Julia Zarankin: From Birder, to Blogger, to Book!
A highlight of my Fall so far has been celebrating the launch of my friend Julia Zarankin’s memoir Field Notes From An Unintentional Birder, a book I’ve been waiting to get my hands on—and it lived up to all my expectations.
In this Q&A, Julia talks about how blogging is like birding, how blogging became part of her process as a birder and a writer—and also about what happened when her blog disappeared.
Kerry: As someone who thinks about blogging a lot, I kept seeing parallels between blogging and birding as I read your book, how they teach similar lessons. As someone who has done both, what’s your take?
Julia Zarankin: More than anything, birding has taught me to see in a new way. So much of birding revolves around being attuned to the present moment and to really open your eyes to what’s in front of you, and really focus on detail. In a sense, blogging is also very much about connecting with specific moments of your daily life. To me, both are a form of active engagement with whatever it is you’re passionate about. I see birding and blogging as an antidote to despair, because when you’re looking closely and finding beauty in the ordinary, you’re bound to see the world with a little more brightness & potential.
Kerry: What role has blogging played in the journey to FIELD NOTES?
JZ: I started blogging shortly after I started birding. Everything about birding felt so strange and foreign and wonderful to me, and I wanted to understand it better and process it. So I started writing a blog called BIRDS AND WORDS to make sense of this new (somewhat strange) hobby of mine. My blog provided me with the ideal (and very low stakes) places to test out my ideas. Initially my blog was all about the frustration of being a beginner birder (and getting most things wrong), but slowly it evolved into something deeper, where I was seeing connections between birds and the rest of my life (and intellectual interests). I think it’s safe to say that I wouldn’t have had the confidence to write FIELD NOTES had I not tested out some of the ideas on my blog. Also, I realized, while experimenting on my blog, that writing about birds didn’t have to be 100% serious.
Kerry: What were your initial challenges as a blogger, in particular as someone trained in academia?
JZ: It took a while to let go of the idea that the words that appeared on my blog had to be polished gems of perfect prose. I remember writing and rewriting my first blog posts until I felt I’d gotten them just right. And then for days afterwards, I obsessed over my analytics and cried when I saw that no matter how hard I worked on perfecting my blog posts, they were still only read by 7 people in Mumbai.
(For a while this made me cry and I gave up on my blog several times—what’s the point?—but I couldn’t quite let it go; something about it still made me smile, and I knew the posts I was writing, while imperfect and with the occasional spelling/grammar glitch, had an energy to them, and I kept coming back to the blog, no longer for those 7 mystery people who were likely bots, but for myself.)
And in a way that realization that nobody read my blog freed me up to experiment more, to toss my ideas of perfectionism to the side and just write things FOR MYSELF in a way that engaged me. Since nobody was reading, I could just be myself, right? Kerry’s mantra, BLOG LIKE NOBODY’S READING, is the wisest thing I’ve had to learn for myself (over and over again). And when I stopped trying to make my blog posts perfect, they were also a lot more fun to write!
True story: I actually used my blog posts as writing samples for a blogging gig (paid!) I had at Ontario Nature for a number of years.
Kerry: What helped you make blogging into a habit?
JZ: Initially, I began with the goal of writing three posts/week, but as things got busier, I transitioned to writing one post/week.
Kerry: Blogs don’t have to be forever—they’re a moment in time. Your blog was lost in some website SNAFU a few years ago, right? (HOT TIP: Blog at your own domain and back up your stuff!)
How did you make peace with your blogging life ending in such a way?
JZ: Three years ago, my blog disappeared. It vanished from the earth along with its platform. But the funny thing is that it all ended just as I was beginning to work on my book in earnest, and actually conceive of it as a book with a narrative arc and not just a collection of fragments. So in a sense, the blog had served its purpose and it was a sign for me that it was time to say goodbye to it and apply the lessons I’d learned—and especially the energy with which I’d started to write—to a larger project. I always saw my blog as a (very low stakes) place where I could test out my ideas and have fun with writing.
Thank you, Julia! I love this book. It’s available now where all good books are sold—and I think any blogger will find a lot to appreciate in its pages.