February workshop report: Using ourselves as characters to help audiences explore the unknown in science

Lecturing at an audience and just "explaining the science" isn't always the most effective way to communicate. An alternative approach that's often recommended is using a personal story to connect with an audience first. Even better, if a scientist or writer can present themselves as a relatable human being, they may have a better chance at engaging the public.

That sounds good, but how exactly should we do this, and what opportunities then arise? What makes us "relatable" as people, or even interesting to audiences at all? There is much to learn for science communicators here from the literary arts.

Perhaps one of the best tutorials written on these questions comes from the contemporary American essayist Phillip Lopate, a professor in the Columbia University fine arts writing program in New York City—the program that co-founded the original NeuWrite science-writing workshop.

In a legendary essay titled "On the Necessity of Turning Oneself Into a Character", Lopate says to "acquire some distance from yourself":

The mistake many beginning essayists make is to try so hard to be likable and nice, to fit in, that the reader ... gets bored. ... The irony is that most of us suspect—no, we know—that underneath it all we are common as dirt. But we may still need to maximize that pitiful set of quirks, those small differences that seem to set us apart from others, and project them theatrically. ... In order to turn ourselves into characters, we need to dramatize ourselves. ... You need to cut away the inessentials, and highlight just those features in your personality that lead to the most intense contradictions or ambivalence. ... Without conflict, your essay will drift into static mode, repeating your initial observation in a self-satisfied way. What gives an essay dynamism is the need to work out some problem, especially a problem that is not easily resolved. Fortunately, human beings are conflicted animals, so there is no shortage of tensions that won't go away. The proper [approach] ... is not being pleased with oneself ... but being curious about oneself.

Thus as communicators, we may make the mistake of trying to be "relatable" by showing the audience that we are confident, expert, and friendly. But what Lopate is suggesting, instead, is that we show that we are humble, curious, and confused—in an interesting way. This can be a much more powerful method for using yourself as a character, because it helps lower the defenses of an audience and makes them want to follow you into your story.

At our February workshop, we read and discussed an example of this approach in a piece of literary science writing called "Whale Fall" by Rebecca Giggs, published in the journal Granta. What's particularly notable about Giggs's use of herself as a character is that we learn almost nothing about her in terms of personal facts. And yet by watching her ambivalence evolve through the prolonged spectacle of a whale's death, we are drawn into a profound and vivid drama that also becomes a fascinating journey through the knowns and unknowns of cetacean science.

Giggs's encounter with the whale, and the way she opens her senses and intellect to the experience, was the perfect companion text to a draft text by a NeuWrite Nordic participant that we workshopped next. This draft text explored the theme of strangers listening to each other in dialogue as a form of non-analytic exploration and knowing. Like Giggs, the author in this text also appeared as a character. In both texts the authors, by turning themselves into characters in the way Lopate describes, were able to act as foils and guides, leading us through explorations of what we do and don't know. Often, by using ourselves as characters this way, we can free ourselves as writers to construct a narrative, and entertain certain questions, that might otherwise not be possible.

From our workshop discussions of both texts, a key insight that emerged was the importance of listening—literally and metaphorically. For both scientists and writers, being able to achieve a calm state of observation and openness can be the key to innovative scientific insights and creative ideas for writing. It can also help us notice those quirks about ourselves that might even make us interesting characters.

Paradoxically, that calm inner state of listening, though, arises from engaging ourselves and the world in dialogue—as all scientists and writers do. The text we workshopped referenced the words of the philosopher Martin Buber on how dialogue can enable the deepest kind of listening:

In dialogue there is no greed, no anticipation, no prior knowledge or imagination of what the other might be. No history, no future, just a presence that confronts us, waiting and enduring, and reciprocity that extends beyond the ones who meet.

—Trevor Corson

Resources & references

The following came up in our discussion or were relevant to the workshop texts or theme:

Image: sm wizard, Vecteezy

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