Shepherding Tigers

by | Apr 23, 2021 | Weekly Prompt

When I taught college in Bangladesh many years ago, I had a very talented poetry student who expressed something about being a writer that I had never encountered elsewhere–which is especially remarkable since writers love writing about writing, and I love reading about writing. The student, Oanh, told me plainly that she didn’t want to be a poet.

We were having a conference about her writing partner’s work in preparation for Oanh to write a peer response letter and create a personalized prompt for her partner. After we figured that out, she wanted to talk more. First she told me of her romantic woes, which had to do with a young man who wanted to their relationship to be more serious. “I love him, but I’m not ready. I’m only 18 or 19,” she said. What a refreshing way to think about one’s age–inexactly. I’ve adopted it: this July, I’m turning 39 or 40. 

Oanh then expressed a similar ambivalence toward writing. At first, I thought she was just informing me, her teacher, that the subject of my class did not fit into her career aspirations. Like, Hey Professor Robinson, stop acting like we’re all trying to become professional writers. Lighten up.

But that wasn’t it. When I told her it was okay, my feelings weren’t hurt, and she didn’t have to want to pursue poetry for the class to be a meaningful experience, she said, “No. I mean, I am a poet. I just wish I wasn’t.” 

For that, I had no response ready. It seemed, to me, remarkably self-aware that Oanh could recognize her identity as a poet as immutable, but also unpleasant. To wish to be otherwise, but know she never will be.

Just weeks after that conversation, en route back to the United States, I read a collection of essays by Natalia Ginzburg that, quite honestly, shifted everything in how I think about writing and about myself as a writer. In one passage of a third-person essay called “Portrait of a Writer,” Ginzburg expresses an antipathy similar to Oanh’s toward writing nonfiction:

The truth brings home memories that make her suffer. Yes, she’s used to writing while weighed down by a heap of rubble, but she is afraid that touching so many memories may scorch her hands and eyes. She’s also afraid her memories may hurt others in her life, whom she loves. Compared to telling the truth, inventing was like playing with a litter of kittens. Telling the truth is like moving through a pack of tigers. She reminds herself that to a writer everything is permitted so long as she writes–even freeing tigers and taking them out for a stroll. But in fact she doesn’t believe writers have any special rights, any more than others do. So she faces a problem she cannot resolve. She doesn’t want to be a shepherd of tigers.–Natalia Ginzburg, “Portrait of a Writer,” A Place to Live and Other Selected Essays

There’s so much in this passage about writing nonfiction (“telling the truth”) versus fiction (“inventing”), and about whether writers (as many claim) owe other people’s feelings any consideration or whether they should pursue their craft ruthlessly. I tend to think that former distinction is incidental. I think it’s possible to play with kittens in nonfiction–to dance along the surface of things and spare oneself and one’s readers the hard realities–and, equally, possible to shepherd tigers in fiction. And of course you can shepherd tigers in poetry or dramatic writing or songwriting–or not.

To me, the crux of it is: whatever you write, are you playing with a litter of kittens, or shepherding tigers?


Shepherd tigers. Even if you don’t want to be a shepherd of tigers, the truth is that you ARE a shepherd of tigers, just as Ferrante is, just as Oanh is. That isn’t necessarily pleasant. It’s not the romantic vision of being a writer that we all, inevitably, grow up with and secretly still think we could attain. 

So free the tigers and take them out for a stroll. 

How to free the tigers? The main thing is, you need to figure out which tigers you need to free. In her graduate nonfiction class, Susan Cheever told us, more than once, that we should write about what we were avoiding writing about. She’d done it to great success. For many years, she resisted writing about…honestly I’ve forgotten. Her famous father? Her own alcoholism, inherited from him? Something like that. Whatever it was, she said that when she finally surrendered and wrote about that subject, it was her strongest work, her most well-received book. 

Echoes, here, of Thomas Mann: “A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” 

To me, this all is oddly hopeful. It’s not supposed to feel easy. If it feels good, you aren’t doing it right. You’re playing with kittens. 

What do you resist writing about? What truth is hard for you to tell? Write about that. Free the tigers.