Donna Seaman’s “Turning out the lights just isn’t going to do it” in Creative Nonfiction
In the movie Bang the Drum Slowly, there’s a card game called “The Exciting Game without Any Rules,” and I think that’s a good description of writing in general. It’s true of nonfiction writing in the sense that you are at the mercy of events. You go out, and you have to hope that you see something or that something happens which will make a good story. And you can’t make this stuff up. And when it doesn’t work out, it’s terrifying.
Elizabeth Kolbert—an environmental writer focused on global warming and a regular contributor to The New Yorker—responds to Donna Seaman’s questions regarding process, the environment, and the art of writing science in what amounts to be an exceptionally interesting conversation. Seaman focuses her questions primarily on Kolbert’s most recent book, The Sixth Extinction, and the very best parts of this interview come in their discussions of writing and Kolbert’s approach to science.
As a non-scientist—she holds a degree in German Literature—Kolbert acts as an intermediary between climatologists and the general public, making sense of climate degradation and turning it into something we can all understand. She approaches this as an art form, stating: “I often do describe myself as a translator; that’s how I see my role” and emphasizing the importance of the public’s acknowledgement of global climate change.
Kolbert doesn’t have the answers to our shared problem, but that’s why her interview is so honest—and why Seaman does such a nice job of interviewing her. Ultimately, this interview makes me consider not just the moral obligations of writing about the environment, but the role of environmental writers themselves, and the process of translation. In a way, Kolbert translates life or death information in an attempt to reach an audience that is, sadly and in many ways, ambivalent.–Andrea
Dinah Lenney’s “Cell Phone Diaries” in the Los Angeles Review of Books
On the surface, Lenney’s essay is about cell phone etiquette. But really, it’s about voice. A writer’s voice. Lenney, an actress and a writer by training, is queen of voice, and writers should pay attention. Here are lines that you can almost—with the teeniest bit of effort—hear. This first one comes from a section where she imagines having a drink with a friend at a wine bar in L.A., when the friend pulls our her cell:
It’s all I can do not to let my eyes stray to your screen. In which case, I can only assume — does this makes sense, please? — that I’m the one with bad manners.
The context for this next line is a public bathroom, where Lenney overhears a woman in the next stall talking about a loved one’s funeral. Here, the intimacy of the flush mirrors the intimacy of the phone call, and those two very private moments contrast with the embarassingly public setting:
So tragic, you say. And then: She found him, poor thing…. Oh I know, all those flowers… His sister sang, don’t know how she got through it… Me too, I hate an open casket — wait a sec: a metallic hiccup; then another — my god, are you wiping? Have you put the phone down so you can wipe? And what about me: should I flush, or should I wait, or — or what should I do?
We’ve all had the experience of overhearing another person’s most intimate moments with another person in public. The blurring of public and private has long been a topic of anxiety in industrialized cultures. During the French Revolution, women sat knitting while their aristocratic neighbors had their heads guillotined. But the intimate distance of the cell phone makes the blend of public and private more elusive and therefore more frustrating. As Lenney points out, we hear about a person’s loss, but we don’t actually hear that person or see her. In the midst of such dire but ghostly communication, Lenney is right to ask: what should we do? —D.J.
Ryann Liebenthal’s “Boise, Idaho” in n+1
I’ve been a fan of n+1’s City by City series since its inception several years ago – its blend of personal history, historical narrative, and snark-inflected exposition makes for a particularly enticing nonfiction cocktail for the place-obsessed writer – and this is one of my favorites. Liebenthal’s piece contains the usual elements, starting out with history (“Indian trouble,” Ore-Ida frozen foods and “the house the frozen French fry built,” and finally printers, microchips, and suburbs), dipping into the personal, and then asking and addressing a larger question: “How does a town, a fairly square town, producer of printers and microchips, come to develop a ‘scene’?” The answer involves Richard Florida, Whole Foods, a handful of committed local citizens, a number of returnees from Brooklyn, and a music festival. Boise’s story, with its tensions between Trader Joe’s and artisanal French fry carts, between multiplex cinemas and turret-like treeforts, acts as the story of what Liebenthal labels “manageable little anthills of aesthetic and cultural kinship” (Portland, Austin, Asheville) around the country. But behind Boise’s story is Liebenthal’s, which saves the former from predictable snark and condescension with a lingering sadness, nowhere conveyed better than in this moment, in which Liebenthal captures the at once selfish, humble, and arrogant need to preserve our hometowns for ourselves: “In New York I hold a tiny claim to a seven- by thirteen-foot bedroom and the view of the skyline I can access from my roof. But I still want to believe that in Boise everything belongs to me.” –Sarah