Catching flies

I went looking for a spider to photograph for you – specifically, in her web.  But spiders are reclusive and shy. I found a spider’s house, but the spider herself was hiding out of sight.

I found the place where the spider catches anything passing; but so sign of the actual spider.

I found the marvellous and complex work she had left behind; but the spider wasn’t there.

It got me thinking, though. A writer’s work is similar. Patient, shy, reclusive, nothing to draw on but the spinning out of this mysterious interior substance of imagination. Often a writer has nothing to say, doesn’t want to meet you. Spiders very rarely answer the phone.

I most lean on this spidery thought when I hit the two corresponding challenges of writing. One is tiredness, depletion, no ideas; the energy to reach within and draw out the power of the imagination to construct a web of thought process seems beyond me. The other is when so many deadlines jostle into the same time frame that I lose focus and the requirements feel overwhelming. A sermon, a blog post, a talk for a group, a retreat day to prepare, a funeral to create – all in the same ten days. Simultaneous, and all better served fresh. Cross-eyed, I freeze.

When this happens, I think of the spider. Climbing slowly and delicately, absorbed in the work, adding a new thread, building, extending, advancing. Even when the web is wrecked – brushed aside, annihilated by an oblivious passerby (a person from Porlock, perhaps) she starts again.

I recover focus, form a plan, spin one thread at a time.

In this spinning out of the imagination, my friends are those the spider chooses – solitude, silence, simplicity. The quiet corner, the unfrequented nook, the unused and unnoticed. There is a Japanese word, Ma – the spaces between things. They know in Japan that meaning is acquired through isolation. No space, no sense. Spiders know this too. They hang out their frail strong nets across gaps – that’s how they catch flies. Writers too capture moments and realities by minding the gaps and remaining unobtrusive.

Mindful, focused, I recall the privilege and the wonder of this occupation. Spinning out my spirit into something so flimsy and so artful, catching and parceling up fragments of life that will nourish and sustain. The best work is a long, slow, silent, solitary clambering of patience and delight. It is for blessing, for transformation. It catches the light, this web I make.

On days when I feel entirely spent, unproductive, I remind myself that a spider doesn’t spin her web because she is morally superior, or clever, or strategic or professional. She spins because she is a spider; it’s the only thing she can do. And I start again.


  1. Although your name didn't appear at the top of this post, I recognised your style, Pen. Spiders are heroes keeping down the flies. So what does that make writers? Sue

  2. Thoughtful and helpful post, Pen, as I sit here in bed tussling with writing an article and feeling as though I'm getting nowhere!

  3. A salutary post. I am embroiled in the marketing phase of my latest novel. I am spinning webs and threads in lots of directions and do not know which ones will catch anything. Spider-like I spin, wait, revisit the webs, exult over a wee fly and sigh over torn or empty webs.

  4. Beautiful post, Pen. But remember that some of us writers are extroverts and need the outside world to stimulate us into writing. Solitude is important too, but for each person the balance is different.

  5. A delight to read! Thank you for this beautiful blog.


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