Q & A with Julie Zickefoose

Potomac Valley Nature Writing Group Q and A with Julie Zickefoose
Julie graciously responded via email to some of the questions that arose during our discussion of her book Letters From Eden:

Do you keep a journal?

No, not in the traditional sense. I keep a daily nature log, dates of arrival for migrants and stuff like that, and when I observe something amazing I jot it down in a shorthand that I can retrieve later. I have a computer log that goes on for zillions of pages, just things arranged by date that I've seen on this place. But it's not really a journal in the traditional sense. Rather, I blog. I blogged five days a week for 3 1/2 years. Now I blog three days a week. So that's like an illustrated, highly polished journal. It's personal, but not nearly as personal as a journal would be. The blog is my way of sharing what I find wonderful in the world. Apart from the blog, If there's something bugging me I'll write about it until I've figured out how I feel about it. Writing is how I arrive at a stance on something problematic. I've written hundreds of thousands of words that nobody's ever going to read!

How extensively do you edit and rewrite?

Not extensively. I'm a first-draft writer. I may go and rearrange a clause afterward, but usually what you're reading is what came out in one rush, pretty much fully-formed. Which pertains to a question below.

What criteria do you use for editing content-wise, style wise?

I include only what I find interesting. Though I've done a lot of it, I loathe writing workmanlike stuff. I don't ever want to write about how to store seed or what kinds of foods are good for what kinds of birds again. I want to produce something no one else could. And I want to write about things that gnaw at me. I use my column, "True Nature," in Bird Watcher's Digest to do that. Things like sandhill crane hunting; feeding our birds to death; mountaintop removal mining; feral animals in nature.
I do have to watch that I don't assume too much knowledge of nature on the part of the reader. Blogging has been good for me in that way. Many of my readers didn't start out as naturalists at all. Four years later, they know a lot more than before they started reading. They're making their own observations, writing their own blogs. That makes me really happy, to think that I can help inspire someone to do that. But I often have to back up and define some term I've used or substitute something simpler. Sometimes I have to explain a natural process, like, for instance, cowbird nest parasitism, instead of assuming the reader knows what cowbirds do, or even knows what a cowbird is.

Writing commentaries for National Public Radio has helped me cut to the chase and trim flab off my writing. I have an editor who often says, "We don't care about (this thing you've thrown in). We want to hear more about the creature you're talking about."

I guess we are asking what is the primary response you are looking for from your readers?

Deeper thought than might be elicited by, "I saw this beautiful thing." A sense of stewardship toward wild things and places. A sense of the incredible complexity of animal and bird minds and responses to their life's challenges. A willingness to give them credit for much, much more than they can imagine creatures might think or feel. A hint of the passion and feeling that moves me to write it. Tears, sometimes, if I've had them too. I don't consciously try to elicit those things; they just come through in feeling deeply about what I'm writing.

Some of us commented on wishing that your writing revealed more of your inner process.

I'm not sure what that means. Could you elaborate? What is an inner process? And see answer to question two. Maybe all the process is internal, when I'm cooking a piece, so you don't see it until it's all done. Like pumpkin bread, all fragrant and baked. Sorry. Just bought two cans of pumpkin pie filling and a can of Redi-Whip and I'm drooling.

We particularly liked the way you linked your childhood experiences to your present life, and your humility when describing lessons learned.

I have very little pride about revealing my ignorance if I have learned an important lesson from a big mistake. You can't fake honesty, and you can't hide self-aggrandizement from an astute reader. The truth is the absolute standard. I'm actually delighted when someone who knows more than I do about a given topic writes to correct me.

There is a lot of sentimentality in the public view of nature and natural processes, and I get a little impatient with people who can't accept that predation and death, for instance, are just as big a part of nature as birth and cuddly baby animals are. That wildlife management is often pretty ugly stuff if done right. That we must choose between the gull and the tern; the house sparrow and the bluebird; the starling and the purple martin, and some creatures lose. I enjoy introducing concepts like that and tossing them around for readers. (Several readers wrote to chastise me for "Calling Kali," about having to put the 'possum out of its misery, saying it bothered them. Well, it bothered me. It bothers me how people treat animals, but it's not going away, and writing about it helps jar us out of complacence. Letters from Eden isn't all Eden!)

Having said that, I also enjoy straddling the line between science and art; hard truth and poetry. Couldn't write it any other way.

Please count us among your fans!

Thank you! and thank you for taking my book into your reader's circle. I really appreciate it. Word of mouth helps keep this book in print. People have to read it and recommend it to others or it falls by the wayside, and I think that would be a shame, considering what went into it--eight years of writing and probably twenty of painting. There aren't many books like it being produced nowadays. I'm aware, even as I grind away on 130 paintings for my new book, that I am sort of a Nessie, outdated and curiously antique, somehow surviving in my deep loch. It would be so much easier to illustrate this book with photographs, and I could do that, but then again so could anybody. I want to make a unique product, one hardly anyone else is making.

Thanks again, and if you have time to respond we will greatly appreciate it, especially those of us who aspire to turn ourown nature journaling into published work.

I do give a talk on turning journaling into writing, should there ever be a time and place for it.

Thanks Julie! We hope that time and place happens someday soon.