I’m pleased to share that a feature I wrote about Rachel Goclawski, a Worcester county mushroom forager and wild food enthusiast, was published in the winter 2020 issue of Edible Worcester. My favorite part of writing this piece was heading out into the woods with Rachel, learning how to find and identify mushrooms. I also got to take one of her classes, and I can’t recommend them enough. All the links you need are in the article. Enjoy!
No, I didn’t find a kite.
In the photo above, I’m actually holding a throw ball line as Dr. Maya Nehme, a scientist studying Asian longhorned beetles, works to maneuver a heavier rope into the canopy of a tree. Technically, Ellen and I were along to watch Dr. Nehme work, and to gather details for our upcoming book on these gnarly beetles and the damage they are causing here in North America. But there was a moment when Dr. Nehme needed an extra set of hands, and I was nearby. (Thank you, Ellen, for catching it on film!)
Aside from holding the occasional throw ball line, I spent the morning gathering tiny details that will help me describe fieldwork like this in the book. I was hunting for specifics: small ideas, surprising imagery, unusual sounds, things that hadn’t come up during the interview process but which might help make my text come alive for readers. Like the fact that each scientist had his or her own method for getting the throw ball up over a branch. (I saw an underhand toss, an overhand rocket, and a magnificently simple and effective between the legs heave. Who knew?)
And there was this: When you are hanging beetle traps from the branches of trees, you spend most of your time looking up. And do you know what happens when you walk around an urban forest all morning with your eyes looking up? You trip. A lot. I did it, and I saw the scientists do it, too. Nice detail.
My absolute favorite detail of the morning was this one: Before hanging a trap, scientists have to measure the trap tree’s diameter. No big deal, right? Someone simply unfurls a tape measure, wraps it around the trunk, and records the number. But if the tree being measured is just the right size, then recording its diameter requires one to hug the tree, to stretch both arms around the trunk while passing the tape measure from one hand to the other. The sight of a beetle scientist with his arms wrapped around a trunk was poignant and loaded with symbolism; don’t know if I’ll ever use that nugget of an image, but I am certainly glad to have stumbled across it.
Interesting that a post called compression is so overly long. I realized too late that compression is a topic for a BOOK CHAPTER, not a BLOG POST. But I did promise …
Last fall, while researching my citizen science book, I attended three monarch butterfly tagging events. Wonderful things happened at each event, things that I dutifully recorded in my notes so that I could use them when the time came to write the book.
Well, friends, the time has come to write the book.
And so I have been reliving my favorite butterfly tagging moments. One that is tugging particularly hard on my mind is the day I watched a dozen adults and kids hunt for monarchs with naturalist Kristin Steinmetz at Broad Meadow Brook Wildlife Sanctuary…
After a thorough introduction to monarch butterflies and the MonarchWatch tagging program, Kristin led the group of intrepid butterfly hunters to a large open meadow on the property. The milkweed and cow vetch and wild aster there was taller than every kid in the group—and probably a few of the adults. But overgrown wildflowers couldn’t stop these folks. They stood alongside that meadow, butterfly nets in hand, and scanned the weedtops for telltale shimmers of orange-and-black.
“There!” the smallest girl in the group yelled, pointing. And before I had even spotted the butterfly, her dad set out at a sprint with his net raised up over his head. He chased that butterfly on a haphazard flight through the heart of the meadow. When it finally settled on a flower; Dad snagged it with a single, graceful sweep of his net. There were whistles and cheers as he made his way back to the path.
The group watched in awe as Kristen reached into the net, grasped the butterfly by its wings, and slid it ever-so-gently out of the net. As she held the marvelous creature up for all to see, there was much oohing and ahhing. And then, too swiftly, heartbreak:
“I’m sorry,” Kristin said, “but we can’t tag it.”
There was a collective gasp. Then silence.
“This isn’t a monarch butterfly,” Kristin explained, gently. “It’s a viceroy.”
As Kristin tried to convince her charges that their mistake was common, and also a good lesson (mimicry among butterflies is widespread, and monarch watchers must learn to tell the difference between a monarch and a viceroy in order to be successful monarch citizen scientists), I was already scribbling into the margin of my notebook: “Open monarch chapter with this scene?”
In theory, I would still love to open the monarch chapter of my new book with this scene. It has a striking setting, interesting characters, dramatic arc, and important information embedded in its unfolding. Unfortunately, though, a chapter opening with this scene would, in the end, disappoint my readers … because this particular group of monarch hunters didn’t capture or tag a single monarch for the rest of the day!
How can I explore the tagging of monarch butterflies in a chapter that does not include a single successful monarch capture? It can’t be done. How can I include successful monarch captures into a chapter that includes the scene above? Well, that can be done, but only by resorting to compression …
Compression, in the writing world, is the act of combining several temporally distinct events into a single, seamless whole. If I were to simply include the mistaken identity scene above in a chapter that includes a dramatic rendering of another, more successful monarch tagging event, I will have compressed two events into one. If I were careful, the reader would never suspect the events happened on different days.
Legal? Well, yes, actually. Compression is a legitimate authorial tool for managing chronology and pacing in a work of nonfiction.
Honest? Um, well, no. Not really. And I can’t swallow the idea that duping readers in the name of their literary pleasure is okay. At least not when your readers are twelve.
There is a great essay on Compression in KEEP IT REAL, the book I recommended last week. It’s worth a read. It concludes, based on the experiences of one writer who chose to compress material in her work, that “compression may often be a sound choice artistically, [but] it is also rife with danger.”
I am not generally a girl who digs danger. Nope. Not me. But I do love a challenge. I know there is a way to share my tagging experiences in a chapter that is both intriguing AND accurate. I just have to find it …
KEEP IT REAL:
Everything You Need to Know About Researching and Writing Creative Nonfiction
Edited by Lee Gutkind and Hattie Fletcher
I am a very instinctual writer. The choices I make in my manuscripts are not based on academic training in the language arts, which I’ve never had, but rather a lifetime of immersion in well-told stories … and the resulting sense of what works and what doesn’t. With each book I create, however, I sink a little deeper into the technical side of the writing process. I find myself wondering how one choice worked and why this other choice didn’t. I analyze the creative nonfiction of writers I admire and try to reason out their choices. With my latest project, a book on citizen science, I’ve even found myself wondering about the legal implications of my authorial choices.
What is creative nonfiction? According to the authors of KEEP IT REAL:
The word “creative” refers simply to the use of literary craft in presenting nonfiction–that is, factually accurate prose about real people and events–in a compelling, vivid manner.
It is a form distinct from journalism, textbook writing, and other more straightforward reportage of facts. Its practitioners, according to the book “have a complicated obligation to their readers: to entertain like novelists but to educate like journalists.” There are dilemmas that arise when one is attempting to fulfill this obligation, and the collection of essays in KEEP IT REAL examines them. From acknowledgment of sources to compression to fact-checking to frame, readers get a concise overview of the artistic, ethical, and sometimes even legal implications of the choices creative nonfiction writers make.
I don’t know if KEEP IT REAL truly contains everything one needs to know in order to research and write creative nonfiction, but there is enough good stuff there for me to wholeheartedly recommend the book to others in the genre. It’s the sort of book I will turn to again and again as I puzzle through my writing projects. In fact, I plan to puzzle through the issue of compression with you here later in the week …
My friend Kate Messner recently compared the process of revising a book to the metamorphosis of a monarch caterpillar. Revise, revise, revise. (Chew, chew, chew.) Revise again, again, again. (Chew more, more, more.) Rest. (Pupate.) Presto! What was once a small, new creation is reborn as a brilliant, eye-popping butterfly. Or novel.
Me? I need to hang out with Kate more. Because today, I felt more like this:
Did you ever have a day like that? A day when your work-in-progress is not eye-popping but, well, a bit ragged around the edges? Just a bit?
Yes, well, then you know what I mean. This writing thing is not for the faint of heart. The good news is that this butterfly is a friend of mine. I spent several hours following him around my backyard on Monday, and I can tell you this: he can still fly. He was as spunky and fritillary as his companions, chewed-up wings and all. He was ragged and rugged. Not whole, surely, but unique. And beautiful. Very, very beautiful.
There is not much we writers can do, I suppose, but wake up every day and keep flying …