A Caterpillar’s Life

While watching Frozen Planet, I was introduced to a creature known as the woolly bear caterpillar. Woolly bear caterpillars have become my new favorite insect, replacing my former childhood favorite, the lady bug. Mind you, I still think lady bugs are cute, but the woolly bear caterpillar has a lot going for it starting with (but not limited to) an extremely cute name. Eventually, it turns into a quite spectacular moth, which is perhaps not as overtly glamorous as a butterfly, but few things in nature are. Butterflies are in a class unto themselves. People chase them. They collect them. They make up cool philosophical sayings about them, such as this affirmation commonly found on motivational posters and wall art:butterfly quote

I have many fond memories of chasing ever elusive butterflies the way people tend to chase dreams or happiness. My memories of moths are of finding them burned to a crisp inside an outdoor light fixture and pitying their fatal attraction so, needless to say, I never imagined that the life cycle of a moth could be in any way motivational. Then I met the woolly bear caterpillar.

Life Lessons From the Woolly Bear Caterpillar
Woolly bear caterpillar

Closeup of woolly bear caterpillar

The woolly bear caterpillar starts life as a rather cute, furry little creature with a voracious appetite for leaves (thankfully, not wool coats). During the spring and summer months it eats as much and as fast as it can, in a valiant attempt to store up enough reserves to fulfill his destiny of becoming a moth. Metamorphosis apparently takes a lot of energy. Alas, the woolly bear caterpillar is not successful on his first attempt. When fall comes, he slows down and, with the onset of winter, comes to a complete stop—his heart stops, his breathing stops, and his body freezes. The caterpillar produces a kind of antifreeze that prevents his body from crystallizing as it freezes, otherwise he would freeze to death.

Spring comes. The caterpillar thaws and begins eating again. But once again, he doesn’t have enough time to gather the required reserves before the freeze sets in, so he waits out the winter in a frozen state. This happens again and again…and again…

Finally, one spring when the caterpillar is fourteen years old—the last spring of his life—he reaches his goal. After fourteen years of preparation, he has finally eaten enough and is ready to spin his cocoon. After a fashion, he emerges from the cocoon as a beautiful moth, finds a mate and lives happily ever after (as happily ever after as is possible for a moth, anyway). I watched the woolly bear caterpillar’s inspiring story and found myself routing for the little guy. (“Come on, Little Caterpillar. Eat. Eat faster. Winter’s coming. You can do it. Don’t give up.”)

It made for good television: there was tension/drama, there was a villain, and our hero triumphed against the odds. Plus, there were life lessons, especially for aspiring writers.  The woolly bear caterpillar did several things that made him successful, and following his example can help us reach our writing goals.

The woolly bear caterpillar:
  1. Continued to work at his craft.
  2. Took advantage of favorable seasons and did what he could when he could.
  3. Was not discouraged by minor setbacks that were beyond his control.
  4. Didn’t allow a period of inactivity to result in death.
  5. Was in a position to take advantage of the right conditions when they prevailed and, as a result, he thrived.

As writers, we must have determination and a good work ethic. Sometimes we can create opportunities, but we often have to wait for the right conditions. The waiting period—the time between working toward a goal and realizing that goal—might feel like death. The trick is to develop a figurative elixir (coping mechanisms) that will protect us from succumbing to the deep freeze of discouragement. When preparation and favorable conditions meet, the results will be magic.

In the end, diligence and persistence will pay off—just ask the woolly bear caterpillar. He prepared and waited fourteen years for his shining moment. The lesson? Never give up.

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