I was eight years old when I wrote my first short story about a pencil who went to a dance. That must have seemed obvious to me in the fourth grade. Pencils liked to dance. I was a child steeped in literature about fairies and trolls, as well as English nannies who could fly and cupboard doors that opened into winter. Magic was always possible, around the corner, under the bed.
Later, as an adult, I read the works of magical realism, novels by Latin-American authors like Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende who wove elements of fantasy into stories about political violence. As a literary genre, magical realism spoke to me and to many others—a way to talk about oppression while celebrating resilience.
At first, as a young writer, I also wrote short stories that could be called magical realism. In the end, though, and for the last thirty years, I mostly write about nature and science. I write about tiger beetles. I write about mountain lions. I write about global warming. Sometimes I write about hunger and malnutrition. I write about whatever interests me and that turns out to be a broad range of subjects in the real world.
The real world still seems magical. Wonder is at the heart of science, and science writing often seems a form of magical realism. Pixels. Pheromones. A billion microbes in your mouth. A billion galaxies in the universe. Everywhere we look—there’s nothing that’s ordinary.
In a recent book on childhood malnutrition, for example, I talk about the role of iron in the human body. Iron may be the most abundant metal in the universe, born in the nuclear fusion of stars. The center of our own Earth is a solid ball of iron surrounded by another ball of liquid iron flowing back and forth. This massive eerie movement creates the electrical currents that generate our planet’s magnetic field, which extends into space protecting us from solar radiation that would otherwise strip us dry. Iron is our heart. Iron is our shield.
Now, quickly, look at your hand, where iron is circulating in your blood. Four atoms of iron form the molecule hemoglobin, the protein in a red blood cell that transports oxygen. Our cells use oxygen to burn the fuel glucose to produce the energy that does the cell’s work. As blood passes through an oxygen-rich environment like the lungs, the four iron atoms in hemoglobin bind to four oxygen atoms. Later, in oxygen-poor environments—a muscle working hard, a hand gripping a pencil, a brow furrowed—the iron atoms release their oxygen. Oxygen and glucose turn into thought. Into story.
Transformation. Wow, I think. Every time.
The subject of childhood malnutrition is, of course, incredibly sad. Some two billion people in the world are iron deficient. Iron is particularly important for neurological development. Infants and young children without enough iron are more likely to have cognitive and emotional problems such as reduced attention span, reduced ability to grasp concepts, greater irritability, greater inhibition, and delays in language and motor skills. In these complex ways, iron is who we are and who we become. The more we understand about iron, the more we understand ourselves. For me, this kind of science writing echoes the force of magical realism—a way to celebrate life and resilience in the midst of human grief and pain.
I teach creative writing for a living, and I tell my students who write nonfiction to use their full poetic voice, even when writing science, especially when writing science! I tell them not to be afraid of figurative language—metaphor, simile, hyperbole, personification—which by its nature reveals connection and complexity. I tell them to feel free, if that is their poetic voice, to be joyful, sorrowful, fanciful, playful. Human emotion is part of the truth of science. Almost always, as science writers, they will feel the emotion of wonder. They will be amazed at the world they are writing about.
Of course, science writers also have to be accurate. That’s really our first priority. If I think of science writing as a form of magical realism, the “realism” part usually involves clunky polysyllabic words and difficult concepts. Although science writers try to avoid jargon and technical terms, that’s not always possible. It’s hard to be lyrical when you must repeatedly use a word like acetylcholine or hemoglobin. Many times, too, a scientific idea requires a background explanation which requires its own background explanation which requires its own…and then, suddenly, you’re down the rabbit hole peering up at a little patch of blue sky.
Rabbit holes are always a danger in writing. Writing is its own form of magic, and as any wizard or character in a children’s book will tell you, magic isn’t easy.
When I was eight years old, I wrote a story that began, “Once there was a pencil who went to a dance.” I can’t remember what happened next. Did the pencil meet another pencil at the dance? Were there pens involved and paperclips? I only know that I never looked back. I let the magic of writing, and then science, infuse my life. There has been grief and pain, too, but that’s part of every story.