Nature, art and writing — Julie Zickefoose has successfully found a way to combine her three passions into one, and, in the process, provided the rest of us with a birds-eye view of the natural world.
Zickefoose started illustrating and then writing for Bird Watcher’s Digest in 1986, building an audience of bird enthusiasts via this worldwide magazine. She contributed natural history and mild social commentary to National Public Radio’s All Things Considered from 2006-2010, a pretty good run as commentator runs go.
Her first illustrated book of essays, Letters from Eden, was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2006, and was followed by a book twice its size and span, The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds with Common Birds (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), featuring 320 color paintings and life sketches. The Bluebird Effect was chosen by Oprah’s Book Club as its Book of the Week in April 2012. (For more information about Zickefoose, visit her website )
Tell us a little about yourself. What is your professional background?
I was a field biologist for The Nature Conservancy for six years right out of Harvard. It was a great experience, and I learned a tremendous amount about plant taxonomy and conservation management of wildlife. Eventually I figured I could starve myself just as well painting birds as working in conservation, and that turned out to be true.
Tell us about your book, The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds with Common Birds. What sparked the idea of doing a book about bird species?
This book is about the relationships I’ve built with birds over the years. The impetus for writing it was having a couple of cornerstone experiences with hummingbirds and chimney swifts, and realizing that their stories were pretty incredible. I wanted to tell them, but there was too much there to put in a magazine article. I wanted to line out and run with a narrative about what it’s like to be a mother to these birds. So I sat down and wrote a list of other birds with which I’d had similar experiences, and in fairly short order I had a list of 25 species I knew I could write about.
You also wrote Letters from Eden: A Year at Home, In the Woods, which, like The Bluebird Effect, used essay-style writing. Can you share a little about the process by which you develop your essays? Do you have a specific technique? Had you taken classes in essay writing or does it seem like you came to it naturally?
My essays are born when I have a revelation, even quite a small one, and I want to pass along that feeling of epiphany. Telling how it came about is the natural thing to do. Most of my “lightbulb moments” come when I’m outdoors, immersed in nature. I also have a strong urge to synthesize a bunch of experiences into one cohesive whole. So, in coming up with the list of birds I wanted to write about, I made sub-lists of the neat interactions I’d had with each species. Each of these interactions revealed some facet of the bird’s behavioral profile, or even its “personality,” for lack of a better word. Birdality. Through the anecdotes I’d collected over the years, I knew I could paint a portrait of the species.
I’ve never taken classes in essay writing. I still draw upon the instruction I got from my most excellent high school English and World Literature teacher, Miss Jeanne Saunders. She and I have been in touch since I graduated in 1976. In fact, she makes sure that each valedictorian of my high school gets a copy of a Zickefoose book upon graduating.
My other teacher was my father, who made an art of telling stories at the kitchen table. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, he had a story or two ready. I heard many of them multiple times, but I always enjoyed watching the preamble, the windup and the pitch–he’d hit the ball out of the park with an audible crack. He knew what was interesting and what wasn’t; he knew where to embellish and what to leave out. So that’s how I learned to tell stories: in the purest oral tradition.
Do you find writing an essay significantly different from writing an article?
In an article, I generally have a set of things I need to cover. An essay is more freeform, more fun to write, more my style. It’s self-guided. E.L. Doctorow said that “writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
On average, how much time do you spend writing a day? Do you have a schedule that you keep?
I really have no set schedule. I’m a mother of two kids, 12 and 15, and they come first. I’m writing this in a public library as I wait for my daughter to finish a three-hour play rehearsal. I can write anywhere, anytime that I have a little “piece of quiet.” Part of being able to write about the things that I do is living in service to serendipity. For instance, tufted titmice hatched in one of my nest boxes yesterday, so I blocked out time to take a nestling out and paint its portrait today, and I’ll do that every day for the next two weeks. Writing is a refuge and a release for me. I love climbing into the hermetically-sealed closet of writing.
It appears that you have successfully combined your love of writing, your artistic ability and your passion for the natural world. Which came first—the writing, the art or your interest in nature?
I was fascinated by animals and the outdoors from my earliest memory. I’d hurry off the bus after school and disappear into the little 5-acre woodlot behind my house in Virginia. I’d announce to my mother, “Today I’m studying fungus!” and come back with a plate loaded with mushrooms. That kind of thing. I found my own joy, by myself, in the woods. I found birds’ nests and crouched down to watch them tend their young–wood thrushes and great crested flycatchers; woodpeckers and cardinals and jays.
I drew from the time I could hold a pencil. I discovered that, though I couldn’t cartoon or draw things out of my head very well, I could draw something that was in front of me and make it look right. I didn’t really blend the two abilities until my first magazine article was published in Bird Watcher’s Digest in 1986. And then I was off! By 1993, I’d married the editor, who wasn’t even working for the magazine (his family business) when I started writing and painting for it.
You live in the Appalachian foothills of Ohio on an 80-acre wildlife sanctuary. What will visitors find if they come there?
They’ll find a tall, odd-looking house with an observation tower built atop it, sitting on 80 acres of forever wild land. One whole wall of the living room is books — field guides, reference books, art books, old books. All around, birds, flitting all over the yard — hummingbirds at the extensive gardens; cardinals, chickadees, woodpeckers and nuthatches at the feeders; brown thrashers and yellow-breasted chats in the hedges. Bluebirds singing from the bird houses, which also hold chickadees, titmice and tree swallows. You get the picture. It’s Paradise.
Where do you do most of your writing?
I write and paint in the studio, with a big bank of north windows casting natural light, or in the tower room. I wrote most of The Bluebird Effect in the 10 x 10′ glassed in tower room. That was pleasant, especially when the snow flew around the windows.
What stimulates your creativity or serves as a writing inspiration? Conversely, what creates a major writer’s block for you?
Nature, always nature. I get most of my ideas when I’m running or walking in the morning, taking in the birdsong and noting what’s blooming or changing around me. The everyday interactions I have with wildlife, the things I notice on my walks and out my windows, are my fountain.
I don’t have the luxury of writer’s block; I don’t have time for it. Too much to do to keep the house, yard and gardens in ship shape. By the time I get a few hours to rub together, I’ve pretty much written a piece in my head already. Which leads me to a favorite E.B. White quote: “Just to live in the country is a full-time job. You don’t have to do anything. The idle pursuit of making a living is pushed to one side, where it belongs, in favor of living itself, a task of such immediacy, variety, beauty, and excitement that one is powerless to resist its wild embrace.”
Do you have any writing totems? Superstitions? Routines? Things you do or have to have around you when you begin your writing process?
An empty house is most desirable. Failing that, full bird feeders (how can I write when they’re hungry?), a cup of hot rooibos, and my best dog at my feet.
Do you keep a journal? If so, how often do you write in it? Is it for personal reflection, for tracking writing ideas or both? How do you use it?
I blog, and have since December 2005 at Julie Zickefoose on Blogspot. I post three meaty posts each week (down from 7, then 5 per week in the first few years). I blog to keep in touch with my readers, and to share the things I find wonderful. The number of essays and topics I’ve covered in the last seven years boggles my mind. I’m sure there are several books just waiting in the archives. It was through blogging that I figured out what my next book would be. It’s like having a superb test market at your fingertips. When readers respond, you know you have a winning topic.
I also keep detailed nature notes about what’s changing around me every day. I keep records of bird arrivals in spring and fall; of what’s breeding and blooming and flying. We’ve had 185 bird species and 78 butterfly species on our sanctuary to date. By writing things down, I give myself an accurate picture of the changing seasons and the world I live in.
When I have something difficult to work through, I do it by writing about it. I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words nobody will ever read! So yes, I journal, in several different ways.
Having The Bluebird Effect chosen as Oprah’s Book Club “Book of the Week” is quite a coup. Were you surprised?
Well, sure! As far as I know, only one other nonfiction natural history book has ever been chosen: Tree by David Suzuki. But it’s not much like my book. I love the thought that The Bluebird Effect could cross over to such a mainstream venue as Oprah’s Book Club. I’m sure the paintings had something to do with it. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt gave the book such a lavish and beautiful treatment that it literally squawks to be looked at.
What do you hope to achieve with this book?
I hope to change how people think about songbirds, and give readers an appreciation for birds’ rich and varied mental and emotional landscape.
What is the next project you have in the works?
It’s a dog book. I’m ready to write about Chet Baker, Boston Terrier, who has become something of an Internet celebrity. My daughter is piqued that he has more friends on Facebook than she does. Blogging about him and witnessing the kerfuffle over him convinced me that there is an audience thirsty to read his story.
How do you define success as a writer?
Success is writing easily and joyfully of the things you care most about. Success is looking forward to writing each day, of craving the chance to get back to it and then making something of your time spent at it.
What do you find the hardest part about the “writing business”?
I spent a few years writing workmanlike prose about how and what to feed birds, what to plant for them, and that was truly difficult for me, but boredom was my biggest foe. I believe that writers and artists are of greatest use to society when they’re writing and drawing things they’re vitally interested in. If I’m not learning as I go, if I’m not dying tell a story, what’s the point?
What’s the worst advice anyone gave you about being a writer? What’s the best?
I’ve had people tell me I should write and illustrate the next great American field guide. I’ve had lots of people tell me I’m the perfect person to illustrate their children’s book manuscript. Both leave me scratching my head. I’ve worked for decades to get to the point where I can write and illustrate my own books. I feel as if I’ve grown up to become just who I should be, in a career sense, anyway. The best advice is to write every day, even if it’s just a little something, just to keep those muscles in shape.
What advice do you have for other writers who are contemplating pursuing a writing career?
Write every day. Start a blog. See if you can get and hold a readership. Then write about what your readers seem to most enjoy, and what you most enjoy. It’s by having an audience that you’ll find your voice.
What do you want your writer’s epitaph to be?
She listened to the birds, and got it right.
My thanks to Julie for being part of One on One: Insights Into the Writer’s Life!