So I'm re-reading John Steinbeck's The Log from the Sea of Cortez. I read it at least once a year. And for my sins, I do have a rather Steinbeckian world view. Mostly, though I read him because I love his voice. I just can't stand the way he breaks my heart. I've never recovered from the trauma of reading "The Red Pony" in junior high school. What kind of sadist assigns that story to seventh graders anyway? I had nightmares about those buzzards for years.
As usual, I digress. The Log has plenty of its own heartbreaking moments, but for the most part it is a great model in not only writing about science, but also using science -- and experience -- to open up broader themes and thinking. And how, with a little bit of work, every story can be more than the sum of its parts.
I copied out the passage below years ago and it has long served as an excellent reminder of the value of experience, as well as its limitations, for writers who deal in non-fiction, which despite what your third grade teacher may have told you, is not necessarily synonymous with "truth."
For example, the Mexican sierra [a fish] has "XVII-15-IX" spines in the dorsal fin. These can easily be counted. But if the sierra strikes hard on the line so that our hands are burned, if the fish sounds and nearly escapes and finally comes in over the rail, his colors pulsing and his tail beating the air, a whole new relational externality has come into being -- an entity which is more than the sum of the fish plus the fisherman.
The only way to count the spines of the sierra unaffected by this second relational reality is to sit in a laboratory, open an evil-smelling jar, remove a stiff colorless fish from formalin solution, count the spines and write the truth "D.XVII-15-IX." There you have recorded a reality that cannot be assailed -- probably the least important reality concerning either the fish or yourself.
It is good to know what you are doing. The man with his pickled fish has set down one truth and recorded in his experience many lies. The fish is not that color, that texture, that dead, nor does he smell that way.
....we were determined not to let the passion for unassailable little truths draw in the horizon and crowd the sky down on us. We knew that what seemed to be true could only be relatively true anyway. There is no other kind of observation."
Of course, he's talking about context and the difference between experience and knowledge. (Well, he's talking about many things, but I won't trespass on your good nature by getting into metaphysics. At least not right now.)
The point is even more salient for writers today than it was when Steinbeck wrote it in 1940. In this day of instant research where so much information is available so quickly and with such little effort, experience becomes even more important. Wikipedia (that is not a primary source, people) can tell you all kinds of facts (some of which are footnoted), but it cannot offer proof to your senses and it cannot help you see the context. It cannot protect you from gather "unassailable little truths."
Static research alone is not enough if you're seeking to write the truth to the best of your ability. It can't tell you how it feels to sit in a boat at night surrounded by alligators whose eyes glow red in the darkness. It can't make you know the smell of a sea turtle fresh from the sea, or help you hear the sounds she makes digging a nest of sand with awkward sweeps of her flippers.
But experience without research -- I prefer to call it "understanding" -- also lends itself to untruth. If you are writing about The Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia, but only know about the plants and animals, and only spend time isolated in a boat, you only know a small part of the story and you are missing the connections. Because this forest still harbors some of the oldest surviving human cultures in the Western Hemisphere.
To paraphrase Barry Lopez (another writer I can only read sparingly because he makes me cry), for a writer to insist on connections that do not exist is to lie. In the same way, a writer seeking "truth" must call on both experience and research to see the connections -- between the sierra and the fisherman, the sierra and the formalin, and the sierra and the sea -- that do exist.
Steinbeck, of course, said it far better than I ever could:
"....we could, if we wished, describe the sierra thus: "D. XVII-15-IX; A. II-15-IX," but also we could see the fish alive and swimming, feel it plunge against the lines, drag it thrashing over the rail, and even finally eat it....Spine-count description need not suffer because another approach is also used. Perhaps out of the two approaches, we thought, there might emerge a picture more complete and even more accurate than either alone could produce."
One final thing to notice. The language Steinbeck uses to describe the fish -- living, fighting, thrashing, pulsing -- stand in stark contrast to the unadorned language he uses to describe the fish in the formalin. Pay attention to way deliberate sentence structure can evoke emotion in the reader. (That's also another post, but worth noting here because Steinbeck is so good at it.)
Sorry -- that ran a little longer than I intended. What do you think about the nexus between research and experience? Are writers becoming too reliant on Google? Anyone want to join my I'm-still-emotionally scarred-by "The Red Pony" support group?