Revised Summer Stack: Odd Birds

I am trash for celebrity memoir. Specifically memoirs written by performers. As a human with a performing background of my own, I’ve long been drawn to similar individuals, those whose method of storytelling is achieved by their personal physicality in a given space. My preoccupation with performer memoirs began in 10th grade (or maybe it was 11th?) when I read Kristin Chenoweth’s A Little Bit Wicked. Chenoweth, for those who might not know, originated the role of Galinda in Stephen Schwartz’s hit musical Wicked, which is a minor character elaboration for Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. My mom and I would rock the fuck out to the soundtrack, so when I realized that Chenoweth had a memoir published, I had to get it. And read it. Immediately.

And thus my fascination with memoir began. I’ve read a lot in these few short years since Chenoweth’s, and as I gradually shifted away from performing to almost exclusively being a writer, I started thinking about my own work with memoir. I’d done a few short CNF pieces during my undergrad years, and I’ve recently written some larger, longer CNF pieces in graduate school. And, now that I’ve figured out what my MA thesis will entail (a lot of CNF), I’ve begun to examine how I want to write my life. What do I want to emulate from the many, many memoirs I’ve read? What do I want to avoid as though it were a plague? Most importantly: how do I want to frame this story?

My favorite memoirs all have successful frames. Their organizing principles are quite clear. For Chenoweth’s, it was structured around performance history. For Ronda Rousey’s My Fight / Your Fight, it was her sports history, segueing cleanly from childhood classes, to her Olympic debut, to her entry in the UFC (I’m leaving a lot of personal-life stuff out, but you get the idea). All of the personal stories about love, loss, conflict, etc. were grounded in very clean progressions of their career. They ping-pong eloquently between the professional and the personal.

But Ian Harding’s Odd Birds is framed quite differently. Knowing of Harding from his work on the television show Pretty Little Liars, in which he plays one of the series’ most divisive characters, I expected his life-writing debut to be centered largely on PLL. I was anticipating lots of behind-the-scenes details and conversations with castmates – not quite like a tell-all, but maybe something close to it. What I found instead was a refreshingly non-linear collection of anecdotes and short essays, the organizing principle of which was not performing, but birding.

Birding, y’all.

Harding is a birder.

Some of my favorite chapters were ones in which Harding (and occasionally a friend or two) would go out on a long hike somewhere in California in search of new birds to look at. I enjoyed them not only for what revelations Harding experienced during the trips, but how birding quickly became the connective tissue for his personal and professional stories. His oldest passion links his life together in a beautiful way, a way in which that passion reveals truths about his profession, and helps him navigate and understand his place in the world. Perhaps my favorite of those truths is that, as Harding puts it, finding work as an actor is often a lot like trying to locate something new as a birder. Sometimes you think what you’re seeing is a condor – rare, elusive, once-in-a-lifetime – but it’s really just a turkey vulture – surprisingly similar to the rare thing at first glance, but it’s more common than you might think.

Similarly, Harding writes that on the condor trip, he learned that sometimes you get very caught up in what you did not see, what did not work out, that you miss taking stock of all the cool things you did see on that journey. You lose sight of the things that did work out. Harding might not have seen the condor on that particular hike, but he writes that he did see at least five kinds of birds he’d never seen before. Which, in the grand scheme of things, is pretty amazing.

I think the non-linear structure works well for Odd Birds, because Harding isn’t as invested in the point-A-to-point-B style that a lot of other performer memoirs fall into. His writing is more about the big moments, the lessons learned, etc. When you ask someone, in a real conversation, to tell you about the defining moments of their life, they don’t disclose them in a nice and tidy chronological order. You get the things that immediately stand out to the person. The things that matter most, perhaps in no particular order. Information is delivered when it is most pertinent, when it can have the biggest impact. It’s a bit like what Harding writes about bird books. In the front, you see pictures of an albatross or a shearwater, “birds most people never lay eyes on” (251). These bird books are not in order of oldest-to-newest, or smallest-to-largest, but are instead frontloaded with rarity. Big, amazing, spectacularly uncommon birds.

To me, that’s what I want my life-writing to be like. I want to share the impactful stuff, and I want to do so in a way that is unburdened by day-to-day, A-to-B connectivity. I want it to be scrambled up and colorful, Funfetti-style, because that’s what the parts of life worth writing about truly are, I think. It’s a mixtape without skip-songs. It’s a bird book with the albatross right up front.


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