I’m taking a course on rhetoric through Coursera and the first assignment was to “describe yourself as a writer. Tell your classmates—your rhetorical audience—a story or stories about the key life experiences that have helped make you the kind of writer you are.” And so…
It Starts with a Story
It starts with a story. My brother and I are curled up on either side of my dad as he cracks the spine and reads, “Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy…” There’s no heavy-handed symbolism for me at the age of four, just animals that talk and magic that’s real. And all to be had just a musty wardrobe away. And so starts a family tradition that will span half a decade, two countries and countless books. Nearly a decade later,
I’m in my junior high school library and find a book. I’m drawn to the image of a woman walking a mountain path on the cover and I want to know her story—I’ve failed to notice the dragon in the upper corner. Anne McCaffrey brings me to Mercedes Lackey. And I find Susan Cooper and Terry Brooks and Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett and… And… And… It won’t be until years later, listening to Cooper lecture on the importance of fantasy stories for young adults and the connection between fantasy, myth, faith and religion that I realize. It was through these stories that I wrestled with thoughts of good and evil, the meaning of life, the passing of time, and the reality of death. I was forced to find my own answers to the big questions alongside the protagonists whose stories I inhaled. And I embraced the motto of Lackey’s made-up realm, “There is no one true way,” and set my worldview by it.
Crowded into my friend’s basement, we circle around a pirated copy of Quark, formatting the latest story in our high school underground newspaper. We inherited the task from the class ahead of us and are channeling our suburban rebellion into dreams of Hunter S. Thompson glory. We satirize the world around us and publish overwrought teenage poetry that earns a trip to the principal’s office when one confiscated copy causes a teacher to misinterpret melodrama as a suicide note.
Back to the library; this time at college. Now the book is Beluga—a short title for a short book that sends me on a long journey. Here are scientists, studying my favorite species of whale, trying to discover why the whales are dying. The story? It’s a Silent Spring of the St. Lawrence River, but the research goes on. I read the book my freshman year and by the summer before my senior year I’m in Canada. I’m working with the scientists in the book—and realizing I don’t want to be a scientist after all. I don’t want to spend my life studying one aspect of one species. I want Science with a capitol s—from quarks to quasars.
Here’s the story. I have two semesters to find a new answer to an old question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Roger Rosenblatt is lecturing that anthropologists made a mistake…we aren’t Homo sapiens, but rather, Homo narratus. He’s trying to teach me the importance of the personal essay, and sure, I like Annie Dillard and her tales well enough, but where’s the magic? And then my Dad loans me Chet Raymo’s Honey from Stone. Ta-da! Arthur C. Clarke only got part of the story right. It’s actually “Any sufficiently intriguing science is indistinguishable from magic.” Here are words making science into “Science!” Science and faith so intertwined that one is indistinguishable from the other. And it sparks a new answer to an old question.
Now to tell a story I have to learn to fit it to a shape. It may be an inverted pyramid, but it’s still made of science. I learn how to report on science for a newspaper, how to craft a science story for a magazine, even how to capture a scientific narrative in film. And the words spill out across the pages, but once again I’m left to find that it’s not enough to make it my story.
I start a new career as an online editor for a science advocacy organization. I’m preparing for a staff retreat and my assignment is to bring an object that tells a story about me. I look around my apartment, which is dominated by bookshelves, and I spot it. Beluga. And I realize that this time I just might have the story right. I realize it wasn’t just the science writing that drew me in, but the purpose behind it. And I realize that studying science was too limiting because it only focused on one piece. And reporting on science was to limiting because it only reported what is. That what drew me to Beluga was the scientists going beyond “This is what the science says,” to add, “and this is what it means we should do.” I’d stumbled directly into the place I didn’t know I was aiming for.
It starts with a story. The stories we tell ourselves: where I come from, what I believe, who are my people, where I’m going, what I do, why I do it… If Homo sapiens have a motto, it’s Descartes’ “I think therefore I am,” but Rosenblatt was on to something with Homo narratus: Let me tell you the story of who I am…