On Writing About Chemical Legacies

Remarkable interview from Interalia Magazine with the environmental sociologist and writer Rebecca Altman, in which she talks about the craft of writing about legacies of plastic production and pollution.

The single most significant influence [on my writing] was the near dream-like week I spent at an environmental writing workshop with the poet-biologist, Sandra Steingraber, author of Living Downstream, and most recently, the curator of Rachel Carson’s work on toxics for the Library of Congress.

Steingraber had left academia to write about the science of environmental health for the public. It was the first inkling that such a path was possible, maybe even vital. I soaked up everything she had to offer about craft and pacing and tone and emotion. I remember her saying how Carson deployed iambic pentameter when she wanted to make a particular point all the more piercing. Being otherwise untrained, Sandra encouraged me to keep writing by ear and to be influenced by the rhythms and musicality of my early years.

What Steingraber helped me understand about sound, John McPhee helped me understand about shape. How grateful I’ve been for his writing about writing in The New Yorker. One essay in particular, called Structure, ran in 2013, just as I was wrestling with writing about plastics for the first time. How I struggled to organize the complexity and volume of the raw material I’d collected.

McPhee offered the idea that each work of narrative nonfiction has a guiding image that shapes it, that helps carry the piece’s meaning or theme. Structure could do some of the piece’s heavy lifting. Alongside his essay were schematics that charted the various shapes his essays had taken. Straight-line narratives that plodded ahead chronologically. But also stories told in the shape of a river. A U-shaped curve. A looping spiral.

Thanks to McPhee, American Petro-topia, a story about one particular plastics plant, eventually took the shape of a circle, a living plant’s lifecycle—from seed to sprout back around to seed. The Benzene Tree, which I wrote for The Atlantic, drew on the image of a wave to tell the story of the rise and fall of entire classes of industrial chemistries. When writing Time Bombing the Future – a story about fluorine and the forgotten chemical legacy of the Manhattan Project ­– I held onto the image of a bomb. The fuse was set in the opening paragraphs. It doesn’t go off until the end. Only a brief coda is offered to move readers through the aftermath.

I’ve returned to McPhee whenever I get stuck, which is often. I write about chemistry – and so for me, writing is an act of synthesis, too. Things get complicated. My notebooks are filled with McPhee-like sketches of all the possible shapes a story might take.

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