It’s been a great bird-watching winter so far. New Year’s Day was particularly auspicious, with not one but two backyard firsts. One, I saw an Eastern bluebird in my yard for the first time in the fifteen years we’ve lived here. Bluebirds like to hang out where the edge of a wood meets a meadow, and, while we have the woods, we don’t have the meadow. But there he was at the feeder, and he has remained a regular visitor ever since. I’m planning to put up a nesting box in case he’d like to introduce his squeeze to the neighborhood and settle in to start his own little flock.
The other first was that we had four Northern yellow-shafted flickers around the feeder at the same time. Four! What could it portend? Growing up in my family, we used to say, “Never follow a flicker. It will bring you bad luck.” Not because it was verifiably true, but it sounded intriguing. Of the four in my yard, it was a large male that came to the feeder, and he actively chased off what I took to be a younger male in the group every time Junior tried to come to the feeder. And yet that same beefy male waited and shuffled his feet deferentially as he let a starling—a starling!—bogart the suet. “Kick him out!” I kept insisting from the other side of the window, like an appalled parent on the sideline of a soccer game. “Show him who’s boss!”
There is no convenient place to sit and watch my backyard, an unkempt spot ringed by woods and undergrowth, and that’s a good thing. As it is, I spend far too much time allowing myself to be distracted from the painful slog of writing, hopping up from my desk each time outside activity catches my eye, or I hear a loud or distinctive call. There’s so much going on:
- The goldfinches with their sharp pecking order spend so much energy policing the area and chasing underlings away that it seems, from a Darwinian perspective, like a counterproductive survival strategy.
- All in one tree at the same time, a single individual from ten different species: downy woodpecker, titmouse, house finch, goldfinch, chickadee, robin, sparrow, nuthatch, cardinal, wren.
- How is it that the wrens have such a huge imposing voice? How is it possible to fit that kind of lung capacity and vocal power into such a tiny package?
- The big-chested robins that show up this time of year in large gangs are eerily silent, as fifty at a time dig through the leaf litter and gouge into the earth looking for a meal. These are the non-migratory robins, and they have no song. Like tiny pillagers, they systematically ransack the yard, leaving behind countless chunky piles of staining purple poop.
Rainy days are good at the bird feeder, but it is at its busiest on snowy days. Normally, there are long stretches at the feeder with virtually no activity, but in the snow the action never stops. These are bad writing days. Certainly there are far worse ways to waste time than watching birds (stalking Facebook to see if anyone else has liked my page certainly comes to mind), and sometimes I even attempt to excuse this behavior by insisting to myself that I’m sharpening my observation skills. But in this new year, my objective is to develop discipline.
Boy, you can sure hear those blue jays. Loud bullies to other species, blue jays have an admirably well-developed sense of community. I once unwittingly disturbed a blue jay’s nest: the cry went up, and within less than a minute I was surrounded and actually frightened by what must have been every blue jay within a ten-mile radius. The unnerving ruckus was so loud that neighbors came out to see what was going on.
I was talking about discipline; right. In “The Getaway Car”, Ann Patchett’s wonderful “this is how I did it” essay of advice to aspiring writers, she asserts that there is no such thing as writer’s block, merely procrastination, and more generally a simple lack of discipline. I agree with her. As Patchett says, “Why is it that we understand playing the cello will require work, but we attribute writing to the magic of inspiration?” She recommends developing the discipline to sit at a desk for a set period of time every day, during which you are allowed to do absolutely nothing—“no phone, no Internet, no books”—unless it is writing.
What about looking out the window at the birds?
There goes the resident bald eagle cruising past, heading upriver. One rainy winter day he hung out on a bare branch in the backyard for hours, hunched and looking completely miserable. I wonder whether he was procrastinating, too.
It took me five years almost to the day from the time I wrote the first words of my first novel until I wrote the last. That doesn’t count the time between deciding to write it and starting to write it, or the time after it was “finished” until it could actually be considered “done”. I am determined to shave at least a few years off this process for Book #2.
I would bet that the majority of writers spend many hours avoiding writing. (Dorothy Parker, anyone? “I hate writing. I love having written.”) Patchett describes doing everything on her task list, down to the most trivial or normally repellent, rather than hunkering down to write. National Novel Writing Month, affectionately shortened to NaNoWriMo, was founded on the premise that the most important thing to do is just write. It’s an extraordinarily simple concept: Bang out 50,000 words of a novel in 30 days. No editing. No navel-gazing. Write. Even if it’s crap, just get it on the page. The collective resources of the NaNoWriMo movement are there to offer encouragement, a sense of shared purpose, a word-count repository, and the virtual camaraderie of knowing you aren’t alone in your slog.
Did I write 50,000 words? Are you kidding? NaNoWriMo is held in November! Can you imagine? It was my turn to host Thanksgiving this year! What were they thinking? (Excuses for not writing are invariably whiny and self-serving.) I don’t have time to write a novel in November! Why didn’t the organizers think to put it in a less-busy month, like February or March?
We’ll see the ospreys again in mid-March, always the week of St. Patrick’s Day. Their surprisingly high-pitched shrieks call me outside to scan the sky for the first sighting. They are my harbingers of spring. Just a little later, we’ll start to see the great blue herons shake off the winter and start their regular, slow pterodactyl cruises up and down the river, barking their hoarse, gravel-throated calls to each other as they pass.
Oh, it’s a painful irony that it takes discipline to develop discipline. But I’m hopeful. After all, here we are, heading into the teeth of February, and I’m still striving to remain seated, focused—thinking of—doing nothing but—writing. Even if it’s crap, just get it on the page.
Wait, was that a pileated woodpecker I just heard?