I recently wrapped up work on a profile of a soil scientist who has been studying Antarctica longer than I’ve been alive. I’ve never been to Antarctica, nor have I much experience in soil sciences. But, as a science writer, I am used to the task of learning about some small slice of the scientific enterprise and then arranging words in such a way that they help explain a researcher’s work.
What I am not used to is having a researcher’s work explain something to me about my own craft.
Enter “cryoturbation,” a hopelessly scientific word. A word that potentially spurred the creation of another word – “jargon.”
But “cryoturbation” has lingered with me. It is often referred to “frost churning,” and is the process by which soil mixes and forms in our world’s coldest places. Frost penetrates deep into the soil, freezes during the long winters, and thaws during the short summers. It is a simple process, but it occurs over millennia, this cycle of freezing and thawing breaking up bedrock and mixing soil down to the hard line of the permafrost.
I spent full days agonizing over the profile. In fact, as I spent the better part of one day trying to figure out how in the world I was going to succinctly explain “cryoturbation,” a thought hit me – this jerky creation process of long freezes and short thaws, this incremental accumulation and reshuffling of material into a discernable pattern, this ungainly word perfectly described my experience as a science writer.
For me, the process of crafting a story is dominated by periods of linguistic paralysis as the spinning wheels of my brain attempt to pull out of the mire of too many interviews and an embarrassment of information. I will sit for hours at my desk waiting for the moment that one of my rambling thoughts finds a promising path forward in the story
What I love about the term, cryoturbation, is its promise. Even the frozen-in-place soils of winter are part of the longer process, the expanding areas of ice pushing imperceptibly out and up and down, setting the stage for the thaw, when soil building ramps up again.
So, while I may be reading football scores or responding to e-mails or just staring into space, I am still working. I’m just waiting for the thaw that will set my brain cells running again, pushing the story along until the next, inevitable freeze.
I also love that this awkward extended metaphor makes writing sound like what it really is – hard.
For me, writing hasn’t been anything like the apocryphal Jack Kerouac drug-induced all-nighters of pounding out a finished product. I rarely, if ever, catch a muse and spew forth perfect, memorable prose.
And other writers, if they are to be believed, also struggle with the incremental progress of the process. In an 1946 essay, George Orwell described what it was like to write a book. I can’t say I’ve accomplished such a feat, but his description pretty much captures my experience writing just about anything. Writing, he says, “is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
I’ll leave the “Why do we write?” question hanging for some other naval-gazing day. For now, I’ll just live with the freezes and thaws, content with my new-found perspective of the creative power of a glacial process.
And, next time I’m stuck in a particularly deep freeze, I’ll wonder what else is out there. What other scientific terminology so aptly captures the writing process? How else might science be explaining our art?
Photo: Michael Becker, U.S. Geological Survey