"Write a blog post that took weeks of reflection before you heard the inner voice that needed to come out." -- Jaron Lanier, You are Not a Gadget*
Last Tuesday, at 1:27 pm, I got rejected from a summer science communication internship. Three hours and 12 minutes later I got rejected from another. (The first was in the Eastern time zone, the second Pacific, so really they were within 12 minutes.) Both were from federal agencies, and both gave ostensibly the same reason: they decided to go with someone who had more of a science background in each respective field (ecology, atmospheric chemistry).
Granted I was tired, and getting rejected serves to sour an already foul mood, but this had more of a puckering effect than usual. Let’s assume that each job was truthful in their reasons for rejection (and this wasn’t the workplace version of “I think we'd be better off as friends” or "Well, he/she has a great personality..."). It raises a critical question for my career aspirations: does someone need to be an expert in a field to write about it?
I just read an excerpt from John McPhee's profile of Bill Bradley. It was amazing. Instead of describing its amazingness (I'm no John McPhee...yet), here's one of my favorite passages:
Last summer, the floor of the Princeton gym was being resurfaced, so Bradley had to put in several practice sessions at the Lawrenceville School. His first afternoon at Lawrenceville, he began by shooting fourteen-foot jump shots from the right side. He got off to a bad start, and he kept missing them. Six in a row hit the back rim of the basket and bounced out. He stopped, looked discomfited, and seemed to be making an adjustment in his mind. Then he went up for another jump shot from the same spot and hit it cleanly. Four more shots went in without a miss, and then he paused and said, "You want to know something? That basket is about an inch and a half low." Some weeks later I went back to Lawrenceville with a steel tape, borrowed a stepladder, and measured the height of the basket. It was nine feet ten and seven-eights inches above the floor, or one and one-eight inches too low. [From The John McPhee Reader, page 7]
What I love about this passage is that you don't have to know much about basketball to know what McPhee is trying to tell you about how Bradley approaches the game. You don't have to know anything, actually. But if you do know a lot about basketball, it is still fascinating.
Would you rather have had McPhee write it – someone who is knowledgeable about the sport, but hasn’t devoted his entire life and career to it – or say, a basketball coach, who may have more expertise in the game but isn’t as great a writer or journalist? I think it’s obvious what my answer would be. What do you think?
And why, exactly, is McPhee the right choice?
McPhee can always go ask the top basketball coaches what they think of Bradley’s style of play, his understanding of the sport, his contributions to the game (which he did). But could a basketball expert ask someone to help him write? Going past that, McPhee's art doesn't just come from his skills as a writer: It comes from his skills as an observer and a thinker.
My whole life I’ve felt I’m too much of a scientist to be a writer or too much of a writer to be a scientist. So what does a misfit like me do? Outwardly, I came back to school to write about science and the environment. But I really came to construct thoughtful narratives with beautiful storytelling. I came because of writer-thinker-observers like John McPhee, Elizabeth Kolbert, Robert Sullivan and Jonah Lehrer. I came because I believe that storytellers – journalists, writers, reporters, whatever you want to call them – do an invaluable service for the world. They listen to noise, sift through the cacophony, and pump out coherence. They take in chaos and turn out meaning. By doing that they aren't just translating facts from one medium to another: They are creating something new.
You could argue that scientists do the same thing: The chaos is the universe at large, the meaning is our (empirically proven) body of knowledge. But they go about it very differently. Scientists design a question, a hypothesis and, often, a manufactured test to cull meaning from chaos. Journalists aren't taught a rigid methodology. They set out a wide net, collecting everything they can, and then organically (holistically?) – often without a conscious process – turn that information into a story. They add some sort of hierarchy to the information, assign it value and meaning and context. The process is not as proscribed, but also it is not as narrow. I’m not going to say one is better than the other, but these different approaches yield different results. And the world needs both of them.
Federal agencies that rhyme with eepeeyay and enpeeyes only need the former, apparently. :) Just joshing! I still have a whole lotta love, despite my dark and dirty moments of rejection.
*27 pages into Jaron Lanier's book, I have to confess that I don't know what he's talking about half the time, but I do know that I like it. This is part one in a series I've been working on in my brain and in my scribbles and in my ENVS5100 weekly one-pagers about science and culture and other woo-woo-goodness. At first I felt bad about taking too much time to mull over all these thoughts jousting in my head, but Lanier has given me an excuse to keep mulling for a while, in the name of a rebellion against the prevailing internet singularity (or something).
This post brought to you by: Ska Brewing Co.'s masterpiece, Modus Hoperandi; the Conference on World Affairs; John McPhee and Bill Bradley; my science and technology policy class, ENVS5100.