WRITING LIFE “Navel Gazing” for Good by Andrea Askowitz

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After an intense, long weekend of writing workshops, we walked into a brew pub. I was so pumped up, I couldn’t sit down and went around the table bear-hugging each scientist. “How will we be able to tell if Andrea’s drunk?” one said.

“She’ll start hugging everyone,” my writing partner, Allison Langer, said.

We hadn’t ordered the first beer, but I was already drunk on a sense of purpose. We’d been hired by the Center for Ecosystem Science & Society at Northern Arizona University to teach their graduate students how to personalize their science writing.

The center is run by Dr. Bruce Hungate, who studies soil and Dr. Jane C. Marks, who studies rivers. Both are world-renowned ecologists who have been married to each other for 25 years. They’ve dedicated more than 30 years (so far) trying to figure out how to slow global warming. They have great ideas—microbes in soil trap carbon. Algae in water also traps carbon. Getting carbon out of the atmosphere is one solution. Their PhD students have solutions too, which they want to share widely to save the planet. That’s why they hired us.

I started off as an activist. My mom, who’s a fabric artist, was also a women’s libber and I learned young the importance of trying to make the world better for everyone. I was seven the first time my mom took my brother and me to a rally for women’s rights and later the environment. Every election cycle, we walked door-to-door for progressive candidates. If you asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I’d say, “Save the world.”

After college, I spent fifteen years as a reproductive rights advocate and environmentalist. At 35, after the Supreme Court of Florida called the presidential election for George W. Bush, I felt like I was always on the losing team. I gave up on activism and made writing personal stories my full-time gig.

I started writing during a period when I was clinically depressed. Writing was all I could do really. I woke up nightly in a panic. I could barely focus on work. When I shared a story in a writing class during this depression and my classmates seemed to understand, I felt loved. So, I know writing helps people feel connected. And so, for 25 years I’ve enjoyed writing about myself. Now, I teach other people how to write their stories too.

I know the criticism: Personal storytellers are navel gazers. Still, as obnoxious as it sounds, I love navel gazing. Working through a story helps me figure out how I think and why.

I also love editing, which feels like patchwork. Editing requires changing the words and sometimes the order of the words over and over until each sentence says exactly what I want it to say. To me, the simplest sentence is the most beautiful.

But as an activist I’ve had this nagging feeling all these years. Am I wasting my time? The world isn’t saving itself.

Then I met Marks and Hungate. Hungate is a concert pianist and taught me that there are harmonies that repeat in nature, same as in music. He wants everyone to hear these harmonies.

The pair has recognized that the way science is conveyed to the public, and even to other scientists, is daunting and complicated. Because of that, other people don’t hear the music. According to Marks and Hungate, what’s missing is the connection that happens when people tell their personal stories.

Over the last few months via Zoom, then during in-person workshop sessions, Allison and I taught scientists how to navel gaze. We asked emotional, personal questions: What was your biggest failure? When did you want to quit? Why do you do what you do?

Like in every workshop I’ve participated in, students opened up. Some cried. Everyone got vulnerable. Each student wove together their scientific passions with their personal lives. One wrote about how the volcanic eruptions of her alcoholic father solidified her relationship with her sister the same way molten lava settles after it cools. Another wrote about bringing clean water to his grandmother who raised him in a settlement located on the Eastern slopes of Mt. Kenya. Another wrote about asserting herself in the Alaska tundra (and everywhere) as a woman.

Every single story sounded like music.

I’ve always understood the power personal stories have, to connect people. Now—thanks to a reminder from scientists about why writing matters—I see how this power can be applied.

Maybe I haven’t been wasting my time all these years. If scientists can tell their stories the way Lin-Manuel Miranda took a dull history lesson and created “Hamilton,” maybe then more people will hear the music in science. If they do, perhaps they’ll care as passionately as Marks and Hungate. Maybe then, together, we’ll save the world.

Meet the Contributor
Andrea Askowitz is the author of the memoir My Miserable, Lonely, Lesbian Pregnancy. She’s written for The New York Times, Washington Post, Salon, The Rumpus, Huffington Post, Glamour, CNN, and Hippocampus. She’s a writing teacher and the host and producer of the podcast Writing Class Radio.

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