smoke rings with butterfly nets, casting about for unifying notions, trying to link odd scenes that haven’t yet been set into words.  This is when the narrative is all kinds of mouse feet.  It is soft and delicate work, highly tentative, and much of the process here will not be evident in the final product.  The writer’s faith in their own ability in this phase of development may also be said to be mouse feet.  In this stage, then, it is easy to send the ideas skittering for their hidey-holes, sometimes simply by discussing them too openly.  The other state is as straightforward as its name would imply.  Oxen is the stage in which the tale proceeds, and the work on it is steady and directed, though not necessarily without snags.  Note the types of plural in each of these states: A whole team of sturdy oxen pull the story along once notions are firm, but everything rests on the tiny feet of one mouse in the beginning!

Thus, the best way for a non-writer to inquire about the current state of a story is to simply ask, “Is it mouse feet or oxen?”  To which the writer may then give an answer which contextualizes the state of their insecurity over the whole affair.

Now, this is not to say that these two states are absolute and opposing, or even that a story’s construction course will develop from one to the other in a linear progression.  Some days you’re just going to have oscillating moxen en pointe, so shut up and deal.  But now we have a means to label the infancy of creative ideas without upsetting the nest and a means to invite inquiry when work is proceeding apace!  Now when you ask me how the writing is going, and I tell you “mouse feet,” you won’t be offended when I slap you for inquiring further.

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