Why I Write
Advise and Consent was published in August of 1959. As soon as it arrived in my household, I read it.
I remember my aunt seeing me with the book.
“You’re not letting her read that?”
“She won’t understand it,” my mother answered.
I was annoyed. At the age of 9, I felt plenty capable.
Allen Drury’s Pulitzer-Prize-winner was a compelling page-turner. Much more interesting than Nancy Drew. The manipulation of power by all those musty old Washington men hypnotized me. (But my mother was right: While I understood that some of these politicians were incarnations of evil, I did not understand the gist of the work at all – that one poor man was vulnerable to blackmail because of his homosexuality. In my protected Baptist world, I knew nothing of sex, let alone homosexuality.)
* * *
From then on, it was taken for granted that I would one day be somehow involved in the public process.
When I was 16, the local League of Women Voters announced a writing contest: Essays from high school students examining the conflicts created by the duty of citizens to dissent and the duty of citizens to obey the law. This was a timely question in the 1960s, both because the world was just then learning the full extent of the Nazi Holocaust and because of violence in the segregated American South.
I hated writing then. It interfered with my boyfriend activities, my social opportunities, my fun with horses, and lots of other stuff. I usually cried for about an hour before sitting down to write a school assignment.
But the League had asked an interesting question. With no drama at all, I wrote down my ideas.
I won. I remember – then with consternation but now with great satisfaction – how angry the boys were: How dare a girl have a good idea.
I was paid $50 for my 15 minutes of effort. Minimum wage was then a little more than $1 an hour.
This made an impression: Write things. Get money.
* * *
In my high school junior year, I was accepted into the first class of women allowed to attend Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. There were ten of us. We were an experiment and were to live in nursing dorms. In those days, females had curfews, co-ed dorms were non-existent, and there was no question of having an apartment. Not being in by 10 meant I would be thrown out of school. This was fine with me. All I wanted was Georgetown and D.C.
Just before graduation, a letter came: Georgetown would love to have me but I could not have a scholarship. That money was for males only.
My father, an unemployed genius and volatile alcoholic, cried.
My mother took action. She organized my acceptance to George Washington University as well as an entire scholarship package.
Off to Washington after all.
I arrived in 1968. Tear gas flowed on the GW campus. Tens of thousands of anti-war marchers slept on the dormitory floors. I was right in the middle of the chaos. I even ended up on the David Susskind television show following Woodstock. “Rock, Pot and Sex: They Blew Their Minds at Woodstock” purported to show groupies who followed their idols. I was supposed to be one of those. I did not do drugs, however, as they interfered with my reading, The only music idol I had was Mary Travers, whose hair I very much admired. My sole verbal contribution: “Oh wow!”
By 1971 my mother had had enough. I was sent to school in Vermont, where she imagined I would be safe. At the end of my stint there, I was supposed to write a major paper.
I did not. I was having way too much fun.
My father, flush for once, offered me $300 a month for 3 months if I would finish my writing.
The lesson I had learned at 16 re-surfaced: Write things. Get money. I wrote the paper, got my degree, paid my rent, had more fun.
* * *
I joined Peace Corps and went to Senegal, West Africa. I was an English teacher in a kind of junior college in Dakar, the capital city.
Had I not gone to Africa, I suspect I would not have become a writer. Africa broke my heart. I came from a lower middle class family but had never seen such desolation, despair, death. Resigned mothers sitting by road sides with dying babies, accepting their fates. Children with worm-bloated stomachs. Dead animals rotting by roadsides….Sometimes I had trouble breathing in the midst of such sadness.
Senegal is a desert country and to go anywhere as a Peace Corps volunteer (i.e., someone with almost no money), you have to spend long hours in very hot vehicles moving sometimes at tortoise speeds, wedged tightly between substantial and quite formidable market women. The last thing that they wanted was me bothering them. The last thing I wanted was to have them annoyed with me.
I escaped by sitting very still and delving deeply into my own thoughts. For the first time in my life, I began willingly writing sentences in my head. It was a way of creating an arms-length distance from a world I could not process. I learned that sentences could embrace chaos and create at least a semblance of order.
These sentences found their way into letters home: This is what I saw. And so it was acknowledged that I would become a writer. No longer an academic chore or a way to wring money out of my father, writing became a way to explain to people some of the worlds they themselves might never get to experience.
Writing became a passion. And, eventually, a habit. Ultimately, creating sentences and paragraphs and “stories” became a way of life.
Returning from Africa, I got my first job in journalism. Today, nearly 40 years later, I can’t imagine anything else as satisfying. Journalism provides a perfect excuse to call people up and wedge into their lives, to ask them questions and find out why they do what they do and why they think what they think.
Journalism completes me.
* * *
As a daily news reporter, I won lots of prizes – ranging from an award from the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children to a first prize for investigative reporting.
But the project that satisfied me most during that period of my life never won a formal prize. It was never submitted for one. A Tennessee-based nursing home corporation had begun buying Massachusetts properties. Once acquired, that corporation severely neglected patient care. I interviewed many people and checked nursing home records from many other states. A pattern of negligence was obvious.
After months of research, my seven-part series ran. Copies were carried by local politicians to the Massachusetts State House. The corporation was thrown out of the state, which then began a long downward spiral. This eventually ended in the dissolution of their business.
* * *
Since then, I have published seven books.
I have also freelanced for newspapers and magazines across the country and around the world. A story I wrote about a cane carver in Senegal’s Sahel wound up on the front page of the Christian Science Monitor. A series I wrote about climate change in the Sahel ran on the front pages of the Baltimore Sun and on the inside pages of many other newspapers. Other stories I wrote ended up on the front pages of newspapers like the Boston Globe. I wrote frequently for the Boston Herald travel pages. I wrote for Audubon, for National and International Wildlife, for Scientific American, for Africa magazine, for Animals, for Ladies Home Journal, and so on and so forth. One column I wrote ended up in the Wall Street Journal, while another ended up in the New York Times. Since these two New York City publications are considered rivals, I figured I was doing my job right by being balanced.
* * *
Eventually, I began to concentrate solely on books.
The first was The Power Within: True Stories of Exceptional Cancer Patients Who Fought Back with Hope. “Powerful and exceptionally well-done,” wrote Kirkus Reviews. “Few things are more important to cancer patients than realistic hope,” wrote Norman Cousins, and that the book “provides an important public service by furnishing the evidence to support such hope.” (Cousins was a renowned author, editor, and global peacemaker. I couldn’t believe that he would write something so nice about my small entry into the book world.)
Next came several guidebooks that explained where to find the marvelous paved bike paths then beginning to be built. In the pre-internet age, such books were the only way, other than by word of mouth, to find these sublime little gems.
In the early 1990s, an energy entrepreneur proposed the construction of a very large wind turbine project for waters off the southern coast of Cape Cod, where I lived. Wind energy then was a fairly new thing in the United States. Very much aware of the cultural and environmental damage done in Africa by global oil companies, I attended local meetings to learn about this innovative technology.
But something was wrong. Typically, project proposals get certain kinds of information-based hearings, particularly if they are innovative. Officials usually seek greater understanding of the new technology. In Cape Wind’s case, this never occurred. Instead, an inner group of wealthy people opposed to wind energy began perpetrating fake news. From day one, the reception was belligerent. The little local newspaper, whose publisher lived in a wealthy shoreline town, was publishing highly emotive screeds, complete with half-page art showing desperate seals clinging to the bases of the wind turbines. (Evidence shows that seals are not harmed by wind turbines.)
I followed this story for The Providence Journal for several years. Some of my columns were signed; some were editorials. Together with editorial page editor Robert Whitcomb, I brought awareness of this manipulation of information to the national level.
I did not do this because I believed the project should have been built. Truly, I could see both sides of the story. I did it because I believe in democracy. Much of the anti-wind farm outcry came from money emanating from the highly polluting fossil fuel industry via their politicians, who had shoreline summer homes. As a journalist I felt it my duty to speak out.
The resulting book – Cape Wind: Money, Celebrity, Energy, Class, Politics and the Battle for Our Energy Future – was widely praised. I appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and participated in radio programs like The Diane Rehm Show.
The Wall Street Journal called the book “breezy and informative.” Booklist called it “a well-reported assessment of democracy manipulated by powerful federal, state and local insiders.” It was said to be a “genuine page-turner” by the Boston Globe.
Of course, not everyone liked the book. It’s part of the journalism game that some people will be upset when you let the sun shine brightly on a hot-button subject.
When the team from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart showed up to film a spot about the book, an angry couple approached me.
“We hate your book! We hate your book!” they yelled at me. “Why did you write that book?”
By then I had learned.
“What part of the book did you hate the most?” I asked helpfully.
“None of it,” they answered. “We didn’t read it. We’re not going to read such a book.”
But Jason Jones and the film crew were shocked.
After that, I wanted a vacation from politics for a while. I wrote two science books – Kraken: The Curious, Exciting and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid, and The Horse: The Epic History of Our Noble Companion – about which many kind things have been said. Kraken was widely reviewed, both in Europe and in the United States. My favorite comment, however, appeared on a blog by a European writer. He had given the book to a young friend with cancer. She told him that the book gave her hope and brought her understanding. It was one of the last books she ever read.
The Horse was named one of the Year’s Ten Best Non-Fiction Books by the Wall Street Journal and received an enthusiastic review by anthropologist Pat Shipman. It was on the New York Times best-seller list for a while, was translated into Russian, received a Nautilus Book Award, was published in Britain, received special notice from the Massachusetts Center for the Book, was popular in Australia, and so on. NPR’s Scott Simon interviewed me, which I very much enjoyed. He is an ineffably kind, caring man.
Since then, I have been working on my new book: The Language of Butterflies: How Thieves, Hoarders, Scientists, and Other Obsessives Unlocked the Secrets of the World’s Favorite Insect. It will be published by Simon and Schuster in May 2020. I had fun writing it.
These last three books emphasize the deep and essential connections between human beings and the rest of the natural world. We all live in context: We cannot survive on our own. We are products of the land on which we live, which is a product of deep tectonic convulsions, which is a product of our universe’s restless atoms… I learned this during my earliest days in Africa, and have learned it over and over again since then.
Another way of saying this is that “We are Stardust. We are Golden. And we have to get back to The Garden.”