Staff Scientist, University of Chicago, United States.
Charles Darwin, Primo Levi, Rachel Carson, John MacPhee, Ed Yong, Carl Sagan, and Lewis Thomas have all written creatively and eloquently about the natural world and the practice of doing science. In so doing they have changed the way people think about our world, and about scientists.
This past June, The Company of Biologists ran a Workshop called “Creative Science Writing.” The group numbered a dozen mentors (published writers of scientific non-fiction, fiction, and poetry—some full-time writers, many others holding academic positions) and about fifteen mentees (lab techs, recent PhDs, post-docs, professors, staff scientists, freelance writers and journalists, and a playwright, among others).
After we’d found our rooms in the historic Wiston House (I was told mine were in a converted brewery), we gathered in the large conference room with its long, U-shaped table, carrying in name-cards to display in front of us. A microphone sat at each place, making it feel a bit like a small United Nations. We went round the U introducing ourselves by means of an object of special meaning we’d been asked to bring. Those who’d gotten the memo after already being en route to the Workshop admirably evoked such objects by words alone. Already we were telling stories, and it was notable the extent to which people shared quite personal ones right at the outset. This set the tone for the Workshop, which continued in that vein throughout.
Kat Arney, science writer and broadcaster, started off our discussion of Narrative with the observation, “Stuff has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and not everyone does that.” We then had a fair bit of discussion of peoples’ practices of outlining work in detail vs. seat-of-the-pants composition, primarily related to non-fiction books. Matthew Cobb, professor of Zoology and writer of non-fiction books, concluded, “No plan survives first engagement with the enemy.” Our resident playwright, Raegan Payne, describing what not to tell, offered the tag, “Come in late and leave early.”
During the Workshop, we broke into smaller groups to discuss pre-distributed published essays and writing submitted by mentees. We also had blocks of time to write or revise. Interspersed with this full schedule were delicious meals prepared by the world-class chefs of Wiston House, tea breaks, and evening drinks and conversation. We were free to wander the extensive and beautiful grounds of Wiston House and held many of our small-group discussions out of doors. The rotating sets of small groups made it easy to get to know one another quickly, with the scale of the meeting making it easy to interact with everyone in the end whilst promoting a very pleasant and collegial atmosphere.
We were lucky to get to talk by zoom to the writer of one of the published pieces, Karen Joy Fowler, and she gave us a lot of insight into her individual writing process. She ended with a cautionary note to the mentees, who were about to hear feedback on their own writing: Never change what you’ve written based on someone else’s critique, unless you fully believe it will get you closer to your intentions.
That being said, the feedback sessions on our submitted pieces were quite supportive as well as offering detailed suggestions and thoughtful critiques. The diversity of writing styles and structures was impressive, and we learned a good deal from one another. One of the most unexpected lessons I took away from the Workshop was that an essential ingredient for a piece that worked is emotional openness and honesty, and a great many pieces displayed that virtue.
Although the majority of attendees had come to work on their non-fiction writing skills, by the end of the Workshop many had become enthusiastic about incorporating more elements from storytelling and fiction into their narratives, or had even decided to try their hands at fiction or poetry.
One of the organizers, Enrico Coen, professor and writer, summed up the Workshop thusly: “My conclusion is that everyone here is slightly barmy.” He added that this will be a great comfort to him as he returns to his peers in the scientific world, knowing that he has all of us as a community. Many of the attendees shared this feeling of having gained a sense of kinship with this group of science writers of all spots and stripes.