Books·How I Wrote It

How becoming a birdwatcher made Kyo Maclear more creative

The writer shares the story behind her memoir, Birds Art Life, which is a finalist for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction.
Kyo Maclear is the author of Birds Art Life. (Doubleday Canada/Diaspora Dialogues)

Acclaimed children's author Kyo Maclear spent a year shadowing the adventures of an avid birdwatcher in Toronto. She documents their journey in Birds Art Life and explores the intangible connections between nature, creativity and well-being. The memoir is a finalist for the 2017 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction.

What drove her to seek out Toronto's avian residents? Below, Maclear describes the motivation behind Birds Art Life.

Avoiding isolation

"The inspiration for the book came when I was dealing with elder care in my life. I don't think we talk a lot about that compared to other kinds of caregiving commitments, like romantic love or caring for our kids. It just so happens that my parents are quite a bit older than me; my father was almost as old as a grandfather when he had me. And so, I felt kind of alone in terms of my peers and I didn't want to just sit at a desk and have an isolated experience of writing a new book.

"Then I heard about this musician in Toronto through a documentary called 15 Reasons to Live by a director named Alan Zweig. He followed 15 different people around, and one of them was a musician from Toronto named Jack Breakfast. Jack had been in a creative depression, struggled with alcohol and had, according to the documentary, lost his heart to city birds. For some reason, I found that story really compelling and I think that was partly because I was feeling so squeezed and almost suffocated. I really wanted to wander.

"I knew I couldn't leave and go on a great excursion or expedition. But this guy was having these incredible experiences walking around the city. So I reached out to him and I thought I'd go for a walk or two, maybe eye some birds and be on my way. I quickly realized that I really wanted to hang out with this guy and just be with the birds. So that was kind of the epiphany. It was an epiphany about how writing curates your life. I chose a subject and a structure that would allow me to be in the company of others."

Tiny spaces and mood boards

"We live in a Victorian house and I write at the very peak of the house in a tiny space. I'm drawn to small spaces because it just feels right. And so I either work in that little space or I work in a little space at a café in my neighbourhood. I listen to music while I write — either soft instrumental music, classical music or sometimes opera — also what my husband would call 'quietcore,' like Patrick Watson. The music creates this atmospheric pull for my writing and I really like that.

"I am a picture book writer and I've learned that a lot of illustrators create mood boards for a book. It's kind of like a composite of all the textures and colours and characters that might be in a book. I started to do that for my own writing. It's basically a board of images and patterns and colours and things that I really like.

"For this book, on the board, there are a lot of — obviously — bird pictures. But also a lot of artists. I had John Berger, the person I most revere, who just died a few weeks ago [in January 2017]. He was there the whole time, peering out."

Discovering Toronto's wild

"Jack Breakfast is not your typical birdwatcher. He's very un-pious about birds — super funny and not reverential. I realized that maybe I felt disconnected from nature because of my notions about who belonged in nature, who was an environmental citizen. Jack opened the gate for me in this way because his idea that nature exists so profusely in the city was completely incredible to me. I thought maybe there were sparrows and pigeons, a few ducks, but I learned there are hundreds of species of birds in the city — not to mention so many migratory birds that pass over the city and stop in Toronto during spring migration. Around 50 million birds will fly over Toronto every year, many stopping to refuel. You can see incredible birds that connect you to really distant parts of the world."

Kyo Maclear's comments have been edited and condensed.