Tag Archives | writing

Quammen in a World of Wounds

The sometimes under-lionized natural-history journalist David Quammen is reaping some fantastic reviews and writerly canonization for his new book, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, in which he busts a Richard Preston/Hot Zone move by merging stylish non-fiction storytelling with a horror-movie promise to scare the shit out of readers. This weekend in the New York Times Charles McGrath bestows a well-deserved major-writer treatment on Mr. Quammen with “The Subject is Science, the Style is Faulkner.”

I’m looking forward to reading Spillover with, as always in the case of Quammen, a bit of trepidation. My professional experience with David has been a somewhat melancholy one. When I arrived at Outside as features editor at the end of 1996,  he was winding up a decade-and-a-half championship run as the magazine’s Natural Acts columnist, and Outside never quite recovered that brainy, crunchy, opposite-of-extreme-sports corner of its soul after his departure. As a columnist, he was like some updated manifestation of the heroic naturalist Dr. Stephen Maturin of the Patrick O’Brian novels, alternately courtly, clinical, and besotted with the amazing systems and architecture of living things.  (Quammen’s collections Natural Acts, Wild Thoughts from Wild Places, and The Flight of the Iguana are simply wornderful.)  I felt like I’d arrived on a baseball coaching staff on the eve of a Hall of Fame hitter’s retirement. He subsequently contributed only a few more features to Outside before beginning a distinguished affiliation with National Geographic.

I’m more ambivalent about the big-picture Quammen, in The Song of the Dodo (1996) and now, presumably, in Spillover. About his accuracy, narrative skill, and sense of big, important story there is no doubt. My problem with David is that he has an essentially pessimistic and tragic vision of environmental issues, and declines to be any kind of crusader or hopeful advocate. His view is probably far saner and more realistic than the evangelizing stance of someone like Bill McKibben. But after all the cool science and alarums, David Quammen tends to leave me with a counsel of despair. When The Song of the Dodo, his magisterial epic of conservation biology and extinction, was published, he did an Op-Ed piece for the Times about why national parks are “nature’s dead end,” far too small and isolated to function as tools for wildlife conservation. And…? “This approach won’t do” — the end.  “Lively writing about science and nature depends less on the offering of good answers, I think, than on the offering of good questions,” he writes in Natural Acts. His sensibility inclines him to lead us through the jungles and thickets and swamps of a dilemma, and then part company with us on the brink of the place where solutions and amelioration  might begin. My worry about the new book is that it brilliantly portrays how the damage that’s been done to the borders between the wildlife kingdom and humanity, and how lethal threats are crossing from animals to people, but that it also leave us with a implicit message that wildlife are vehicles of contagion — our enemies, not our victims.

Aldo Leopold’s famous, very Quammenesque formulation comes to mind:

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds… An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.

The analogy implies that a search for cure must follow diagnosis.

October 20, 2012 at 12:45 pm

How to Restart a Blog

Rebooting a blog isn’t easy, but it’s more psychologically challenging than technically daunting. A lot of people have done it, so there’s some good, hard-won wisdom on how to pull it off floating around out there. I’ve been contemplating some of this advice over the past few weeks while working on the relaunch of this blog. Always a late adopter, I started this site two years ago with a flurry of enthusiastic posting, but went on to make an epic number of mistakes and missteps on my own downward spiral toward distraction, discouragement, and finally letting my blog languish.

A famous 2008 survey by the blog-indexing service Technorati reported that 95 per cent of blogs are sooner or later abandoned. This vast winnowing stands in sharp contrast to the hundreds of millions of users who plant their flag in the thriving realms of Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest and Foursquare and all the other social sites and services. Meanwhile, the blog/social hybrid that Tumblr offers and the various instant blog hosting services like Squarespace have blurred the distinction between the kind of writing that blogging entails and the short-sharp-link-and-quip posting that characterizes tweets and Facebook updates. In certain respects, blogs have become the new business card, or a brand-of-you storefront, or a backdrop for macro-tweets, not a revolutionary publishing medium where a billion new Boswells and Dorothy Parkers craft gemlike essays and stylish memoir.

In 2009 the New York Times Style section diagnosed an epidemic of exhaustion that strikes “when the thrill of blogging is gone,” ensuring that “blogs have a higher failure rate than restaurants.” People with big dreams of monetization and glory — “to build an audience and leave their day job, to land a book deal, or simply to share their genius with the world” — were having their hopes dashed. Also, tl;dr: “You want to write, like, long entries, and no one wants to read that stuff,” one downed blogger said. And to think that all of this disillusionment was already a done deal by the time I first started this blog.

I, too, suffered the heartbreak of “blogathy” — yep, it’s a word. Well, I’m back, unbowed and with the wind at my back, and ready to stand up for old-school blogging. One of the topics I’m going to be exploring in upcoming posts is the thoughtful, long-form, un-weblike counterforce that is pushing back against the ephemeral, bite-sized, salty-snack model of social posting that leaves souls and minds hungry for perspective and satisfaction. The “dark social” underground is the new vanguard! Or something. Stay tuned.

For now, however, I’ll offer a few words of reassurance and inspiration and a few therapeutic links.

1) Don’t waste emotional energy staying embarrassed about the stagnant, non-updated, stale blog you’ve neglected for so long. Keep your eyes on that shiny new blank slate, and embrace your archive for its strengths and achievements.

2) You’re now a smarter and much more savvy veteran. Lots of blogs bog down because the learning curves and demands of design, webmastering, tweaking, and bug-fixing took their toll. The bright side is that after a break, you’re no longer a rank beginner, and you can move much faster and with less friction toward the actual work of posting.

3) Consistency, dedication, and discipline will make any gaps in your past blogging irrelevant.

4) Relax and take your swings while no one is paying much attention, and it’ll be much easier to gain loyal readers and keep them when you’re in the groove.

Lastly, here are a few posts that I found helpful to one degree or another:

Guide to Restarting Your Blog

How to Restart Your Blog After a Long Break

How to Restart a Dead or Dormant Blog

The Blogging Dip

4 Biggest Blogging Myths That Lead to Bloggers Giving Up



10-22-2012: I found another useful post on Deborah Ng’s insightful blog, Kommein, offering a proactive argument for a healthy and positive sabbatical from blogging.

In 5 Reasons to Take a Break From Your Blog, Ng observes:

 I’m now of the mindset that a blogger needs to take a break now and then to keep fresh, stay sane, and not have to resort to posting the same dang things everyone else are posting to their blogs. Just as we need a break from our jobs, our homes and our kids, we also need a break from our blogs.

Photo: the caped author at bat sometime in the 1960s

October 19, 2012 at 8:19 pm

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