Finding my narrative voice

Beltane intern reflects on the ‘Nonfiction for Science — Imaginative Approaches to Science Writing’ workshop

On Monday 24th June 2013, Barbara Melville introduced me to the art of nonfiction science writing. I attended the ‘Nonfiction for Science — Imaginative Approaches to Science Writing’ workshop with the intention of gaining a better understanding of the types of workshops that Beltane offers. I was slightly wary that, being a student of International Relations, the workshop would not be especially relevant to the type of writing that I regularly do.

The first breakout session challenged us to draft a piece of writing on an area of science that we were passionate about. Here, I attempted to translate my interest in ecological economics and the value of natural capital into a narrative, nonfiction piece of writing. Admittedly, it was a struggle. I’m incredibly passionate about the need to reconfigure the current global economic model and the resulting writing was a jumble of my enthusiastic sentiments and frustrations. The scientific, nonfiction aspect was undoubtedly lacking. I was drawn into the imagery of our culture of consumption and my writing lacked any real basis in fact.

Not only did I lose myself in the flowery language, my writing was not approachable. It was somewhat combative and biased. Rather than get too lost in my passion for transforming economic models, nonfiction writing must be based in truth and provide the reader with a clearer understanding of a often complex topic. On reflection, I realise that writing with a highly antagonistic voice is not necessarily the most appropriate way to call my publics to action.

creative science writing must be natural, combining the personal with the impersonal, i.e. the science with a narrative voice

The drafting process explored during the workshop was highly effective. It encouraged me to throw my thoughts on paper without punishment and allowed me to reflect as I have done. Ultimately, creative science writing must be natural, combining the personal with the impersonal, i.e. the science with a narrative voice. I rarely have the opportunity to personalise my writing and this was a wonderful exercise in finding my narrative voice.

For the past year, I have been writing about climate justice — multi-stakeholder responses to climate change which encompass development, security, and human rights approaches — for the University of Edinburgh’s Sustainability Office student webpage, Initially, I had no idea where to start with this blog-style writing. In each piece that I’ve written, I have found it challenging to translate climate justice to an audience of students in a way that diverges from academic writing. While I didn’t attend the workshop with the desire to improve my writing for OurEd, I’m pleased to say that I’ve taken away the beginnings of my own narrative voice and useful tips from improvement.

Since the workshop, I’ve redrafted a portion of my writing. I still have some major concerns, but compared to my first draft, my redrafted piece has…

  1. Some semblance of a narrative voice.

  2. A clearer depiction of the economics of over-consumption and lack of value placed on natural capital — albeit in a very flowery, wordy way.

That being said, moving forward I will pay close attention to a few of Barbara’s suggestions.

  1. I plan to incorporate statistics. Often people trust statistics to relay information better than a solely narrative account. The inclusion of a few stats could improve the reliability of my writing.

  2. I hope to further embed my voice in my writing. It is important to consider how much of myself I want to include in the writing. At the moment, my voice is very passive and quite impersonal.

  3. I will consider further whether or not this piece is a call to action of just informative? Since I regard my writing as primarily a call to action, am I providing readers with a piece that inspires them to act? Initially my writing was quite combative. Generalisations can make it challenging to gain support from a varied audience. It needs to be clear that plenty of people are acting to combat the overuse of resources. Also, if it is a call to action, do people have enough information about natural capital?

  4. Finally, I should question whether or not I’m meeting the needs of my chosen audience. This writing may be better suited to my personal blog than to something like OurEd.

I still have a long long way to go, but here is a sample of some of my writing thus far…

The streets are paved with gold, caressing our jaunty steps down High Street and reminding us with subsequent steps that we created all of this; this is ours. The internet buzzes softly in the ether and the low hum of central heating persists unseen, comforting our day-to-day interactions. Clever technologies for converting sands to petrol crowd our media bubbles. The thought of driving without end on the open road, toying with but never reaching the horizon, attracts us. We are the empowered race and only our imaginations limit us.

But as walls, malls and markets progressively crumble around us, we remain unaware. Miles of wasteland – silence. The only inkling of a noise is the vacuous hum of our technologies. People dressed to the 9s in impeccably-pressed suits scurry without a sound. There is no space for genuine noise as all energy is diverted to pushing and prodding the contrived graphs on Wall Street. Speculation serves as the imposter for a vibrant natural soundscape.

Our interactions are detached from reality. We lose ourselves in the prospects of consuming. We absorb the life purpose of our markets, and our markets depend on ceaseless growth. We distance ourselves from the void that envelopes us. The vacuous noise of overconsumption drowns our dreams and dictates our interactions with the environment. This artificial environment that has forgotten its dependency on nature.

It is an affront to our character to look back. Thus we are inclined to ignore our path to the costly demolition of the natural world. Progress requires forward movement and so we march on. We are in denial. Wilderness persists in our minds as something over there, in the unreachable distance. Are we incapable of recognising our contributions to, what Paul Gilding describes as, the impending “Great Disruption”?

No, not incapable, but we must insist on regression to an earlier state of mind. We must resist our tendencies, step back and take stock. Rather than adding up currencies and financial investment projections, what then do we count?

The possibility for relentless growth of markets depends on natural capital and this capital lacks official value. Do bees become the new currency? Must we trade bees for trees?


For more on Barbara Melville:

Workshop description available here: