Sit, Waddle, Scoot and Swim

It’s Life List Club Friday again, and I’m pleased to welcome back Pamela Hawley from over at Hawleyville.  You can find me dishing on my latest meltdown over at Gene Lempp’s Blog.  Then, fix yourself some coffee and hang out with the rest of the Life List gang by stopping at our blogs through our sidebar or you can come party on Twitter at #LifeListClub.

Sit, Waddle, Scoot and Swim

I live just a short drive away from the Baltimore Zoo. In the spring and fall, my boyfriend and I like to spend a leisurely day wandering around, enjoying the sunshine and observing the critters.

He is drawn to the Wizard of Oz menagerie – the lions and tigers and bears. I love to watch these majestic creatures too. But the exhibit that could keep me enthralled all afternoon is the penguin habitat. The awkward birds fascinate me. I love to watch them waddle about like toddlers getting used to their legs. No matter what life is throwing at me, a penguin can make me smile.

But it wasn’t until we watched an Animal Planet show on penguin life that these birds also gained my complete respect. Those of us who are striving towards ambitious writing goals can learn a lot from these waddling, feathered survivors. If you think you’ve got it rough on your climb up your word-mountain, then walk (or waddle) in a penguin’s flipper-feet for a while. You’ll discover quite a lot.

1. Teamwork is Critical

In the penguin world, there are no deadbeat dads. In Antarctica, penguins mate, each female lays a single egg, and then she takes off with her fellow mommas for a very long girl’s night out. For the next two-plus months of frigid darkness, male penguins squat on top of their eggs, all in a vast huddle of feathery male bonding.

Each male is incubating his own chick. Yet, he could not do it alone. The penguins rely on their huddle to sustain warmth in the brutal winter. They even take turns sitting on the outer edge of the circle, where the icy winds are the worst, so that everyone has a turn at being warmer.

As writers, we are each incubating our own stories. However, we should take a lesson from these creatures and huddle for warmth as we work to give life to our progenies. Writing is often a cold and lonely business. We can cheer for each other when milestones are met. We can help each other find our way back to the fold when we suffer from writer’s block. We can warm each other after an icy blast of rejection.

2. Stay in Your Seat

By the time the chicks hatch and the females return to bring up their young, the long sit-in has brutalized the determined daddy penguins. They are starving and have lost nearly half of their body weight.

In a writing class I took last spring, the instructor Eva Shaw referred to something she called chair glue. Simply put, chair glue is the determination to sit at your computer and write, no matter what. You’ve got dirty dishes in the sink and a hamper full of laundry? That’s too bad. Your crew is going out for margaritas? Just say no. Your butt is numb and your eyes are bleary? Welcome to life as a writer.

If a penguin can sit on his egg for weeks, hungry and cold and probably bored out of his little birdbrain, then as writers we have no excuse for letting our chair glue get unstuck. For the duration of your scheduled writing time, there is nothing but you, your story, your numb behind and your computer. Deal with it.

Otherwise, your writing project will be as frozen as a penguin egg without a poppa’s warm pouch.

3. Get There One Awkward Step at a Time

A walking penguin looks like evolution’s cruel but funny joke. This is especially true when the stumpy-legged, silly-shaped bird is traveling over rough and rocky terrain. In a penguin’s world, that’s often the only type of terrain there is.

As soon as the momma penguins return, the males take off in a frenzied search for a fish feast. In the documentary I watched, the male penguins made their way to an icy, rocky cliff, which they then had to descend to get to the waters below. It would have been rough going even for a surefooted and agile creature. Watching these guys scoot, slip and tumble their way down to the waters below was a lot like watching me and my friends walk home after a night at the bar. Once they made it down, they had shoreline predators to contend with – equally hungry critters just waiting to dine on half-starved penguin daddy.

As writers we have our own rocky cliffs to waddle down. Often, we’re starved for more time to write as life’s million-and-one other demands chip away at our time and our energy. We find it hard to slip and slide our way through the busy chaos of the world when all we really want is to be left alone with our ideas. Our day jobs and the bills we must pay are hungry predators, ready to devour our dreams before we reach them.

I have no answer for those challenges other than this: Be like a penguin and waddle through the rough terrain. Slip, slide, scoot and tumble your way to your writing goals, stealing a few more words from the obstacles each day throws your way like a starving daddy penguin inches closer to the sea.

4. Weaknesses are Often Strengths in Disguise

As I said, a walking penguin looks like the world’s court jester. Watching them move, you wonder why nature would make something with such harsh obstacles to overcome evolve to be so awkward and ungainly. It seems cruel and unfair.

Then, the penguins reach the sea.

When these fat, funny birds dive into the water, they are transformed. Suddenly, the waddling creature becomes a streamlined, graceful speeding bullet. The bodies that are so bumbling and misfit on land are designed to be masterpieces for surviving the perils of the sea. In the water, a penguin is speed, grace and beauty.

Sometimes writers and other creative types feel like we’re just not built for everyday living. The solitary and reflective parts of our personalities can be chafed raw by the noise and chaos of fast-paced living. The sensitive natures that lead us to create are sometimes beaten to exhaustion by busy, hectic schedules that seem to just roll off the backs of others.

But when we do muck our way through the chaos and find ourselves in our element, how beautifully we swim!  The aspects of our nature that lead us to struggle at times also let us breathe life into stories and weave worlds that didn’t exist before we built them.

Our creativity may have us waddling a bit on the dry land of daily life, but we are streamlined speeding bullets in the sea of imagination.

As a writer working towards ambitious goals, I often seek wisdom and inspiration in the words of others. Instead, I found them in the life of an awkward but amazing bird.

Your journey may not be pretty. You’ll need to do a lot of sitting, waddling, slipping and sliding. But if you keep at it, eventually you will swim.

     Pam Hawley is a writer living in Baltimore, MD. When she’s not working at her day job, writing or in the gym, she can usually be found at her family’s pub, Hawley’s in Baltimore. So far, her new approach to achieving goals seems to be working – her first published short story, “A Wingding and a Prayer” appears in the July issue of eFiction Magazine ( Pam blogs regularly at Hawleyville (

25 responses

  1. Great analogy, Pam! On top of all that, penguins are cute too 🙂

    1. They are, aren’t they? When that Jim Carrey movie with the penguins came out, I started telling my boyfriend I wanted a penguin farm : ).

      1. Mr. Popper’s Penguins! Totally read that book in grade school. I’m excited for it too.

  2. Love the analogy, Pam! It fits so well. Very uplifting since a lot of us are having a hard time lately just getting in the vicinity of our WIP…a treacherous path with all sorts of predatory obstacles! Thanks for a great post!

    1. I think late-summer busy-ness has us all a little crazy and struggling to squeeze a little writing time into our days. I feel like a penguin waddling down an icy cliff with a big walrus at the bottom waiting to chomp on me half the time : ). One step at a time …

  3. I really found a lot of inspiration here. I especially related to the part where you talked about writers feeling not cut out for everyday life. When I write, I am like a runway model. I sway, I shimmy…I make sense. In real life, I’m pretty awkward. Thanks so much for writing this post. You gave my day a real boost. 😀

    1. Oh, me too! By the end of a workday full of meetings, I feel like burnt toast. My coworkers are still as cool and “on” as can be … I just don’t always feel cut out for my normal life. But put me at the keyboard when the writing mojo is on, and I’m a rock star : ).

      1. Wow, I so feel this way after a long day at work. Doesn’t matter how much I plan ahead, I ended up doing another 10 hour day without break at work and still leaving feeling like not much was accomplished. When I write, I have fun and come up with more ideas. And I’ve been tracking my eye opening moments learning about writing and publishing and that’s been a really good thing to review for me. I see progress.

        1. Oh, yes. I may feel “too used up” to write sometimes, but when I sit down and try, more often than not I’m suddenly alert and alive and excited simply because I’m having fun. On the “making progress” side of things, I just thought of something a former boss used to say to me – not about writing but it certainly applies. During our big implementation I would often get close to tears because on a list of 5 “to dos” for a day I’d only gotten through one. A problem just too way longer to solve than the time I’d allocated to it. He looked at me on one of those days and said “Did you accomplish ONE thing that you wanted to do today?” I’d nod and say “but” and he’d cut me off with “Then go home and rest and be happy. You made progress, and the rest will be here tomorrow.” He was the only boss I ever had who was actually younger than me, but he was very wise : )!

  4. Lovely, lovely post. Especially the part about how akward the penguins are on land but how they fly under the water. I saw that at Sea World and it was amazing. Great inspiration!!!

    1. Thanks Sonia! I often think of myself as awkward and clunky when I’m getting through the day, even though I know 90 percent of that is just how I feel and not showing on the outside. So I’m gonna start reminding myself of how gracefully I swim when I dive into a story : ).

  5. Great post Pam! I especially loved your point about how the journey may not be pretty, but if you keep at it, eventually you’ll swim (a.k.a succeed with your writing goal). It’s nice to be reminded that all of this numb behind business is going to result in something fantastic one day!

    1. I agree with Carrie. Chair glue should be marketed and sold!

      1. Eva was a wonderful teacher, and I think her “chair glue” has helped many struggling writers! Here’s a link to her site if anyone is interested in learning more about her courses: I’m thinking about taking her memoir writing class one of these days just for fun, since I got so much out of her “creativity training” course!

  6. Fun post I love penguins! It’s true they are inspiring.

  7. Penguins play a role in my novel, so count me a fan!

    1. I’m definitely intrigued Mark – can’t wait to see your novel now : )!

  8. […] Pam Hawley, my secret east coast twin, shares her writing tips in a fun-flippered way in her guest post at my place Sit, Waddle, Scoot and Swim. […]

  9. Wonderful post. Most of what I see of penguins in Utah zoos is all of them huddled staring at wall because it’s too stinking hot in this state. I definitely have those moments. The funny thing is the water is two feet away, but the penguins (and myself) are too busy wallowing in the heat to jump in.

    1. Hey Emily! Thanks for stopping by. Don’t be afraid to plunge in the water, it’s cooler I promise! Then again, I can’t think cool weather just yet. I’m in Wisconsin, and I’m so NOT ready for snow anytime soon.

      1. Emily – you just pointed out another way that penguins and I are very much alike – we both wilt and get lazy in the heat : )! I find the hottest times of year are when my brainpower and my writing suffer the most.

  10. I just want to thank everyone for all the wonderful responses! Apologies for being offline most of the weekend so far – between birthday celebrations and unexpected car trouble I’ve been everywhere but at my computer : ). It was lovely to sign in today and read all your thoughts on the post. Glad you enjoyed it and so happy to be part of the Life List Club!

  11. Never thought of it that way. It’s enlightening.

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