Wednesday, March 5, 2008

I Write What I Am

If I think of my life as a story, one of the advantages of advanced years is that I got to see how I turned out. Upon reflection I can figure out how various factors and events contributed to the making of the person that I am today. There are not many authors of nonfiction science books for children around. It is certainly not a career path many would follow, nor is it a get-rich-quick scheme. Yet in 1979 I made a conscious and deliberate decision to make it my vocation despite the fact that I was a single mother of two young boys with only $300 a month in child support (which didn’t go very far even then). I had been a science researcher, a junior high science teacher, a network television news-writer, a stringer for a national magazine, and did a stint in public relations. I also had a dozen books to my credit (including Science Experiments You Can Eat) and 23 half-hour episodes of my own cable TV show, “The Science Game.” I knew I could earn money doing a lot of things but I thought that if I wrote science books for children I could be distinctive. Besides, I could do it from home and be there for my kids. So despite many nay-sayers who told me I couldn’t support a family with such a career, that is what I chose. How it all led to where I am today is due to a number of threads in my life. I have some understanding of their origins.

My interest in learning was fostered by my elementary school, The Little Red School House in Greenwich Village, Manhattan. It was, and still is, progressive education at its best. The emphasis was on experiential learning—discovering through making, building, experimenting, and then transforming the lessons into expressive works—writing and art. Its mission is to produce life-long learners. Here I am!

My interest in science comes from my insecurities about being an authority on anything. When I was young I believed that my opinion was of no importance. I only felt certain about what I had experienced myself and that experience was limited. I am a very literal person, only coming to understand nuances of the human condition as expressed in literature when I got some biography myself. But science is a way of sharing experiences. If you ask a scientist, “How do you know?” A scientist can say, “This is what I did. If you do what I did, you’ll know what I know.” I could trust the authority of science and as a result I could speak about science with conviction. Besides, I loved to make discoveries and science was wide open to that.

My productivity stems from financial necessity. If I had married the kind of man my mother wanted for me (like my present husband) I would not have had this amazing career. Once, when an editor who had promised me a series got fired, I broke out in hives wondering how I would pay the rent. There was a period when I had no medical insurance for me or my kids. I would peruse the NY Times want ads to reassure myself I could always bail out and get a job. Then I’d decide to hang in there one more week. I expanded into school visits, teacher in-services, and other forms of paid public speaking. I turned nothing down. Even today my moods are still very much tied to my cash-flow situation—my version of post-traumatic shock syndrome.

Every writer struggles to develop a “voice”—language that communicates the author’s humanity underlying the content of the work. In developing my voice I had to fight a tradition in nonfiction that stemmed from a very male and authoritarian culture. When writing about the real world (particularly science), the author had to be distant and dispassionate (translate: “dry”). The information was to be communicated from the real world to the reader untouched by wit or the human heart. But I’m female and a teacher. Read Deborah Tannen’s book, You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. She claims that women converse to create community, while men treat conversation as a competition. (A good example of the latter is “Crossfire” on TV.) My enthusiasm for my subject was evident to my students when I was in the classroom. My job as a writer is to bring that enthusiasm to my readers through the written word. I figured that if I were bored when I wrote, my readers would be bored while reading. So I began bringing an irreverent tone and a little humor to my work. “Not so fast,” said some editors. And so, the battle began.

To this day, there are occasions when I have to “splain,” as Desi Arnaz would say, what I’m doing to my editors. (Such an explanation is on my website where I analyze two recent books: I See Myself and I Fall Down:
My books are not just about facts and ideas but include my excitement and enthusiasm for these facts and ideas. Slowly, my books have gained acceptance and I have even won some awards. A part of me is astonished at my success. My generation of women was brought up to think that men were authorities; they knew more than we did. Who could possibly be interested in my opinion on anything? When I got the galleys for my first book in 1969, I gazed at my name in print for hours. Now, almost forty years later, I have no problem saying what I think. So here it is. I hope you found it interesting.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting. And I think it is important that these stories of real career paths get told. We ask teenagers to choose careers and make educational and other choices to get there without giving them any real understanding of how complicated most of our career paths are. Yes, they can be difficult and financially precarious at times. But also rewarding. That comes through strongly in your story. Thanks for sharing it.

Gretchen Woelfle said...

Brava, Vicki -- for your books and for your story!