What’s the Story #65

"The intersections of these two ways of understanding the world are rarely examined—and when they are, the primary narrative is one of conflict"

I know that exploring the harmonies between science and religion is not the kind of subject your average literary magazine might focus on for an entire issue—and maybe that is why I am particularly excited about this issue of Creative Nonfiction.

Longtime readers may remember our 2014 “Telling Stories that Matter” issue, which featured essays coauthored by science-policy scholars and creative writers. That issue grew out of an innovative program called Think Write Publish (TWP) in which science-policy scholars and creative nonfiction writers worked together to write collaborative essays that turned the scholars’ research into creative nonfiction. In the process, the scholars taught the writers about the complicated process of designing policy, and the writers helped the scholars use narrative to communicate their ideas and work to a broader audience.

The program has gone through several iterations and has received funding from various sources, including the National Science Foundation, but its ongoing mission is to open new avenues of communication between experts and the public, who will be impacted by their ideas and achievements.

I have spent my whole professional life writing and teaching true stories—nonfiction narratives. I’ve written about robotics and medicine—narrative books about transplantation, pediatrics, veterinary medicine, and mental illness—and I’ve come to realize there is a lot about such crucial subjects that the general public does not—cannot—understand or appreciate unless scientists, engineers, physicians, policy professionals, and other experts communicate their expertise effectively. And, if you ask me, the most effective way to communicate is through story.

I created TWP with David Guston and Dan Sarewitz, two of my colleagues in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University. It’s kind of a quirky name for a university school, but it pretty much captures SFIS’s broadest mission, which is to help our students envision and build the world they will want to inhabit.

Long before joining ASU, I had observed that creative writing programs traditionally focus on craft—story-writing technique—sometimes to the detriment of the content of the story, the reason for writing. Of course, craft is important; after all, it’s craft that separates creative nonfiction from . . . well, regular nonfiction. But sometimes I wish creative writing programs would focus equal attention on the substance of stories and encourage their students to tackle weightier subjects in greater depth.

Of course, any kind of writing brings challenges, and I don’t mean to suggest that what is more typically considered creative nonfiction—personal stories about family, hardship, disability, grief, discovery, living, and growing in a runaway world—is in any way light on substance. And of course creative nonfictionists do write about science—from astrophysics to genomics and everything in between. We write about religion, too, especially in the United States, where freedom to believe in and practice (or not to practice or believe in) whatever spiritual activity we choose is a constitutional right that is cherished and sacred, though at the same time, often a source of tension and isolation. But the intersections of those two ways of understanding the world are rarely examined—and when they are, the primary narrative is one of conflict. As my colleague, Dan Sarewitz, a policy scholar, explains:

People come to know the world in part through stories, and many people know the story of Galileo being tossed into prison by the pope, or John Scopes going on trial in Tennessee for teaching evolution—not to mention Adam and Eve being kicked out of Eden simply for the sin of seeking knowledge. But stories are especially good at making sense of the ambiguities and contradictions of the human condition. So where and what are the stories that can communicate a more complex and even fruitful relationship between science and religion?

Generating such stories was the goal of this iteration of TWP, which was generously funded by the John Templeton Foundation. We offered fifteen two-year fellowships providing support—a series of free craft workshops and individual mentoring, plus opportunities to meet editors from some of the most thoughtful magazines in the country—for anyone with an important true story about the harmonies between science and religion. Many of those fellows’ essays will be published in journals and magazines over the next year, and others have inspired programming in science museums across the country.

The Templeton Foundation also provided generous prize money and support for an international essay contest, the winners of which are featured in this issue. Rachel Wilkinson’s engaging “Search History,” winner of the $10,000 best essay prize, explores the intersection of the Internet and our human questioning impulse. “[The Internet] is superhuman, beyond any one of us and inaccessible in its entirety,” Wilkinson observes. “Like an oracle, Google can access and interpret the world beyond, though it is still essentially of this one.”

Other essays explore intersections of Mormonism and astronomy, Judaism and physics, and grief as the ultimate proving ground for both science and religion. Somewhat unusually for a literary magazine of this size, we were also able to commission work for this issue. We sent Dinty W. Moore on a post-election tour through southern Ohio, Western Pennsylvania, and West Virginia to see how science and religion coexist in everyday life for “ordinary Americans.” And William Wan, recently appointed the Washington Post’s science correspondent (and formerly its religion correspondent), reflects on his seemingly unlikely career path and discovers room for awe in both fields.

Some of these essays are being published simultaneously here and in Issues in Science and Technology, which doesn’t often feature narratives. And, to me, the joint publication of the same essays in two entirely different publications with very different readerships is in many ways the most important and exciting part of the project. I hope and believe that these complex and nuanced true stories reveal something new and might inspire you to see the world in a different way. And, above all, I hope the work in this issue will expand awareness and appreciation of the vital roles of both science and religion—no matter where or how (or whether) you worship and what you believe or don’t believe.

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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