Staff Post, Cas Murphy: 10 Ways That Being a Writer is Like Being a Birder

Writing: to write; to passionately play with words.
Birding: to bird; to look for and watch birds passionately.

10.  In birding and writing, one devotes a lot of time to watching.
People who stare up at trees and make noises should be avoided. People who peer around houses and apartments with binoculars should be reported. That’s common knowledge, and I wouldn’t have argued with any of it until about three years ago, when I became a “birder.” Inconveniently, birds don’t recognize social conventions. They hop cheerily from neighbors’ trees into window boxes, and it’s up to the birder how to proceed. Imagine it with all the awkwardness of a writer researching neurotic characters at a family baptismal shower, plus. Whether bird-watching or people-watching, both may lead to the discomfiture of others.

9.  People in both hobbies are often regretted as airplane seat mates.
Not because people often characterize writers and birders as freakish iconoclasts who can’t relate to the typical world – that may or may not be true, and is generally a conclusion reached over a longer period of time. Rather, whether fictional or feathered, the respective background knowledge for each makes small talk either inaccessible or all-consuming.

8.  Both activities require the filtration of huge amounts of information.
Field marks, songs, and behavior belong to the birder just as the internal environment of story or scholarship belongs to the writer. Each of these fields require intimate knowledge and dedication to learn.

7.  Writing and birding require participants to describe their physical environment while balancing nuance and relevant detail.
The concise tightness of good writing strikes a balance between necessary information, included detail, and expediency. So too with birding. In a group, different birders see things at different times, and so must direct their fellows “onto” the bird. There’s a kind of art to this swift rendering:
“If you look straight ahead, there’s a saguaro that’s slightly taller than all the others. Count three saguaros to the left, and you’re on the one with the strange bulge. Now go down to its lowest right arm and follow it until you see a dark patch not quite halfway up – that’s actually a hole, and I just saw something move in there.”

6.  As suggested in #7, writing and birding require you to take direction: from editors, from more experienced birders, or from others who have simply seen something you haven’t.

5.  Both pursuits demand high levels of discernment, to pick out what one ought to pay attention to and focus on… either in a written piece or in the surrounding environment.

4. Both birding and writing involve complicated journeys of finding understood only by the participant.
Writers and birders search for things – stories or birds, words and information to complement either. One could argue pedantically that writers generate their own words, whereas birders must go out and find existing birds. However, I’ve been on birding excursions where I’ve spent most of my time looking and not finding any birds – I still call it ‘birding’ (usually, depending on frustration, snark, and presence of sensitive company) because birds are the object of the quest. And writers can’t just plop down any old word. They have to search for the right ones from all possible words, and then assemble them in the right order. Birds are similarly separated: nuisance Starlings take a backseat to almost anything else, and coveted Trogons beat out ‘anything else’ any day.

3.  Both activities are essentially free, yet I’ve heard both described as expensive.
Birding at its most basic requires only eyes and/or ears (binoculars are highly desirable eye-extenders); writing requires pencil, paper, and similar extensions of either. A keen brain is always nice too, though arguably not necessary for the most basic aspect of either hobby.
This oversimplification pertly glosses over the usual lack of monetary compensation from either activity, to say nothing of the expenditures for travel – to find new bird species – and time – to write well. Yet there is some truth here, and it counters the tendency to snap up high tech toys which may improve the experience – but which you don’t need to have a good time.

2.  ‘Using all the senses’ enhances both birding and writing.
As just one example, sometimes I wonder if smell might be superfluous… but then I inhale the damp greyness of a Michigan spring morning and know how much I’d lose in either pursuit if that were so.

1.  Through both writing and birding, participants have the opportunity to know themselves by how they perceive the world around them.