What author Diane Ackerman can teach journalists about being productive, versatile writers

As I write more and more about reading, writing and language, I remain on the lookout for elegant examples of good prose. By “elegant” I mean passages that by content and style will be widely regarded as effective, and that can be deconstructed so as to reveal the author’s writing strategies. It is from that excavation that I identify writing tools.

A reliable source is the work of Diane Ackerman, a prolific writer who’s so versatile that she can conjoin with remarkable ease the poetry of language and the discipline of science. I discovered her work when someone gave me “A Natural History of the Senses.”

In her latest book, “One Hundred Names For Love: A Stroke, a Marriage, and the Language of Healing,” (which I believe is better than Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking”) Ackerman recounts a period of about two years during which she became caregiver to her husband Paul West after he was felled by a stroke. Among other effects for West was aphasia, the loss of language, tragic for anyone, but especially poignant for this couple: Ackerman and West are poets.

At the time of West’s stroke, Ackerman had completed research for a book about the brain, “An Alchemy of Mind,” and through that knowledge helped in the diagnosis and treatment of her husband’s problems. Defying much conventional wisdom, Ackerman immersed her husband in language, a daily journey of triumph and failure that keeps the reader engaged and inspired.

I asked Ackerman via email if she would to respond to some questions in writing. She was generous in her sharing of research and writing methods and standards.

Roy Peter Clark: How is your dear husband’s general health, and, in particular, his language health?

Diane Ackerman: He had another stroke several months ago — which didn’t touch the language areas, thank heavens — and so he’s doing physical and occupational therapy. At 82, his balance isn’t perfect, but he’s walking. And, even though his right hand isn’t working, he has taught himself to write with his left hand. Each morning, he rises at about 5 a.m., writes for a few hours, then returns to sleep. He’s still amazingly creative.

You are such a productive and versatile writer: poet, science writer, novelist, memoirist, children’s author. Do you ever get mixed up about what mode you are in?

It’s not so much getting mixed up as just exploring what’s possible. I sometimes insinuate prose poems into a narrative, and those are usually my favorite parts of the book.

I’ve written a lot about the standards of nonfiction, especially as they relate to memoir (where there have been fierce debates, as you know). Can you reflect on your standards and practices on the line between fact and fiction, between truth and TRUTH?

Of course, every memory is only true to the moment of recall, and history is most often an agreed-upon truth. But let’s take The Zookeeper’s Wife” as an example. Whenever someone speaks in the book, I’m quoting from diaries, interviews, reports by other people who were present, etc. I don’t make any of it up. All of the behaviors of the animals I layered in from lots of research and personal observation.

So, too, the descriptions of the zoo itself and the natural world in which Antonina lived. I read personal accounts and testimonies of the people in their world. I could learn which zoo animals called when in the morning, the migration routes of birds over Warsaw in 1939, and so on. I also interviewed women who were girl messengers during the war and delivered messages to the zoo. From them I learned important details of daily life. Writing nonfiction about a bygone era takes a huge amount of research, but fortunately I love learning. In the case of “One Hundred Names,” I also combined personal observation and thought with some research.

Your scenes are excruciating, exhausting, inspiring, and scrupulously detailed. I would love to know about your research, note-taking and reporting methods. How do you capture the experience when you are in the middle of it, a character in the scene?

Sensory details leap out at me; it’s just a facet of my sensibility. I jot down notes in small notebooks or on scraps of paper and look at them later.

Are any of these out-of-bounds for you, Diane? Taking a number of scenes and combining them into one? Changing time sequence for narrative or dramatic effect? Using composite characters? Inventing dialogue in reconstructed scenes?

When I’m writing nonfiction, I don’t conflate scenes, change time sequences, etc. I did change some details of the callers in “A Slender Thread,” to protect their identity, but that’s common practice.

“One Hundred Names” involves some of the most sophisticated mixing of genres I have ever seen — memoir, science writing, advice to caregivers and prose poems. What are the benefits and dangers of crossing some traditional literary boundaries?

Mixing of genres … interesting. Well, if so I’m not aware of it. Except that, as I said, I don’t fictionalize nonfiction. I’ve written a few short stories, and a couple of unpublished novels. But I consider fiction a very high class form of lying — which I admire enormously. But I’m not very good at it, I think. If you mean memoir, narrative nonfiction, science writing, poetry — well, those combine so naturally in my mind that it makes sense to do the same in my books. My curiosity is nomadic, interdisciplinary, and I enjoy exploring something from many angles.

If I could see your writing room when you were working on this project, what kinds of organizing things would I see? File boxes? Index cards? Story boards?

Shelves of white three-ring folders, labeled and organized, some filing cabinets, overflowing bookcases, big windows with a view of the backyard and woods, and a bay window to curl up and write in, one that looks out onto the garden and a big old magnolia tree.

Do you work from a plan and, if so, what does it look like? How early in the process do you begin to draft?

I make a general plan, but end up revising it over and over as I go along.

Since there are no footnotes in the book — and no preface that makes your method transparent — what devices substitute for these to lend the work its authority and credibility?

No devices, really — unless you mean the citations in the body of the work and at the end. I try to paint each scene in lots of detail, to put the reader into it. Maybe all that close observation lends authenticity. Anyway, I hope by this time my readers know they can trust me.

Thanks, Diane. I’ll leave readers with one of my favorite paragraphs from “One Hundred Names for Love”:

Feeling lost in every sense, in all my senses, I continued to pour my efforts into supporting and encouraging Paul. Even if he couldn’t grasp what I was saying, he could watch my face express love, sympathy, and comfort, hear my tone of voice and inflections — all the more important now — and sense how I felt. Hugs delivered voiceless words. We could still communicate through the ancient system of mirror neurons, the marvelous brain cells that allow us to watch — or even hear or read about! — what someone else is doing, and feel as if we’re doing it ourselves. Located in the front of the brain, they helped our ancestors imitate language, skills, tool use, and society’s subtle pantomimes. An author’s ally, they’re why art stirs us, why we’re able to outwit rivals or feel compassion, why we can watch the Winter Olympics and half undergo the strain and thrill of the athletes, why if I write “I ran through heavy rain,” you can picture the scene in your mind’s eye and feel your legs in motion, the slippery street underfoot, rain pelting your head and shoulders.  All that is possible through words, but much is still knowable without them, through facial expressions, body language, gestures, and affections. What an eerie thought after a lifetime of words.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Chris-Roberts/1551704642 Chris Roberts

    I find Diane Ackerman’s writing mind bogglingly pedestrian and mine stripped of any remnant of originality.