writing process

How Sy Montgomery's "The Soul of An Octopus" Helped Me Find the Soul of a Revision

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When I am working on a major project, I try to do two things with my reading: read everything to do with the subject matter I am writing about, and then everything else that my intuition selects. Currently working on a second novel, and after a decade of short story writing and publication, I can tell you that the latter category—the seemingly random choice to read whatever crosses my path—has proven to be the most helpful and profound as a writer. Yes, certainly, a writer needs to be well-versed in the genre, subject, time period, style, history or whatever else to understand how her book is part of a larger conversation. This is absolutely true. But I have found, from my own little writing corner, that the books that appear to be off track or “unfocused” are the very ones that give my revision wings, language, seeds of ideas, connections, puzzle pieces, inspiration, fireworks. They are the ones that ignite passion and help me unravel the code of my own narrative.

Yes, certainly, a writer needs to be well-versed in the genre, subject, time period, style, history or whatever else to understand how her book is part of a larger conversation. This is absolutely true. But I have found, from my own little writing corner, that the books that appear to be off track or “unfocused” are the very ones that give my revision wings....

Recently, this happened with the book “The Soul of an Octopus,” a truly “out there” choice as it has absolutely nothing to do with the book I’m writing at the moment. I was standing in the National Aquarium gift shop in Baltimore, waiting for my daughter to pick out a little treasure for herself, when my husband and I both found ourselves drawn to this book. Maybe it was the simple monochromatic sketch of an octopus on the cover, or the word “soul” in the title, or maybe it was the wonder of finding a book whose 241 pages were all devoted to such an odd and tentacled creature.

Whatever it was, we both agreed that we needed this book in our lives, and for some reason I had this inner knowing that this book was essential to my current novel. It’s a funny feeling, that inkling you experience when you’ve convinced yourself that you are meant to read a book. The intuition in such moments is not loud, it does not announce itself. Rather it’s like a whisper that emerges from deep within your solar plexus and expands into the faintest echo in the base of your skull. Words do this no justice, really.

And so, we purchased this book, uncertain of where it might lead me, and I found myself immersed in the passionate recounting of Sy Montgomery and her fascination with octopuses. She shares her journey to know the octopus, as a creature, as a spirit, and relays her visits to various locations around the globe to answer a single question, “who are you, octopus?”

While the facts about octopuses were breathtaking—the plural of octopus is “octopuses” and not “octopi,” a 600 pound octopus can squeeze itself through a hole the size of a quarter, octopuses can change color up to 177 times an hour, the softest texture in the world is the skin between the eyes of an octopus, and on and on—it was the exploration of the bold and yet vulnerable quality of the octopus, as well as the fresh exploration of what a soul is that helped me with my own novel in unexpected ways.

...it was the exploration of the bold and yet vulnerable quality of the octopus, as well as the fresh exploration of what a soul is that helped me with my own novel in unexpected ways.

When we think of an octopus, or at least when I think of an octopus, I had always imagined a monstrous creature whose tentacles engulfed ships and flung sailors of yesteryear across the waves. But of course, that is truly ignorant as I had been imagining the Kraken--an imaginary creature at best—and not the octopus at all.

What Sy Montgomery quickly taught me, however, is that an octopus is the sea’s most gifted empath. Having evolved over time out of her protective hardbacked shell, the octopus is all muscle and innards, hanging out in the wild west of the ocean without her armor. As a result, 75% of her neurotransmitters are located in her tentacles—brains in her arms, so to speak—so that she can see the ocean by feeling the ocean and then camouflaging herself as needed to hide from predators. She can become anything, just by being in the presence of something—a coral reef, seaweed, sunlit water, algae. Just by touch alone, she can transform herself, taking on the qualities of those she is not, as if she were everything and everyone, and no longer herself.

Similarly, she can discern unique humans by touch alone as well. Her highly sensitive suckers can taste a human—their blood, their diet, and even slight changes in medication or taking up or quitting cigarettes. She can sense nervousness and anger, joy and play, and when she becomes overwhelmed by what her senses absorb, she shoots water from her siphon almost like a release valve, to ease the stimulus. Likewise, her body itself—even when not camouflaging—can shift shades when her emotions are so great that they blossom into bursts of color, like some kind of hyper mood ring.

I had been asking my protagonist, “who are you?” and there she was all along, reflected in the most surprising of figures: an octopus

They are hyper empaths, these profound creatures, transparent and all knowing. Touch is a great gift, and yet overwhelming to see straight into the core of things, much the way a shaman fills herself with an heightened sense of discernment that she can’t look away from, even if she may want to.

It is not lost on me that the very vehicle through which octopuses can obtain such knowing—their tentacles and suckers—are the very quality that causes so many to misunderstand and reject them. As a symbol of the “misunderstood,” others who also feel misunderstood seek out the octopus for connection and community, which only heightens the octopuses status as an “ultimate medium.”

Such qualities have inspired humans to capture, display and study octopuses at aquariums, though with great difficulty. Many theorize that octopuses, almost overwhelmed by their profound gifts of feeling and sensory overload, seek to find stillness by escaping their cages and enclosures to return to the sea. Many die in their bold pursuit, with aquarium staff finding their bodies dried out and collapsed mid-escape the next morning.

She needed to be away from the world to find herself, only to realize that she needed to find a way to maintain her octopus-like soul while reintegrating back into the world intact. I suddenly realized that unlike an octopus, my character does not have to die mid-escape and en route to the sea; she can reign in her heightened discernment and abundance of feeling and channel it into something profoundly life-changing.

These qualities of an octopus—her profound intuition and often imbalanced empathy and yet her desire to find peace, even at the cost of self-destruction—were, I discovered, the very qualities of the protagonist of my own novel. The parallels were profound and uncanny, and suddenly an entire wealth of language and metaphor was at my fingertips—er, tentacles?—with which to explain and explore and come to know my character more fully. In my revision, I had been asking my protagonist, “who are you?” and there she was all along, reflected in the most surprising of figures: an octopus.

And of course, to revel in the “meta” revelation of all of this for a moment, the fact that I could reach such an epiphany—this clear reflection of my character—by reading about the “spirit medium” of the sea, is truly fitting. The octopuses of Sy’s narrative, just by being octopuses, held a mirror to my protagonist, and to myself. This is the great power of an empath in action, and why so many, I suppose, seek out empaths to understand themselves, often neglecting or unaware an empath’s spongelike boundaries, however unintentionally.

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Of course, Sy’s entire focus of this book is to know the soul itself, which she defines as any creature who seeks to answer the question “who are you?” which, by doing so, is truly asking the question “who am I?” Her argument is that the octopus does indeed have a soul because she seeks to understand something beyond herself, and I think that’s a pretty compelling argument, not to mention a beautiful take on what it is to have a soul.

Of course, this definition of soul helped to cement my understanding of my protagonist yet again, how her fluid boundaries with others are truly an attempt, however painful it has been in the most misguided of times, to know herself. It made sense, suddenly, why my character required the stillness of the Greenbank setting and its tiny parameters to quiet her unique illness and pain: she had not yet learned to master her own radius, her own boundaries. She had not yet learned to harness her own superpower. She needed to be away from the world to find herself, only to realize that she needed to find a way to maintain her octopus-like soul while reintegrating back into the world intact. I suddenly realized that unlike an octopus, my character does not have to die mid-escape and en route to the sea; she can reign in her heightened discernment and abundance of feeling and channel it into something profoundly life-changing.

It was unexpected, I must admit, all of this revelation from a book I had an inkling about and picked up at random from an aquarium bookshop. But after consuming its modest 241 pages, my revision took flight, its heart intact, and I am indebted to Sy Montgomery, to the octopus, and to the book-changing consequences of a chance reading.