What Can Writers Learn From Turtles?

Sy Montgomery is the author of so many books, a list of titles sprawls over two pages at the front of her new best seller, “Of Time and Turtles.” She’s written for readers of all ages about dozens of animals — tigers and tree kangaroos, kakapos and cockatoos, just to name a few — so this naturalist is well qualified to make a connection between her latest subjects and her own career.

“Turtles embody patience and fortitude,” Montgomery said during a phone interview. These are endangered traits for all humans, since we’re increasingly distracted by what she described as “little buzzing, wiggling, flicking, blinking gadgets.”

She added, “As a writer, you can’t have that. You have got to be alone with your thoughts and your words.”

At the Turtle Rescue League in Massachusetts, Montgomery and Matt Patterson, the book’s illustrator, had a chance to observe the intense gazes of injured chelonians as they zeroed in on, say, a worm or a strawberry. “When a turtle looks at you, when a turtle bathes you in its laser focus, when it favors you with its attention, you feel singled out and glorified,” Montgomery said. If only an author could summon such concentration for words on a screen!

That same person would also be wise to develop a thick skin once their work is in the world. Once again, consider the turtle: Its shell can withstand some hard knocks — and, if it shatters, it can heal. What surprised Montgomery the most as she was working on her book? “The degree to which a turtle can recover from horrific injuries with good care and sometimes without care,” she said. “If a turtle is not smeared all over the road, that turtle might be able to survive.”

The same goes for writers, hopefully minus the bloodshed. “You can’t let one mean reader on Amazon stop your voice,” Montgomery said. “You’ve got to remember that your job is bigger than that and it’s a long race. Don’t let anything deter you from believing in your work and the power of your words.”

She recalled a male snapper named Chutney who was hit by a car: “It cracked his shell, broke his jaw and gave him a concussion. He didn’t know which way was up so he kept flipping onto his back.” Slowly and steadily, in the way of his species — and ideally ours too — Chutney healed. Three years later, at a pond full of lilies in bloom, Montgomery watched as he returned to the wild.

Elisabeth Egan is an editor at the Book Review and the author of “A Window Opens.”

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