Making it Personal

Sometimes it’s harder than you think to write accessibly.

Dome Glacier.
Dome Glacier, Jasper National Park (photo by me).

This week I’ve been working on two essays. One is about trees and our relationship with them, while the other one is about my last Arctic research trip in 2008, when I went to the Devon Island Ice Cap.

I’ve discovered that it’s easier to write accessibly about something that’s happened to you, that you’ve experienced firsthand. I’ve also discovered that I revert to a stiff, more formal writing style when I’m writing a little outside my comfort zone either of the topics I know or of the format I’m familiar with.

For example, the tree essay is long – the longest I’ve ever written. I am still working out how to juggle the content of such a long essay without losing the reader’s attention before the end. The other essay is much shorter – say five times shorter. I have more experience at this length, and am able to pull together a coherent essay arc that also incorporates the ideas I want to get across throughout the piece.

With the longer essay it’s easier to lose your way, to go off on a tangent or out on a limb into new – and maybe unnecessary – territory. It’s harder to maintain the through-line that connects the beginning to the end, and which holds up the structure in the middle. This is definitely not a problem with a shorter essay.

I’ve also found that, when writing about fieldwork, I know exactly what I want to say and how I want to describe it. I am working from personal experience, which makes it easier to create “scenes” that draw the reader in. Some history about the Arctic is included – history that I know about because of my experience in that field. This makes it easier to pull the pieces of the essay together and connect the dots from beginning to end.

With the longer essay, I’m bringing in ideas from different books and articles to make a statement about our relationship with trees and how important they are for us – and not just as lumber. There’s more non-personal information and more ideas, so I have to work harder to add my own voice and also create captivating scenes. While I can draw on some of my own experience in studying forests as part of my academic research (forest fires, forest decline, forest insects, tree planting, the wood-wide-web, etc.), a lot is new to me. Or perhaps not new, but it requires me to dig a bit deeper to augment my partial knowledge of particular topics. For example, I write about the Golden Spruce on Haida Gwaii, that was cut down by a forester who was disillusioned with the forest industry. I knew about this event, but had to read John Vaillant’s excellent The Golden Spruce to get the full story. (I highly recommend this book)

The main thing that bothers me is how differently my mind works in different phases of my mental illness. I wrote the long essay in a bit of a fog (read more about that here), as my psychiatrist was trying to bring me down from a massive bipolar high. This stripped me of my ability to mentally “see” the pieces of the essay in my mind and shuffle them around to make them fit and flow. It also made it difficult to think of the specific words I wanted to use to describe certain things, and overall made the writing experience a chore.

Now that I’m out of that fog, I’m somewhat better able to visualize how the essay could be structured, and what’s important to include versus what can be jettisoned altogether. But because I’m working with my existing framework, it can be difficult sometimes to see where that framework needs to be changed to fit the text. I’m also still dealing with the aftereffects of that bipolar high, which – as I mentioned in a previous post – can cause cognitive decline for six months or more after the event. So things are definitely not smooth sailing on the long essay front.

It is frustrating because I feel as though I’m “dragging a piano uphill” as one of my undergrad friends would say: every time I think I’ve got one problem ironed out there’s another one to deal with.

I am persevering because I am committed to this topic and truly believe we need to be more conscious of nature – i.e., trees – in our lives, and that we will manage forests better and consider environmental impacts more often if we forge a personal relationship with trees. Here’s to conquering the long essay!

3 thoughts on “Making it Personal”

  1. Today City of Ottawa workers arrived to plant the tree that had been delivered to our neighbour across the street a few days ago. She had asked for a tree to replace the one that was cut down because it was diseased. She has lived here much longer than we and said that one of the reasons she bought the house was that the neighbourhood was so nicely treed. Unfortunately, many trees died for one reason or another. The City also planted a tree for us number of years ago, replacing a tree that got hit by lightning before we bought the house. Our neighbour quoted research showing that neighbourhoods with many trees are healthier and have less crime. I wonder if you ran across similar observations your research.

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