“When she transformed into a butterfly, the caterpillars spoke not of her beauty, but of her weirdness. They wanted her to change back into what she always had been. But she had wings.”
– Dean Jackson
Last week I talked about butterflies, and how the chrysalides of our literature are just decoration. In the same vein, this week I’d like to talk butterflies again, but this time let’s go into the thick of it.
A more well-known fact about butterflies is that caterpillars completely lose all physical shape within their chrysalis, breaking down to imaginal cells and becoming something akin to primordial ooze for their transformation.
Lesser known is that they retain memory in this state, despite having no brain to speak of. So consider this. A caterpillar, butterfly, whatever you would call that amalgamation of a being, will remember its own transformation well into its life. What would we think of if we could, remembering back?
In other terms, what of the stories we tell, the ones we write, as they transform into something polished, perfect, pristine?
As writers, we remember the pains of transformation as a story grows; from an idea to a draft, to a revision, to another revision (and another), the arduous journey through editing, and finally the final beautiful winged butterfly the readers see.
As readers, we see this butterfly and look on in wonder and awe. We’re left with the feeling that we’ve seen something profound, divine even, and left without the memories before. Or maybe we don’t. Maybe we see a butterfly, but it’s only a butterfly—one we’ve seen a thousand times that year, our lifetimes, and we pass by.
They don’t see the moments when the story was broken down to its very cells and reborn over and over, the times when it was half-caterpillar and half-butterfly, when it waited for its wings to dry. Whether readers enjoy or loathe your book, they still won’t understand the hard work and growth it took to complete, and in a way that can be hard to swallow.
We as writers will always have that memory, for better or worse. At some point, there will need to be reconciliation with what the readers see and what we as writers know, and though there is a difference between the two, one does not erase the other. A reader’s perception (good or bad) of a story, does not change the suffering and joys of the transformation of a book from idea to draft, manuscript to novel. That memory, like the butterflies, will remain.
Transformation, memory, the journey, wonder—in all of it, what we have in common is that at the end of the day, we all love to see a butterfly.