An Evening of Science Writing at the American Writers Museum

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Display about Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park at the American Writers Museum. Photo by L.J. Bailey.

My first visit to the American Writers Museum was for a live recording of Undiscovered, a podcast about the backstories, twists, and turns of science. Annie Minoff, one of the podcasters, invited science writers David Quammen and Sy Montgomery to discuss the discipline of science writing and the paths their careers have took over the years. I encourage you to listen to the podcast when they release their 2018 episodes (soon, I understand), but I will provide a brief highlight of the portions of the talk that struck me.

David Quammen is perhaps best known for The Song of the Dodo, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, and Spillover. His newest book is called The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life and talks about the work of Carl Woese, the scientist who discovered archaebacteria, which comprise a third kingdom of life beyond plants and animals. It was not until the 1970s that this was realized! His book also discusses advances in genome sequencing and how both these developments have significantly revised our understanding of life on Earth.

Sy Montgomery is known for so many wonderful books such as Walking with the Great Apes: Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, Birute Galdikas; The Curious Naturalist; and Wildlife Out Your Window. My personal favorite is The Soul of the Octopus, a book that explores the complexity, intelligence, and personality of this mollusk. Her newest book is called How to Be A Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals and will be released at the end of September.

Sy described her love of animals coming before her love of writing, and she told us about her childhood dog (she calls her an elder sister) who taught her some of her most important life lessons. She had always imagined herself as a veterinarian until one day as a child she saw a New York Times article on the slaughter of whales and the precariousness of many whale populations, and she suddenly realized she could do more personally to help the animals as a writer than she could as a veterinarian.

She described for us many transcendent moments between her and animals, but one that stuck with me was her trip to Australia to study emus, specifically emu “pies.” She spent her days digging through emu poop in search of seeds to track food intake and seed distribution, and she found herself growing closer and closer to this particular flock of birds. Following Goodall’s example of monitoring chimpanzees and winning their trust, she began to track the emus. One night, she realized she was about to witness the family of emus rest for the night. She said we really didn’t know a lot about wild emus and sleep. Did they settle in? How? Did they tuck their heads under a wing? Did they sleep at all? (It turns out they do not sleep continuously and that they sleep sitting down). Upon observing that, she had a moment of sublimity and wrote all about it. The next day, she knew that there was no way she could return to a land of pantyhose and office work, so she dedicated herself to writing about animals. She described her days and nights in Australia as magical, her hair smelling like eucalyptus and visits from giant spiders in the middle of the night.

She was never concerned about her ability to connect with animals until she decided to study octopus. After all, over half a billion years ago, our descendants separated from the octopus descendants. An octopus has three hearts, nine “brains,” and blue blood. Nonetheless, she was able to connect with them in astonishing ways. The Soul of an Octopus remains one of my favorite pieces of nature writing and was a finalist for the National Book Award.

David Quammen is probably the better known of the two, although I confess that I only knew of him through individual articles published in journals over the years and had not read his books. I plan to remedy that soon. He talked a lot about writers being autodidacts and reminded the audience that he had no formal journalism or biology training. He loved to write first and foremost and was encouraged by a fantastic high school English teacher to pursue his writing aspirations (hooray English teachers!). He wrote about his interests, taught himself, listened to scientists, and became, in a sense, a translator for scientists completing work in the field.

One humorous anecdote that he shared involved a critic who insulted his newest book, lamenting that David had included irrelevant details such as the kind of pizza a biologist ordered. Well, it turns out that that biologist was none other than Carl Woese, the revolutionary scientist I mentioned above, and that he included the food detail because this premier biologist ordered a plain pizza and a diet Coke. He looked at David oddly for ordering a pepperoni pizza. David asked the audience rhetorically, “How could I leave out this detail, this irony that this scientist who thought things no one else did and made such an important discovery wanted to eat a plain pizza? It was the most…ordinary thing.”

A woman sitting near me asked for advice for aspiring science writers who lack a formal science background. My ears perked up at this because she asked the same question I had hoped to ask of them. Each writer said that to remember that science writers do not have to have that formal background and that it is, again, about educating yourself for each piece, often starting at square one for each new project. Annie pointed out that there is so much multimedia work out there that to be able to translate scientific discovery and wonder relying solely on the printed page requires a special dedication and skill.

And, of course, there is the repeated advice every writer gives – write, read, read some more, write. The only way to get better is to write and read, and the more you write, the more you have the potential to improve.

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