The following contribution is from B. J. Hollars, author of Flock Together: A Love Affair with Extinct Birds (February 2017). Hollars is an assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire. He is the author of numerous books, including This Is Only a Test, From the Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us about Life, Death, and Being Human (Nebraska 2015), and Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence, and the Last Lynching in America.
On Writing, Birding, and the Search for the Elusive
Writing, like birding, demands a lot of time spent doing nothing.
Case in point: for the past half an hour or so I’ve been sitting here scratching my head. Not without cause, but as part of my “process.” Flawed as this process may be, sitting here scratching my head is crucial to helping me find my words. The impatient writer would never stand for such frivolity, but what other choice do we have? Either we show up and try to write the words or risk never writing them at all.
Which brings us to birding: a task that, to some, seems as indulgent as head scratching. In its defense, birding is hardly a task. Rather, it’s a joy, a gift, and a chance to step away from ourselves for a while. This latter point is reason enough for all of us to leap for our binoculars, though the successful birder is rewarded with more than mere solitude. Sometimes, believe it or not, birders are actually rewarded with—wait for it—birds! That’s right: flesh, blood, and feathered birds; many of whom spend portions of their lives serenading our own, if only we’d stop to listen.
Throughout the writing of Flock Together: A Love Affair with Extinct Birds, I stopped to listen a lot. I could often be found reaching for my bird book, my binoculars, and retreating into the woods for a while. I didn’t have any serious expectations of stumbling upon extinct birds, but I certainly reveled in the possibility. And when I had to settle for non-extinct birds, well, that was pretty rewarding, too.
The point is this: I’d have never seen (or heard) any of those wondrous creatures if I hadn’t spent a lot of time “doing nothing.” If I hadn’t regularly perched myself in a field or a forest with my eyes sent skyward. The beauty of birding is that you never quite know when your bird-in-question might swing by to say hello. Hence, the waiting. But as I’ve said before, whether you’re writing or birding, the waiting’s a critical part.
After all, if birders fail to bear their binoculars often enough, there’s no telling what they’ll miss. Likewise, when we writers refuse to return to our screens, who can say what words might escape us?
As I’ve learned all too well, when writing about birds, it’s important, too, to know where these worlds overlap. Some days it’s a little too easy to spend too much time at the keyboard and not nearly enough out in the field. Other days I have the opposite problem.
All I know, or think I know, is that whether you’re birding or writing, the only way you’ll ever come close to finding the elusive is to show up every day and get to work. This is hardly a stop-the-presses-worthy conclusion, but it’s the only conclusion I’ve got.
Keep your eyes to the skies (or the screens) and see what comes.
And if nothing does, simply show up and do it again.