Thinking, Writing, Publishing

Can creative nonfiction effectively communicate much more esoteric and futuristic content, like science policy—that is, the responsibilities and decisions that come part and parcel with technological innovations?

Wait a minute! What is going on in this issue? We’ve got essays about the impact of the controversial billion-dollar industry centered around fish oil; the ethics of revealing the results of genomic testing; the ways in which family foundations have changed rare-disease research, neglected collections at the Smithsonian Institution, where blueprints of the Empire State Building lie, forgotten . . . not to mention yeast modeling, whatever that is. This is not your typical issue of Creative Nonfiction; that’s for sure. And why are there two writers for every essay in this issue? Isn’t one writer enough?

Maybe not, in this particular instance. Here’s the story:

It all started a half-dozen years ago when I was giving a talk about creative nonfiction to students and faculty at the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University. My thesis was (and always has been) that you can communicate even a difficult, scholarly subject to the general public by using creative nonfiction techniques—narrative. And communicating to the general public is more important now than ever before because the world is becoming increasingly complicated. There is so much for people to understand if they want to feel well-informed and keep up with what is happening in this ever-changing world—from robotics, to genetics, to nanotechnology—as well as the philosophy and rationale behind all of this cutting-edge stuff. And there are real-world implications of technology, which might affect us all: Do we want robots to replace unskilled laborers, soldiers, and law enforcement officers, for instance? Should we be sharing genetic information, patenting genes? What are the ramifications of such decisions? Where are the safeguards? When—if ever—can science and scientists run amok?

In the room that day was David Guston, who, among other responsibilities, was the co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes—essentially, a science policy think tank—at ASU. At the end of my talk, he asked a challenging question: Can creative nonfiction effectively communicate much more esoteric and futuristic content, like science policy—that is, the responsibilities and decisions that come part and parcel with technological innovations?

Can creative nonfiction effectively communicate much more esoteric and futuristic content, like science policy—that is, the responsibilities and decisions that come part and parcel with technological innovations?

I didn’t know for sure since I had no real idea what science policy was all about at the time, but I was intrigued and wanted to explore the challenge. So Dave introduced me to Dan Sarewitz, his co-director at CSPO, who was very interested in writing narrative and in trying to find a way to communicate policy to an audience beyond his colleagues. Policy scholars, like many scholars, sometimes work in a bubble—talking to one another but failing to connect to a broader constituency.

At ASU, new ideas can become realities quite quickly, and in little more than a blink of the eye, I had a new job as Distinguished Writer in Residence at CSPO, with a charge both to figure out ways to bring the wonky world of policy and the creative writing community together and to use true storytelling to make policy issues accessible to a broad readership—that is, to regular people who are actually affected by scientific and technological innovation. This, by the way, is closely related to the mission of ASU’s president, Michael Crow, as symbolized in his vision of ASU as “the new American University,” which emphasizes fusing intellectual disciplines; engaging locally and globally; crossing and challenging traditional educational boundaries; and valuing and encouraging citizen, student, and faculty entrepreneurship.

I quickly discovered there were two basic challenges to figure out in this regard. First, science policy is rather heady and theoretical—not easy to explain and sometimes based on ideas of what might happen rather than realities. It’s relatively easy to describe and dramatize things that have already happened, but harder to apply nonfiction techniques to the uncertain future. Which led to the second challenge. Since policy was hard to pin down and capture in words—it’s short on life and death stories, dramatic spacewalks, amazing apps—journalists, specifically, and writers, generally, tend to ignore or marginalize policy. They, too, are in a sort of bubble. And so, I soon realized, there was not a large body of compelling published narratives about science policy and the responsibilities of innovation.

So, how to bridge the gap? How to bring policy to the public through true storytelling? And how to help build a body of work that would illustrate how narrative could communicate science policy effectively?

First, Dave and I established a competitive program: To Think, To Write, To Publish (shortened to Think Write Publish), supported by the National Science Foundation, which, over a period of four years beginning in 2010, brought “next generation” (meaning early-career) science policy scholars and creative nonfiction writers together to learn from one another. The scholars shared their ideas and their methods with the writers, who shared their skill and experience in writing narrative nonfiction. Paired in teams, they tried to write true stories capturing the scholar’s research in narrative so that the world at large could understand it.

The pilot project that began in 2010 was expanded in 2013, and we received more than 225 applications from extraordinarily qualified (and overqualified) people from around the world. Twenty-four were selected—twelve writers and twelve scholars—and over the course of a year and a half, we conducted two week-long workshops: first, an introductory event in which the writer-scholars were paired together and started their work, and then, six months later, a revision workshop during which preliminary drafts were critiqued and discussed. Book and magazine editors—from The Atlantic, Slate, National Geographic, Harper’s, and, of course, Creative Nonfiction—were part of these events. Between the workshops, each team was assigned a mentor—a veteran from the pilot program—to make certain the work was proceeding on schedule.

So, what happened? Plenty—and mostly to the good—beginning with the five collaborative essays published here, which, in keeping with President Crow’s vision, fuse intellectual disciplines and certainly cross traditional educational boundaries. We also learned a lot about how difficult collaboration can be when busy, dedicated, zealous, and motivated high achievers, with sometimes conflicting agendas, try to work together: sparks can fly! Fusing style and substance and thinking incisively can make compromise and successful collaboration elusive. But for the most part, the project was a great success.

Twelve teams participated initially in Think Write Publish, and nine were able to successfully finish. In addition to the five essays published here, you can read the other four online at the Think Write Publish website. There’s also more information online about the entire Think Write Publish project and its participants, along with more information about how style and substance, policy and narrative, can work together effectively to reach a broad general audience. The website is also a terrific teaching and learning tool because it deconstructs some of the collaborative essays we have published, illustrating to readers how the science policy and the storytelling work together.

I should also mention that three of the essays published in this issue are being simultaneously published in Issues in Science and Technology, a leading policy journal published by the National Academy of Sciences and ASU. The editors of IST are Dan Sarewitz and Kevin Finneran, the latter of whom was adventurous enough to publish similar collaborative scholar and writer essays for the TWP pilot project.

So, there’s a lot of collaboration going on in relation to this issue—challenging at times but, ultimately, incredibly rewarding. I believe that Think Write Publish is only the beginning of a new narrative—a way in which experts in different fields can learn from one another while making an impact on a large and diverse readership.

About the Author

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Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind is the author and editor of more than thirty books, including You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, Almost Human: Making Robots Think, The Best Seat in Baseball: But You Have to Stand, Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather, and the award-winning, Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation.

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