Life as an Extreme Sport

My Science Story: Narrative and Science, Thoughts on a SciO13 Session

Sitting in the back of a room at Science Online, listening to David Manly and Jeanne GarbarinoWho, by the way, tells an awesome mucus plug story. talk about narrative in science writing, and I find myself disagreeing with just about everything being said here (which is funny, because Scott Huler is disagreeing with everything, too, and yet I disagree with him almost as much as them – I’m just contrarian across the board this morning).

The emphasis – or at least consensus, by the end of the session – is that it’s okay for a scientist to use first-person narrative so long as they don’t let themselves take over the story. Which, and I suppose that this is coming from a humanities background, is a weird thing to hear. It’s like the writing version of the Observer’s Paradox – a notion that “you” can be separate from “story.” And maybe this is where medicine actually comes out ahead (for once), because there is already the idea that narrative matters and that the doctor isn’t separate from the story they are telling.Which, should note, doesn’t mean all doctors believe this. However, doctors who write,…

Why does this matter? Well, some people will argue outreach and accessibility, but honestly? I think it’s because first person narrative humanizes the subject via the author. I’ve had some experience with this, both with the experience of my mother’s cancer and death, and with my own recent cancer scare, and the feedback I’ve receivedAnd I should note that these series typically generated more comments than anything else I’ve ever written, save perhaps when I pissed off the University of Washington pharmacy school, and department,…and most of the pharmacists in Washington state. has almost always been along the line of making it real. Science and medical writing is often very dry and removed, not only from the author but the reader. When the author connects to the story and personalizes it via narrative, the reader has the chance to engage with the author on a personal and human level, which then allows for a different (and at least in my opinion, more genuine) connection to the science within the story.

And there are science writers who excel at this sort of thing. I think Deborah Blum is one of our contemporary success stories, in that she makes chemistry really interesting, and she does so through narrative both personal and otherwise. Her stories of musing about the best way to poison someone over a meal with her husband, and his reaction, makes an immediate connection and draws interest.Or at least it does for me, since I’ve been known to have similar conversations (with just about anyone who will listen, not just my partner).

If you’re not writing a memoir, you do have to be careful to not let “I” overshadow the story that you’re writing. But this doesn’t mean that the “I” should be removed completely, only that you-the-author needs to understand the point of utilizing first person narrative; what’s the goal as you write that story? Are you trying for connection? Are you hoping to personalize a difficult concept? Are you trying to illustrate why something is important? Are you connecting the audience to your story via your found enthusiasm for a topic?

Just like any other literary device, the choice to use first person narrative should actually be a choice designed to enhance your story – be it hard science story or otherwise. In fact, I’d argue that the authorial voice itself is a choice, whether you’re choosing third, first, or even second person narration to get that idea across. And as such, and due to the inherent strength and weakness of each, it should be a conscious choice, regardless of which voice is chosen.