I love writing, and I love elephants, so I figured I could connect these two loves somehow. We can learn a lot from elephants in general, but can we learn about writing from them? Elephants don’t write, obviously, but I noticed that many facts about elephants and the way they behave and live can be metaphors for how we can improve our writing processes. So, without further ado, here are three elephant facts to inspire you on your writing journey.
Elephants Understand What Other Elephants Feel
Various wildlife experts report that elephants show signs of vast intelligence and empathy. When an elephant is upset, another elephant my stick their trunk in the first elephant’s mouth, which is a way to comfort the sad elephant. Elephants also mourn their dead, celebrate births, and help and comfort each other in pain. They care about and understand each other.
The best writers also have empathy (or at least sympathy). Empathy implies life experience, and we can’t write good articles, good novels, or even good blog posts if we haven’t really lived in or learned about the world around us.
Jake Parker, an illustrator and the creator of Inktober, essentially refers to this as “your creative bank account.” The idea is that you can only create as much as you take in. You need to “deposit” creativity or life experience into yourself so you can “withdraw” things of equal or greater creativity.
His advice is to get out into the world. So meet people, observe people, read, hike, travel, watch movies, visit aquariums, check out museums, try new things! The more you experience, the better you can empathize with people. You can’t always completely empathize with someone, but you can come closer by exploring the world as best you can.
For example, I had a friend ask me to read a scene from her novel that included a car crash. She had never been in a car crash, but I had. From firsthand experience, I could discern if her description of sound, feelings, time, and more seemed realistic. I had life experience and empathy I could draw on.
Now, even though she had no experience like me, her scene was solid and realistic. I didn’t ask her at the time, but I suspect she did her research. She probably paid attention to book and movies scenes that included car crashes and to news reports. Then, she asked me, someone who could empathize with her character, to help her. My friend went out into the world as best she could to gain the nearest thing to personal experience she could. The result was a sympathetic and realistic scene.
You can’t write about the world and people if you don’t know anything about it or them, so go out and live!
Elephants Have Inch-Thick Skin
The fact speaks for itself. An inch of skin affords some major protection. As writers, we must toughen and thicken our own “writing skin.” Rarely—I’d argue never—is a first draft ready for publishing or posting. We spend so much time with our writing and in our own heads that the words and reasoning behind them make sense to us. Yet, often our friends and critics see more than we might.
Our readers don’t have an emotional connection to our writing, which allows them to point out problems and weaknesses. We need that feedback to improve. To survive those well-intentioned barbs, we need elephant skin.
I took various creative writing classes throughout school, and I noticed putting myself in a “your grade depends on playing nice in a critique session” situation was the best way for me to learn how to grow elephant skin. One of my professors required us to read our novel scenes aloud to the group. Then everyone would give feedback, and the writer wasn’t allowed to defend their writing or reject the criticism. The only time the writer could speak was if they didn’t understand the feedback. Of course, my professor’s presence meant no one could get cruel with their feedback—all feedback was constructive.
Pretty soon, my default reaction to criticism went from “Ouch, I hate you, and you must hate me!” to “Oh, thanks, I wouldn’t have realized that.” Feedback stopped hurting because my skin wasn’t thin. I could handle the suggestions. I started looking forward to those weekly critique sessions. Honestly, it felt like the group critique sessions took a huge editing burden from me.
Once I got into the habit of receiving regular feedback, the pain and fear dulled. Feedback is hard, but don’t let it squash your writing dreams or career.
Elephants Need Mentors and Communities
Elephants, especially young male elephants, need “role models” and community to help them survive. In the 1990s, Pilansburg National Park rangers found that “gangs” of young elephants were killing rhinos. Years earlier, Kruger National park culled many of their adult elephants to control elephant population (at the time, there were no methods to transport adult elephants). The young elephants were spared, and some were sent to Pilansburg. These Kruger elephants were the culprits of the rhino killings.
With no bull elephants, or really any parent elephants, to keep them in check, the young bull males’ testosterone levels were too high; they were going into musth (the frenzied state of a male elephant during rutting season) too early. To fix this problem, Pilansburg National Park brought in adult elephants. When the young bull elephants challenged the adult bull elephants, the adults quickly put the younger elephants in their place. The younger ones went out of their musth stages. This solved the problem immediately.
Now, as a writer, you’re not going to kill rhinos just because you don’t have a mentor or writing community—unless you’re a poacher, in which case you’re a bad person. However, this history lesson does demonstrate the extreme importance of mentors and community. When we have support systems and people cheering us on and teaching us, it’s much easier to keep writing when things get tough.
Build a support system or community that uplifts you but isn’t afraid to slap you when your writing needs some serious help. Elephants love each other, watch out for each other, and discipline each other. Without role models or a supportive writing community, we can feel hopeless or lost.
Elephants are such smart and endearing animals. There’s definitely more we can learn from them, but for now, I hope these three elephant facts help you with your writing!