About: How to Identify Birds in the Wild

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A little bit about my story, “How to Identify Birds in the Wild,” at LunaLuna Magazine.

Fast Facts:
First draft written: August 2013
Number of drafts written: 7-9
Number of rejections: 1
From submission to publication: 3 months

The idea

Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge is a “Globally Important Bird Area” partly because of its population of Henslow’s sparrows, a species of concern in the state. So every summer a group of graduate students come to do a bird count in the park, which is just up the road from Madison. They all stay in our neighbor’s house across the street.

Henslow's sparrow

A Henslow’s sparrow

All summer long, we hear the sound of them leaving early in the morning and from my writing desk upstairs, I see them coming home early in the afternoon. They are sweaty or wet or dirty and they’ve spent all day out looking for birds.

We see them sometimes heading in a group to one of the local festivals. We introduce ourselves sometimes. They are like migratory birds themselves, settling in town for the summer. Exotic and foreign, right across the street. And, yes, I can see into their living room from my upstairs window when the shutters are open. I’m not sure if they can see into ours.

Writers and their characters

Before I started writing, I sometimes assumed writers were their characters. This was especially true when the writer’s biography was similar to the substance of their story. And of course, when they themselves described their work as autobiographical.

Here’s what I think personally about the relationship between writers and their characters–I both am all my characters and I am not. I can’t make characters come to life unless there’s something in them that I can understand, so I have something in common with all of them. But none of them are me.

I am not Rose. And not Manuel. And not the woman with the vintage t-shirt and the flabby arms, though we do have a red couch in our living room.

Segmentation and fragmentation

This story was originally called “Bird People.” And then “People of the Bird.” In neither incarnation was it a particularly good story. I didn’t like this story. When I originally sat down to write it, I imagined there would be someone scary, following her in the woods. But that’s not where the story went.

Then over the summer, I read a blog post by Kathy Fish about segmented structure in flash fiction. “I’ll give that a try,” I thought. I really liked the way Leesa Cross-Smith used segmentation in her story, “What the Fireworks Are For.”

There’s something very liberating about segmenting a story. Cutting it up into bits. There’s a kind of freedom there. The words need to say more and less. When I segmented this story, the images sharpened. The pieces of the narrative were already there. The scenes were laid out. Segmenting somehow allowed me to both fill them in and empty them out. It became a very different story.

I feel like I should say here, I don’t have an MFA. I took two creative writing classes in college, both of them from really good teachers, but that’s pretty much it. I go to conferences and workshops when I can, but if segmentation is the kind of thing you learn to do in a creative writing program, I didn’t learn it there. I’m really grateful for being able to cultivate an online writing community–to be able to learn from other writers there. I’m grateful to the folks who talk about their writing, who help carve out a little virtual space for those of us who might not have that.

The master naturalist class

I have often thought to myself, “I wish I could be a naturalist.” And then I said it out loud to a friend who answered, “You can.” For the amazing price of $35, you can sign up for a master naturalist class taught at Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge. It runs for 8 weeks with three hour classes once a week. Just the class on crawfish is well worth every penny, because let me tell you, crawfish are fascinating. I am not joking, but that’s a whole other story.

The master naturalist class gave me the idea to segment the stories around bird identification. The classes gave me the language of bird watchers–eye ring, wing spots, tail tips. It gave me the line, “Birds are always smaller than you think.” The class lent the story a whole other level that was just hovering at the edges before.

Afterwards

But even after I segmented it, I didn’t think this story was particularly good. Or maybe I just didn’t know the story very well. I segmented it. Sat on it for a few days. Re-read it. Edited it. Sent it out. And it was accepted, pretty quickly and with enthusiasm by the wonderful Amanda Miska.

Do we love our stories more the longer we spend with them? I sometimes feel this way about books. Long books–books that take weeks and months to read–become so intimate. There are stories I’ve worked on for so long, I feel like I could tell you every line. But I’ve had to re-read this story since it was published several times in order to remember what I wrote.

People seem to like this story, and that’s always good. But here’s something scary I’ve been thinking about: the longer I write, the less in control I feel of what ends up on the page. Not every story may be salvageable, and I don’t think I can tell which ones are and which ones aren’t. As a writer friend and I were discussing, I’m not sure if you get better at this or not. I’m not sure whether if, in writing, we are always just stumbling around in the dark. Sometimes our hand lands on the light switch, but each time, we have no idea if we’ll be able to find it again or not.

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