by Barbara Melville, Writer in Residence at the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine
I was delighted to spend time with the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum, where I prepared and ran a full-day workshop called Nonfiction for Science – Imaginative Approaches to Science Writing. I was fortunate to be co-facilitating with fabulous writer and comedian Siân Bevan, and working with a group of receptive and talented students. Together we explored the theory and practice of creative nonfiction, and its place in communicating science.
Creative nonfiction, like any genre, does a cunning job of resisting definition. Broadly, the aim is to communicate the facts with literary style. These narratives often include personal journeys, like in Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table and Lone Frank’s My Beautiful Genome. But despite the demand for imaginative science writing, there’s a paucity of such works. My guess is people are interested, but don’t feel they have the tools. After all, if you’re used to academic writing, or your background isn’t science, how do you get started? How can you combine fact with subjectivity?
These were among many questions we tackled throughout the day. We worked on drafting personal essays, allowing ourselves to play with ideas before questioning what we’d produced. We studied the underlying principles of narration, including why people tell stories, how to keep writing consistent, and how to combine personal and impersonal information. After lunch, we had a refreshing discussion on accuracy and accessibility in science communication, before spending the final hour reading, rewriting, and brainstorming ideas for essays.
I was thrilled this workshop was so popular, and that I got to run another in partnership with the Beltane Public Engagement Network and the Roslin Institute. I’m now pursuing a website dedicated to this kind of writing, and I hope to run more workshops in the future. I can’t overstate how grateful I am to everyone at the Genomics Forum, our hard-working attendees, my awesome co-facilitators, the Beltane Network and the Roslin Institute for their unending guidance and support in putting these events together. Here’s to many more.