Your book is about the many birds who live with you—they seem to be in every corner of your house. How does that affect your writing?
Well, it is sometimes strange to have animals talking to me when I’m working. But they can be helpful. For example, our African gray parrot, Mia Bird, often sits in my office and commands me to “Focus! Focus!” as I write. That usually does the trick if I start drifting off. One time, a rainbow lorikeet named Harli was quarantined for a few weeks in my office—we separate and observe new birds before introducing them to the flock. As I worked, Harli would settle on my head and groom me, kindly plucking a hair or two along the way. By the time her quarantine period was over, I had a small, perfectly shaped oval of bare scalp on the top of my head. Still, I did get a lot of writing done during those few weeks.
What is your ritual for getting ready to write?
Step Number 1: Avoidance
This phase starts with organizing my files. Next comes cleaning out closets, organizing shirts by color and sleeve length and making sure that hangers face the same way. I can tell when I’m in the last phase of organization when I get to arranging my spice rack so that the jars are in alphabetical order. This is usually so tedious that I am ready to move on to eating. This part is too embarrassing to confess in detail, but suffice it to say that I always gain weight when I’m writing. I’ll continue with Step Number 2 after I take a quick run to the refrigerator…
Step Number 2: Write the ending
I don’t know why beginnings are so difficult, but they are. Endings, on the other hand, seem to come to me easily. I never keep the ending that I thought was so brilliant when I originally developed it, but knowing this actually makes writing it even easier since I know it won’t stay.
Step number 3. Turn off “critic’s brain”
My youngest son used to tell me that he had two stomachs. One held dinner and the other held dessert. His dinner stomach filled up so quickly that he often didn’t have room for vegetables. This did not, however, interfere with his ability to down dessert. I feel as if I have two brains: one writes and the other critiques. Writer brain is creative, an unfettered child who can access imagination. Critic brain is totally different, a stern English teacher who redlines most of my work. They each have a place in my writing life, but they have center stage at different times. I usually finish an entire rough draft before I invite the critic to see the work.
Step number 4: Writing
This is the most fun or, perhaps better said, it is mostly fun. I get up very early (not so much fun!) in order to have undisturbed time. I set right to work and don’t stop until at least two hours have passed. Great fun! I always leave the last sentence unfinished. Not exactly fun, but it helps me get started the next morning.
What do you love about writing?
Writing is a process of self-discovery. It enables me to access the truth about something.
So what did you discover when you were writing The Birds of Pandemonium?
I discovered, in a way I hadn’t realized, how much I’ve learned about communicating with birds. Learning to talk “bird” was essential to the success of Pandemonium Aviaries. I’m interested in language—that’s one reason I’m a writer—so coming to understand what my birds wanted and needed was fascinating to me. When I started to write about all the bird characters at the sanctuary, I realized how well I had come to know these wonderful individuals, many of whom have outsized personalities.
What surprises you about writing?
When a book is finished, the experience feels so complete to me that I often forget what I’ve written. I sometimes have to re-read my own writing before an interview to refresh my memory. This not only surprised me, but I find it somewhat disturbing. The flip side is that if some time has gone by since I’ve read my own work, I feel so separate from it that I can view it as if it is someone else’s. I’ll think, “Now that is really good writing” or, as is more often the case, “That sentence doesn’t work. Why didn’t the author re-write it?”
Is writing ability genetic or learned?
I don’t know the answer to this, but in my family it seems to be genetic. My mother was a wonderful storyteller, I have always loved to write, and my oldest son is a screenwriter. He and I entered a local short story contest. He won first prize and I won third. If writing ability is genetic, then it’s improving in my family.
MICHELE RAFFIN founded Pandemonium Aviaries in Northern California to care for abandoned birds. Today it is one of the premier breeding facilities for avian species facing extinction due to the destruction of their natural habitat. A certified aviculturist and regular consultant to zoos and breeders, she has spoken at the TEDx conference, is the conservation columnist for the Aviculture Society of America’s Avicultural Bulletin, and has served as co-chair of a large humane society and on the board of a rescue organization for companion birds.