I might have been a bit prickly with Rachel as we started to work on our story pitch. It wasn’t her fault; in fact, the dark-haired Berkeley writer had won me over immediately with her low-key friendliness and thoughtful curiosity. But after the first session of “To Think, To Write, To Publish” (TWP), I was seething. As we hurried through the palm-treed courtyard of the resort hotel where a dozen “next generation science policy scholars” and a dozen “next generation science communicators” had gathered for a conference on “The Rightful Place of Science,” I ranted.
I was one of the scholars, and like my counterparts—almost all of us were PhD-level academic researchers in the early stages of our careers—I had applied to participate in the conference because I thought my research had important policy implications. I was excited when, shortly before the conference, the organizers announced that we would each be paired with a communicator from an impressive cohort of journalists, filmmakers, and other professional storytellers. In Rachel, I thought, I would find an ally in conveying the policy import of my work, which focuses on the role of air monitoring in environmental justice issues, to a wider audience than it found in academic journals. But from our first session, led by creative nonfiction giant Lee Gutkind, I got the distinct impression that the organizers did not imagine us as equal partners in the “to think” and “to write” aspects of our mutual endeavor. Academics were rich in ideas but poor at explaining them, Lee seemed to be saying; partnerships with trained communicators could compensate for our wonkish inscrutability.
I was insulted. What did they mean, I couldn’t write? Hadn’t they heard of “publish or perish”? Of course I could write, and better than most. And Rachel and her counterparts couldn’t think? I didn’t know about the rest of the “communicators,” but Rachel had impressed me right off, not only with how easily she understood the work I was doing, but also with the research that she herself had done in a California desert community divided over the development of a large solar field. Clearly, the woman could think.
“I don’t need a ghost-writer,” I said, plopping down in one of the chairs in front of the large, dark wood desk in Rachel’s hotel room.
“No, you don’t,” she agreed.
“And what about your stuff? Why shouldn’t we write about that?”
Rachel cocked her head, considering. “Okay. How would we do that?”
It was the perfect question to short-circuit my grumbling and get our collaboration off the ground. It also launched us on the search for our story—and for a main character, though at that point only Rachel had the insight to know that was what we needed to do.
Six months later, Rachel and I had a respectable draft of a piece for Issues in Science and Technology, the policy journal that had committed to publishing the results of the TWP collaborations. At least, I was pleased with it. In numerous phone calls and e-mails, we had tried out half a dozen different ideas: Rachel’s work in the California desert; mine on the fence lines of Louisiana refineries; new reporting that Rachel did with California refinery neighbors, whom I knew through my research networks. They all had colorful characters, and some of the characters had great stories. But I didn’t want to tell a David-and-Goliath story about how a small-town activist made a refinery install a fancy new air monitor. From a social scientist’s point of view, those stories, while popular, are dangerously simplistic; they seldom help us understand the larger structures that create and perpetuate the need for ordinary people to do battle with powerful institutions. I wanted instead to tell a story that highlighted those structural issues—the issues that academics are especially trained to see—by explaining how the data from the hard-won monitor was being wasted if it wasn’t being used to produce better knowledge about the effects of refinery emissions on health in neighboring towns.
In the draft we turned in, I thought we’d wrestled some of our potential characters into making the point I wanted to make. To my dismay, Lee thought otherwise. In a long, frustrating phone call, he explained how the piece needed to have a stronger narrative before it could be published. I heard him asking us to add details about settings and characters—details that I scarcely remembered and which hardly seemed important to the point I wanted to make. By the time I hung up the phone, I wanted to give up.
Not Rachel. She wanted to talk strategy.
She focused on a particularly difficult and abstract part of our draft: my criticism of regulatory standards and screening levels for toxic chemicals in the ambient air. As we tried to explain in the piece, they’re the weak link in figuring out refineries’ effects on residential neighbors. They’re also, I was arguing, what new monitoring data should be used to improve. Rachel didn’t want us to explain the weaknesses, but rather to turn the explanation into a story. Maybe, she suggested, we could create a scene around the scientists doing the research to set the standards.
No, I said, probably too impatiently, the relevant scientists were boring bureaucrats, and they weren’t even the point. The point was what we didn’t know, or what we could know, if only all the data from fancy monitoring systems were actually being used.
“Okay,” Rachel said, apparently unperturbed by my outburst. “So that’s the point. Who’s making that point?”
“Nobody! I mean, I am.” In my frustration, I finally blurted out my story: Years ago, I was charged with compiling benchmarks for interpreting the results from a first generation of community-friendly air monitors. In the process, I came to understand how variable, uncertain, incomplete, and in need of improvement the available standards for air quality really are. When I learned about the more sophisticated monitors that later became accessible to residents of refinery-adjacent communities, I saw that those monitors had the potential to help make the standards more coherent. But no one was actually using them with that goal in mind. That, I told Rachel, was precisely why I wanted to write this piece in the first place: not because someone had resolved the problem, but because no one was even grappling with it yet.
That conversation ended our search for a character whose story could carry my policy point; the story Rachel and I were working on became, in essence, mystory. I started to author larger and larger chunks of it. It eventually made sense to shift into first person, and whole sections that Rachel contributed based on her reporting are narrated as though I was there, looking over her shoulder. As I became the storyteller, I finally began to understand one of the central building blocks of creative nonfiction—a character, with a problem or dilemma, that she ultimately resolves—and to appreciate that this was an element that Rachel, with her MFA in creative nonfiction, had been trying to infuse into our project all along.
Two and a half years after our first meeting, Rachel and I were mingling with a second cohort of TWP scholars and communicators in a hotel ballroom in Bethesda, Maryland. They balanced plates of cubed cheese and glasses of wine, and tried to discern who would be a good partner and who would turn out to be a slacker, or a tyrant, or a bore. Having come over on the Metro from work at her one-woman nonprofit, Alison Fairbrother gamely answered her fellows’ obligatory questions about who she was and what she did. Communicator. No, not much creative nonfiction; investigative reporting, mostly. Writing about fisheries. Over-fishing, really, and all the damage it caused. She got polite nods.
Then someone introduced her to David Schleifer. Alison asked him what he did, making eye contact and leaning in to the question, as was her unconscious habit. Charmed and immediately at ease, David told her about his research on oils—fats, trans fats, and all the regulations and nutritional recommendations around them—with a combination of passion and modesty that Alison found compelling. No polite nods were necessary: the connection between her work and his was obvious to both of them right away. They leapt into a discussion of fish oil, nutritional phenomenon and contributor to the depletion of Atlantic fisheries. They wouldn’t officially become a scholar-communicator team until the next day, but their collaboration was already off and running.
After dinner, Rachel and I participated in a panel discussion along with the program’s four other mentors, most of them also veterans of the first iteration of TWP. (Each of us would be assigned to help support two of the scholar-communicator teams through the process of developing their stories; Alison and David were one of my teams.) Alison tried to listen to the discussion, but much of her attention went to wondering which of the scholars she would be paired with, hoping it would be David, with whom she’d just had such a lovely conversation. But what did make an impression, she remembered later, was Rachel’s and my account of the challenges we had faced in figuring out how to co-write a policy story. Listening to how I had become more and more the author of the piece, Alison hoped she and her partner would be able to come up with something more thoroughly collaborative.
As the three-day workshop in Bethesda drew to a close, Alison and David seemed to be in great shape. Unlike many of the other teams, who left still trying to decide what to write about, they had agreed on a topic right away. Alison had secretly breathed a sigh of relief when David, in his gentle way, quashed her initial suggestion that they write about trans fats. Right, he agreed, that would be the obvious way to go—but he was tired of the subject and had already published something on it for a popular audience. Fish oil was far more interesting to him, and he appreciated the depth of Alison’s work in the area. That was what they should do. Alison liked the idea because she thought it set them up to have a balanced partnership. David already knew a lot about the regulations and the nutritional supplement business, and she wouldn’t have to come up to speed on the subject matter the way she would have if they wrote about trans fats. At the workshop, they were even able to make the case that they could write an engaging and timely piece about the seemingly esoteric fish oil phenomenon: their five-minute pitch to a panel of editors from national publications—nervously practiced for me in the parking lot—was a hit.
After that, though, Alison sort of checked out. David began churning out text that described historical background and regulatory structure, but Alison, although she also had research to share, couldn’t get motivated to write anything. She just didn’t see where the story was. What was the frame for all their information? She’d hoped to find it in a former colleague’s story, but despite the fact that it had all the right elements—overfishing, fish oil pills, toxic contamination of the fisheries, even a lawsuit—she couldn’t manage to turn it into a compelling narrative. So she had focused on other projects instead.
But with the deadline for first drafts looming, Alison knew she had to do something. She decided to try a new angle. There had been a bill in the Maryland legislature that would have addressed the overfishing problem. She remembered that during the discussion, fish oil pills had become an issue—perhaps the issue—that had kept the bill from passing. After checking in with David, she took a chance and called the legislator who had introduced the bill. Before long, she was on the phone with Julie Vanderslice, the staff member who had taken the lead on the legislation. Alison was taken with Julie’s story right away and kept her on the phone, probing for details that she could use to make the story compelling to readers. Then she wrote. Page after page of Julie’s story came out fluidly—a huge contrast to Alison’s earlier attempts.
Alison e-mailed her work to David. His reply was gratifying: Oh my god, he wrote, there are actual scenes here! And then, as if all he needed was to see what was possible, scenes started tumbling out of David, as well. Now that they had discovered Julie, their draft had finally become a story.
The night before the second session of TWP workshops began, Rachel and I sat by the pool at the Arizona hotel where we’d first met, comparing notes on the story drafts we’d gotten from all the teams. I told her how pleasantly surprised I’d been to read David and Alison’s. They’d wandered around for so long trying to find an angle for their story that I had despaired of their ever pulling together a draft at all, let alone one with such a rich narrative.
“That was your group?” Rachel seemed, dare I say, impressed. “Theirs was great!”
My esteem for what David and Alison had accomplished grew. Praise from Rachel was high praise, indeed. Over my year of acting as a mentor, I had become very aware of just how much I still had to learn about creative nonfiction—and even more deeply appreciative of how well Rachel knew her craft.
Despite my respect for Rachel, however, we hadn’t worked together since our article was published. It had been clear for some time that we wouldn’t. Shortly after the piece came out, I ventured to ask whether she was happy with how it turned out. Her answer tactfully avoided any assessment of its quality as a piece of creative nonfiction and instead spoke to the quality of the collaboration we’d cobbled together. She never really felt like she owned the piece, she told me: even at the end, she was just beginning to wrap her head around the topic. She went on to talk about the kinds of stories she dreamed of writing, about cutting-edge, environmentally significant technologies—quite far removed from the world of decades-old oil refineries that I continued to inhabit.
But a couple of days later, as we turned our respective mentees loose in Tempe to draw out their narratives and play out their partnerships, Rachel and I started to forge a new kind of collaboration. I pitched her my idea for writing my next book as a work of creative nonfiction. “What makes that a book?” she wanted to know, deftly explaining what distinguishes an article-length story from a book-length one and enriching immeasurably my understanding of storytelling of all sorts. And she sought my help with a mostly written piece of her own. She was confident in the narrative, she explained, but wasn’t sure of her point. I suggested several possibilities that helped her hone in on what she really wanted to say with her story.
Elsewhere in the overly air-conditioned conference center, David and Alison were enjoying the opportunity to work together in person, two pairs of eyes trained on one computer screen. Like Rachel and me, though, they didn’t expect to continue their partnership past the completion of the fish oil article. Through her foray into creative nonfiction, Alison had concluded that subject matter wasn’t what should drive a narrative piece. She’d only try it again, with or without David, if she found a character whose story she was compelled to tell. David, for his part, wanted to be convinced that the story they had to tell would contribute something important to the conversation—and even then, he’d want to know what he could add.
I left Tempe worried about what the fate of our partnerships said about the future of science policy narratives. Without anyone to insist on finding the characters that are the heart of narrative, it’s altogether too easy for me to resort to familiar old argumentation, where fascinating people become engaging examples rather than protagonists. On my own, it’s easy to rail at creative nonfiction stories about scientific issues that fall back on familiar plotlines that my academic colleagues and I find empirically suspect or overly simplistic. For example: the story of the genius scientist who singlehandedly revolutionizes our understanding of [fill in the blank]—never mind the elaborate knowledge production infrastructures in which he (seldom are female scientists so portrayed) and his work are embedded. Or: the story about the plucky, high school-educated activist whose research proves that scientists from powerful institutions are wrong—never mind that they, like she, are still trying to figure out what would constitute convincing evidence of a complex phenomenon. It’s much easier for people writing for popular audiences to rely on these tropes, I fear, than to create new, truer stories about the way science and science policy proceed. It’s also easier for academics to stick to talking to colleagues who already share our models of how the world works than to try to explain them to a public with little exposure to the basic tenets of the critical social sciences.
A year later, though, I have become convinced that our partnerships will have lasting effects. David and Alison did collaborate again when an opportunity came up to publish an article that drew on the research they had done for their TWP piece. While it wasn’t creative nonfiction, it didn’t languish in academic literature, either: appearing first in the stylish, contemporary issue-focused Limn, it was picked up by the popular technology and design blog Gizmodo—and even drew an agitated response from the seafood industry. And that may not be their last collaboration. If the right opportunity came along, David says, they’d probably go for it.
Rachel and I, on the other hand, are no more likely to co-author anything else. But my collaboration with her has had a noticeable impact on how I’m thinking about publishing my new research. I now recognize potentially powerful stories when they come up in my interviews, like the journey of the environmental engineer whose work with a community group enriched the questions he’s asking with his computer models of air quality and gave him a new kind of respect for what citizens can add to technical understandings. Stories like his make points I care about—in this case, that the engagement of community groups with scientific issues is changing how science is done and how scientists think (something that I co-edited a whole book about)—and help me see a way to communicate those points to people who aren’t my academic colleagues. And while I won’t stop publishing academic articles, I have promised the National Science Foundation, which is funding my project, that I will simultaneously convey my findings to a broader audience, in part through narrative pieces. As I start to publish in these new realms, I am sure to reach out to Rachel, Lee, and other TWP veterans for their help and advice. So I am hopeful that, however we interact in the future, we will continue to push and enable each other both to write better stories about our scholarship and to infuse better scholarship into our stories.