Everyone in the room was sipping coffee, ignoring the speaker’s opening statement.
“We need narratives of a future we’d like to live in.”
Dessert plates clinked in the room full of writers and science policy scholars. They seemed to be waiting for Gary Dirks to continue, but his words echoed in my head, both then and since. It was May 2013, Tempe Arizona; the final gathering I would be attending after three years of involvement in To Think, To Write, To Publish (TWP)—an effort to produce impactful stories by pairing creative writers with science policy scholars. Why create these interdisciplinary partnerships? Dirks’s statement provided both an apt response and a summary of my experience.
Dirks—a tall, white-haired former president of BP Asia Pacific and BP China —stood still at the podium in the plain, well-appointed ballroom at the Mission Palms. He exuded the confidence I expected from a multinational corporate officer, but sported rather worried-looking eyes. In recent years, he had left BP to direct the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University. Continuing with his talk, Dirks went on to show the importance of stories in the battle for ideas. He first noted the vast power disparity when it comes to climate and energy policy.
“We have a general public that continues to be largely indifferent, and special interests that are not,” Dirks remarked, and came to a full stop, letting us do the math. The equation, of course, adds up to a perpetual and wholly unsustainable status quo.
I shuddered inside. This was not a new revelation, but like Dirks’s earlier statement, it stirred me; a warm anxiety climbed in my chest. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Whether or not he was right, King’s statement is descriptive of that which humans strive for in spite of the evidence. During my early attempts at being a writer, I’ve come to believe, like Dirks, that the most valuable stories also bend in the direction of justice—of wrongs being made right. In one sense, this is what stories are and what stories do; it’s as old as Aristotle’s Poetics—the conventions of conflict and resolution. But writers are often better at dealing with the former than the latter.
As one of the writers in the room, I was shaken with resolve to find and tell stories that point to solutions—even if these solutions are only potential or partial. But do these stories have real impact? As I’d learned, attempting to be this sort of writer comes with built-in disillusionment.
It was 2009, late summer. Obama remained fresh-faced, and I was fresh out of an MFA writing program. The best writing-related position I found was at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a large U.S. Department of Energy science facility. Rolling Stone had just profiled Steven Chu, the new administration’s Energy Secretary. In a two-page photo spread with the words The Secretary of Saving the Planet, he looked ready to put on a cape.
I fancied myself joining Chu, Obama, and their super friends, especially because it looked like they were trying to make a move on climate change. The House had already passed a “cap-and-trade” bill—a market-based approach to carbon emissions. So I moved south a couple hours to the sagebrush-covered scabland that had once been home to portions of the Manhattan Project. Driving behind my wife, both vehicles packed with our possessions, I remember thinking: This could be huge.
Days later, I began charging my time to the American taxpayers. The first time “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act” popped onto my virtual timecard for some writing I did on a building energy efficiency project, it stopped me. I had become a green job.
During my second month, after being slapped back down to earth with piles of technical editing, my manager tapped me to help one of the lab’s high-ranking scientists draft a splashy op-ed piece addressing the scientific and technological implications of new climate policy. After shockingly little input from the scientist, the first draft was up to me.
I became a one-person think tank, absorbing everything I could on the topic. With a bipartisan coalition forming in the Senate, the scientist wanted a timely essay to position our lab’s scientists as thought leaders. As I saw it, this would embody a quote from the President’s inaugural address: a way to “restore science to its rightful place.”
After much hand wringing, I turned in a draft I felt was solid—a strong shell for the bigwigs to massage and the media relations people to place. I emailed it to the scientist at 3am, and walked into his office later that morning to find him just printing it off. He told me to stay, and I stood awkwardly at his desk, watching his inscrutable bearded face as he read it. His eyebrows rose.
“How long have you been here at the Lab?” he asked after finishing.
“A couple months.”
“This is excellent stuff.”
I started breathing again.
He told me he would finish the piece and work to get it placed in a highly visible outlet. I floated across campus back to my large gray building and my small gray cubicle, exhausted and savoring what I felt was the pinnacle of my early writing career.
I didn’t hear from him about it again. A mammoth proposal effort seemed to swallow up his entire department. The op-ed reached, and passed, its expiration date, probably sitting under a pile of binders on the scientist’s desk. The climate bill languished in the Senate, and finally died. I thought of the staffers who did exponentially more work on the legislation than I had on my precious op-ed. We long for our writing to matter, and often it just doesn’t. As hope for climate legislation was breathing its last, in March 2010, I learned about TWP.
On a flight back from visiting a clinic in rural Kenya, I prepared my application. My own professional trajectory had pretty much followed the progression ASU had chosen for the name of the project. My undergrad was in philosophy, so my early twenties were about thinking. My graduate work was about narrative writing, and the years since had resulted in some quasi-successful attempts at publishing. Through my role at PNNL and my spare-time efforts in the nonprofit sector (including that trip to Kenya), my overarching career goal was to be a communicator of content that matters. TWP was creating new space for just that purpose.
Arriving in Tempe in May 2010, I learned that the TWP crew was a subset of a much larger gathering of thinkers, The Rightful Place of Science, named for the President’s quote. I soon met my scholar-partner, Sonja Schmid, a tall Austrian woman with thick dark hair and fashionable glasses. After earning her PhD at Cornell in science and technology studies, she was an assistant professor at Virginia Tech. We sat together in the hotel’s courtyard, shifting in our bar stools to avoid the direct Arizona sunlight, freaking out about the pitch we were expected to deliver to a panel of world-class editors and agents two hours later. Her expertise was in nuclear reactors and the humans who operate them, especially energy reactors in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. She spoke passionately—but very generally—about her dissertation research in Russia. I asked her to describe the most striking moment from her time there. Like many lay-level readers, I needed a scene to help me understand. She squinted against the sun, quiet, and then gave me one.
Schmid spent a year in Moscow, mostly penned inside musty archival reading rooms. But with a single tape recorder and without a quiet office at her disposal, she also set out to preserve a primary resource that was, and is, dying out. Former dons of the Soviet-era nuclear power program spoke with her on trains and buses, in homes and coffee shops, and over sometimes-obligatory shots of vodka. One of these interviews yielded an image that stuck with her..
Like her other interviewees, “Yuri” had been eager to speak to Schmid, but visibly relieved when she offered not to use his real name. For an elderly Russian nuclear engineer whose Cold War career had comprised stints in both military and civilian reactors, secrecy fell somewhere between a reflex and a superstition.
After two terse hours with her microphone on a desk between them, they shared a cigarette break. They stood in a stairwell, holding cigarettes over the public ashtray, a large metal trash bin painted, rather sternly, the same gray as the walls. Then, in two sentences separated by a narrow downward stream of smoke, Yuri abandoned his technical talking points.
“The reactors are like children; each one is different,” he said, as if suddenly remembering something he had forgotten, the central point. “You come to know their peculiarities by spending time with them; you begin to feel how each reactor breathes.”
This single moment—a man describing his machines—focused our story on a very present issue: the personalities and complexities that surround small modular nuclear reactors, a rising new technology. In academic writing, there had never been an appropriate venue for her to include this scene, but our essay was an opportunity to let it illuminate the murky socio-technical issues shaping our energy systems.
Developing the piece with Sonja and mentoring the next class of writer/scholar partnerships, an overarching truth became clear: this is really hard. Throwing together interdisciplinary strangers and asking them to produce an effective scene-driven essay on a complex topic is a recipe for conflict. But something else became clear: the difficulty is worth it. The writing that comes easiest to us has a nasty habit of being largely ineffectual. In our sleep, writers can dash off blurbs and blogs, and academics can piece together another paper for an esoteric audience. But to wake up and write scenic nonfiction, full of ideas, information, characters, and action is to do something difficult. But it comes with a chance to make an impact.
In the weeks and months after our story “The Little Reactor That Could?” appeared in Issues in Science and Technology, Sonja and I received evidence of impact. Back in my gray cubicle, I remember checking my personal email at lunch to find that we had touched a nerve. One reader, a 30-year-veteran nuclear energy researcher, thanked us for our “delightfully honest” and “spot-on” narrative. He mentioned that a colleague had personally given him a copy of the magazine, and that he would be forwarding it to many colleagues around the country “who could use a dose of humility.” The narrative elements of the story conveyed a healthy skepticism about the salesmanship running rampant around such technologies, and these scenes were vivid enough to get pinged around to inboxes across the research community. As for policymakers, William Ostendorff, the acting head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, contributed a thoughtful response to our article in the magazine’s following issue. Our narrative experiment was something new, but it had made it onto the right radars. In the years since, I have presented about this piece at the Policy Studies Organization’s Dupont Summit and received several requests to submit related work to other conferences and publications. Each time this happens, I forward the request to Sonja, who continues to benefit from the doors our provocative little essay has opened.
Continuing as a mentor, I have only been more convinced of both assertions: that these sorts of partnerships are very difficult and well worth the trouble. Most notably, a recent issue of Creative Nonfiction included a timely and insightful piece about whole genome sequencing from one of the partnerships I oversaw: “A Doctor’s Dilemma” by Joon Ho Yu and Maria Delaney. As a mentor, I recognized my own previous experience as I watched the work develop: frustration giving way to hope. Perhaps a compromise can be made between complex information and vivid scenes, and perhaps this blend is the alchemy behind stories that matter.
The dessert plates had been cleared in that hotel ballroom, the coffee finished. Dirks circled back to his assertion as he neared that end of his talk, now that the room was paying full attention.
“We need narratives of a future we’d like to live in.”
In my notebook from that weekend, the line is repeated and underlined. TWP brought me through a process of learning and practicing and encouraging the discipline of narrative nonfiction about complex, high-stakes topics. I’m hungry for more—to unearth and shed light on the people and ideas tasked with creating a sustainable future. My delusions have subsided—it is difficult for one piece of writing to rise above the noise. But over my career, I will make choices about the projects to pursue, the people to profile, the ideas to capture in scene. In every case, I want these choices to count.
I now serve as director of a program that mentors adolescents and empowers them to seek justice. The writing side of my life continues to include publishing, most recently in fiction, but the stakes have been raised. When I sit at my computer to write, Dirks’s reminder is in my head. Given the complex web of problems our world faces, does this narrative point toward justice? My hope is that the arc of my own career will bend increasingly in that direction.