Uncategorized | February 10, 2016

Today, the Missouri Review launches a new blog series, Contributors on Craft, which will feature short craft essays from the writers published in each issue. Our first installment is by John Nelson, whose essay “I Saw What I Said I Saw: Witnesses to Birds and Crimes” appears in Winter 2015.

Writing About Birds: An Unexpected Niche

Like many would-bes—a term less insulting than “wannabe”—I wanted to be a writer long before I had a clue about what to say or how to say it. I was facile with words. I fantasized fame. I liked the idea of being of writer. For two decades my attempts at writing ranged widely in genre, subject matter, and quality, from ill-considered to spectacularly silly. At 40 I finally wrote a short story that satisfied me. At a writers’ conference at Bennington I showed it to my teacher, the fine novelist Lore Segal, who declared me a “professional,” and the story was published (without compensation) as a contest award winner by the now defunct Negative Capability. Encouraged, I set out to tell the one story I really wanted to tell in a long autographical novel about interracial love, set within the cultural turmoil of the 1960s. While teaching full-time, I worked on it for nearly a decade, sent it off to agents and editors, accumulated rejections, cut and tightened the book, got more rejections, cut more deeply and ruthlessly, and so on. I still believe the novel is worthy, and I’ve recently decided to self-publish it. The main challenge will be letting folks know the book exists.

Meanwhile, I’d become a birder and started writing about birds. My first pieces were personal narratives and humor essays—e.g. how not to find rare birds—published in journals for birders. Then I wrote longer essays, blending experience with research, and submitted them to literary magazines. It heartened me to find interest there, not just from the Missouri Review but from other top-notch publications like the Gettysburg Review, the Antioch Review, and Shenandoah, which awarded me a nonfiction prize for an essay on dancing birds.

I still get my share of rejections, but almost all my bird pieces have eventually found a home somewhere. People like birds, and I know my subject thoroughly. Each essay has a clear focus. I strive to write with a sense of style, dynamic flow, and, if appropriate, humor. I trust my judgment in choosing subjects and details that might captivate readers. And I consider my audience. If, as now, I’m writing an essay on ravens, I can assume that readers of BirdWatching will know that the family Corvidae also includes jays, magpies, and treepies, but readers of the Missouri Review, however literate, would need to be told that.

Years ago at Harvard, my roommate and I were engrossed in study of our literary heroes—Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Beckett—in a self-designed, self-taught course we called Sickie Literature. Now I return to Harvard to visit the ornithology archives at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Had an apparition prophesized that I would someday become a birder and write about birds, I would have been dumbfounded. But it was in bird writing that I found my niche. In ecology “niche” denotes both a habitat in which a species is well-fitted to survive, and that species’ role within a community. Within the literary community my niche might be specialized, available only within a limited range, but it’s a habitat in which I have resources to thrive.

That doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned other potential niches, like fiction, but writing and selling stories entails greater struggle and persistence. When I write bird essays, I’m focused, absorbed, perfectionistic, but I don’t feel compelled to write them. I find it harder to make up a story without feeling that the story must be told.

I’m not suggesting that would-bes start writing about birds. If birds fascinate you enough to study them in depth, then go to it, though I’m not looking for competition. But some other unexpected niche may await you, something that engages you but which you’ve never considered as literary subject matter. It could be orchids or the corn in our food or the influence of jazz on Middle Eastern music. I never fancied myself a nature writer—I wrote about birds because they were literally under my nose.

Now, I sometimes join my wife Mary at local drum circles. Drumming is fun, even exhilarating, and it’s interesting that on the North Shore of Massachusetts, in winter bleakness, church halls and YMCA basements are filled with people of all ages and skin tones who find joy and synchronicity in beating on djembe drums from Senegal. I’m busy writing about birds, but there’s a story in those church halls, and like all stories, it leads to other stories—a niche of stories.

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John Nelson regularly contributes essays to literary magazines, including the Antioch Review and the Gettysburg Review, and to birding publications in the United States and Great Britain. His essay on birds and dance, “Brolga the Dancing Crane Girl,” was awarded the Carter Prize for the best nonfiction work published in Shenandoah during 2011-2012. He designed the course Criminals in Literature and has taught literature and creative writing to inmates and former inmates in the Changing Lives Through Literature program. His book Cultivating Judgment (New Forums Press) demonstrates the teaching of critical-thinking skills across the curriculum.

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