Success story – Curlews on Vulture Street

‘Plenty is going on between humans and wildlife. This intersection of realms is where I have been dwelling now for several decades; the strange, exhilarating place where people and nature mix, often uneasily, trying to understand what the heck is going on.’
– from the introduction to Curlews on Vulture Street

Curlews on Vulture Street: Cities, Birds, People and Me is the newest book from urban ecologist Darryl Jones. Darryl has published a number of popular science books on his area of expertise, Australian birds, including The Birds at My Table, and most recently, A Clouded Leopard in the Middle of the Road.

But Curlews on Vulture Street is special. And not only because I played a tiny part in its creation.

Curlews blends Darryl’s highly engaging writing about birds with a splash of memoir, told with his wry humour and natural storytelling talent.

If Bill Bryson were an urban ecologist, this would be his masterpiece.

The book traces Darryl’s interest in birds from his childhood in rural New South Wales, growing up near Wagga Wagga, to his first lessons in ecology as a university student-researcher, and then through his highly successful and fascinating career.

When Darryl began his university studies, there was still a clear divide between ‘the natural world’ and urban centres. If you wanted to study anything to do with nature, you could only do so by going out into nature. Whatever animals and other creatures might be doing in the city, no one knew, and no one wanted to know.

Darryl was one of the ecologists at the forefront of a new paradigm, asking questions about how birds live in cities, and why? How can we live better with them? And, you know, maybe not get swooped so much?

The answers he discovers are fascinating – and his methods for getting there are often quite humorous, like the time he tried to build a crow trap. No surprise, the crows very nearly outsmarted him.

Through the book, he explores the behaviour of magpies, lorikeets, cockatoos blackbirds, mousebirds, peaceful doves, curlews, ibises, and more.

And if you’re wondering what a curlew is, it’s this ‘strange, lanky, awkward-looking’ creature, as Darryl describes. They all have they that unensettingly bug-eyed stare; it’s their thing.

I discovered Darryl’s books a few years ago, when what we thought were two rainbow lorikeets were visiting our apartment in Camperdown. It turned out to be a whole flock.

We know this because one day they held their annual conference on our balcony. We had 16 lorikeets squabbling at the top of their surprisingly powerful lungs. I suspect I suffered permanent hearing damage.

Because I knew Darryl was a talented writer, I was surprised when he signed up for a six-week memoir course I ran at the start of 2020. Like all good writers, he was pushing himself to further develop his skills – he wanted to learn techniques particular to memoir, and push his writing into new territory. It was a delight working with Darryl, and when the course ended, we continued on into a mentorship that lasted throughout the early draft of Curlews.

He very kindly mentioned me in his acknowledgements, in this overly generous statement:

‘No one has had a bigger influence on this book than Ashley Kalagian Blunt. At a crucial early stage I was lucky enough to participate in a memoir workshop run by Ashley for Mirrabooka Writers. She provided an extraordinary level of personal feedback as well as invaluable advice and encouragement. She is an exceptional writer and teacher as well as a generous and constructive critic. … When the workshop concluded, I plucked up the courage to ask Ashley if she would act as a style editor for a book I was trying to write. If any of this works, it is largely due to Ashley’s incisive, critical yet gentle touch (and ‘appropriate’ sense of humour). Ashley, I apologise deeply, pointedly and embarrassingly for the overabundance of adverbs that remain. You tried your best.’

(For the record, I don’t believe ‘the road to hell is paved with adverbs’ as Stephen King has famously said. See? I used one right there. But I do think they’re best used in moderation. Darryl really did try!)

Curlews on Vulture Street is in stores now. It’s a great read for anyone interested in Australian birds (and who isn’t interested in them? They’re so bizarre!) and fauna, but also for anyone who enjoys smart humour and great storytelling.

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If you’re interested in nonfiction writing, whether that’s essays or book-length work, including memoir, check out my upcoming online course with Writing NSW.

Online: Creative Non-Fiction Workshop with author ashley kalagian blunt, information about this course on the Writing NSW courses website and a copy of her book cover, How to Be Australian, a memoir

Online: Creative Non-Fiction course
Monday 31 October to Friday 9 December 2022, online
Writing NSW

This six-week online course with author Ashley Kalagian Blunt is an opportunity for you to delve into the dynamic world of creative non-fiction. You’ll try new techniques to stretch your writing muscles, and receive feedback in a supportive and encouraging setting.

Each lesson will include writing exercises designed to help you practise a wide range of skills, and weekly deadlines for short assignments will provide motivation. You can work toward the completion of a short-form piece for submission at the end of the course, or develop your skills for a longer project. For full details and to enrol, visit Writing NSW >>

The 13 top writing tips I wish I’d had before I started

I’ve wanted to be an author since 1989, when I was six years old.

My Name Is Revenge cover with author Ashley Kalagian Blunt
At my first book launch, April 2019

I took creative writing workshops in university and college. I churned out novels and stories and possibly the worst poetry in history of English.

In my early thirties, I spent five years writing and revising a creative non-fiction book that, despite being shortlisted for two unpublished manuscript awards, is still unpublished.

A stack of journals, a writing project
A selection of my journals, circa 2012 to 2020

Finally, in 2019, my first book came out. It only took me 30 years.

Over that time, I collected a lot of writing advice, and thought a lot about the process of going from aspiring writer to published author. If I’d had even half of this advice when I started, I think the process would have been easier and more enjoyable, if not faster.

So here it is, my gift to you.

Author speaks to crowd at My Name Is Revenge book launch
My Name Is Revenge book launch, April 2019

13 tips on building a writing practice

1. Don’t wait for inspiration or the ‘right’ mood
Learn to unleash your creativity through generative exercises and build a consistent practice. More advice on accessing your creativity >>

2. Start by building a creative practice
When you’re starting out, engage with your creativity for its own sake, rather than with any specific end goal (like publication) in mind. It’s going to take a lot of time and effort to develop your skills if you want to be an author. Enjoy the process. Plus, engaging with our creativity can be therapeutic – hear art therapist Karin Foxwell discuss the healing power of creativity in this interview >>

Ashley Kalagian Blunt author

3. Remember that your creativity is important
Creativity isn’t frivolous, or selfish, or peripheral – it’s a radically powerful act. Author Sarah Sentilles teaches that when we turn toward our creativity, we turn toward the world. Hear more from Sarah in this interview >>

4. Understand that creative work can spark anxiety
What if we don’t know what we’re doing? What if the work we’re producing is rubbish? This is absolutely normal, and something many published authors still struggle with. Listen to author Kate Mildenhall share her advice >>

5. Tune out your inner critic
Most of us judge ourselves and our ideas harshly, but the truth is you often need to go through a lot of mediocre ideas and drafts before arriving at an exciting one. You can learn to tune out the inner critic that tries to shut you down. Here’s a tip: when I’m find myself second-guessing every word of a new draft, I change my font to trees >>

Ashley Kalagian Blunt 'How to Be Australian' in NYC Trees font
Writing in trees

6. Overcome project inertia
Often during a project we can lose momentum, and day by day it becomes increasingly difficult to go back to the work – resistance builds up. I call this ‘project inertia’ and there are strategies to overcome and avoid it. Read more about project inertia here >>

7. Trust the process
As you progress in your practice, you’ll develop a process that works for you. But then you’ll get derailed and feel lost. Go back to your process, and learn to trust it >>

Three people in front of shrubs
One of my writers’ groups

8. Get a writers group (or two)
Once you’ve started producing work you think might be headed for publication, it’s time to get feedback. One of the best ways to do that is a writers’ group. I credit mine with helping me sharpen the skills needed to get published. Read more about how to get the most from writers’ groups here >>

9. Learn your craft
Like any craft, writing has technical elements. If you want to produce publishable writing, you need to learn these skills. In this interview, I talk about applying scene structure to my memoir and other craft aspects >>

On stage at Sydney Writers’ Festival, 2019

10. Build your confidence
Submitting your work means getting rejected. Don’t let that dissuade you, or take up too much of your emotional energy. You can learn to handle rejection! Here’s my advice on building up your confidence >>

11. Accept the ups and downs
If you want to become published and get paid for your work, the process will have many ups and downs. This is true for practically all writers. Here’s the messy process I went through, summarised into 10 easy steps >>

Writers group with six people holding books
My other writers’ group

12. Find your joy, even through rejection
For a lot of years, I received a lot of rejections. But I found myself having a wonderful time, because I loved my creative work, and I loved all the fabulous readers and writers I was meeting through the community. During that, I got involved in supporting the writing community as a way to connect with others, and wrote about how much I learned through this process >>

13. Get ready to be surprised
You never know what will happen. I wrote four full-length books – two novels and two memoirs – and couldn’t get any of them published. Then my publishing career began with a 25,000-word novella and essay collection, which also became my first audiobook >>

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Keen to learn with me? See my events page for upcoming workshops and other opportunities.