THE WEIGHT OF A LIFE by Jess Keating
I’ve always thought the term nonfiction was a bit of a drag. I mean, nonfiction is the stuff of real life. Nonfiction is the living and breathing pulse under our lives, and how we convey things so crucially important they can dictate the success of a heart transplant, a lone seed germinating, or the stepping stones of our past that lead us forward. Our own histories are nonfiction, as are our entire futures. Our biographies are being played out in real time.
So why is nonfiction defined by what it’s not? Nonfiction? What is it? Well, it ain’t fiction.
There are several categories of nonfiction, of course. (If you’d like to learn more about them, I highly recommend you explore author Melissa Stewart’s fine posts.) I’ve been thinking a lot about these categories lately, and how we authors choose to describe the things that matter to us.
Which brings me to one particularly daunting task. Her name was Eugenie Clark.
Eugenie Clark was a scientist. She was an explorer. A trailblazer in her field. A mother. A woman who lived and breathed her curiosity in a way that inspires me to this day. She was a whole person who happened to change the world.
And I wanted to tell her story.
But it’s never as easy as that when exploring something real. What to do when the uncharted territory is someone’s life?
They say that all great fiction needs to convey the truth. Yet all great nonfiction needs to convey the truth, and it needs to do so truthfully. We try to convey the truth of our characters’ emotions and show an honest portrayal of someone in fiction.
But truth takes on a whole different meaning when you’re speaking about someone who has, or had, a pulse. Some authors choose to provide a snapshot of someone’s life. Others try to convey the constant, almost mystical thread running through their subject’s life. (We all have one, by the way.)
Her name was Eugenie Clark and she spent countless hours feeling the sun on her face, the lilting leeway of a boat, and the sheer amazement that can only be experienced when face-to-face with a species as ancient, powerful, and mysterious as sharks. Most thought sharks were monsters at the time. A good number of people also thought women couldn’t be scientists.
Both Eugenie and her sharks were misjudged.
This isn’t a post to tell you about Eugenie Clark, her scientific and global accomplishments, or the road she traveled in history. I’ll let the book do that.
This is a post about my own truth in writing hers. If you are regular readers of this blog, you know that reading changes us. I want to take that a step further—I firmly believe that the act of writing changes us too. Writing about someone who inspires you does more than allow you to step into their shoes. It provides a glimpse, a pivotal second or two, to realize the extent to which one person can change it all. It allows you to feel the weight of a life, to capture that shimmering thread that underlies their everything.
Even if just for a moment.
As busy people, with careers and kids and pans with stuck-on lasagna, it’s easy to get lost, isn’t it? It’s easy to forget that our own trajectories have meaning. We have a path. A purpose we get to design. All of our lives have weight. All of our lives have a beginning and an end, and the knowledge that we have that big, unwritten middle to ourselves is exciting. And humbling.
Her name was Eugenie Clark and I wrote a book about her. She was a pioneer in science and changed the way the sharks (and women!) were seen on a global scale. She was so much more than the words and images you’ll see inside. But I hope that in introducing you to her and her story, you’ll learn a little about her and her sharks, and more importantly, get a brief glimpse outside your here and now to remember that your life is also magically in play. Like her, you are someone’s inspiration. I think she would love for you to be reminded of that.
I started writing today in hopes of introducing you to Shark Lady and the various ways to tackle nonfiction. But instead, I think I will leave you with some words from Eugenie herself. She once recounted an early experience diving under water:
“This may read like science fiction, or a dream. It isn’t fiction, but it is a dream—a dream come true.”
Despite the differences in how we approach them and do them justice, fiction and nonfiction are both ways of sharing what’s most important to us. It was an honor to write about Eugenie and share her life with you. A dream come true, even. I hope you’re as inspired by the weight of her life as much as I am.
As a zoologist turned middle grade and picture book author, Jess Keating has been sprayed by skunks, bitten by crocodiles, and been a victim to the dreaded paper cut. Her MY LIFE IS A ZOO series earned two Kirkus stars, a Red Maple nomination, a Rocky Mountain Book Award nomination, and a spot on the LA Times Summer Book Pick List. Her quirky nonfiction picture book series kicked off with PINK IS FOR BLOBFISH, with three companion books to follow. Her first picture book biography, SHARK LADY, will be published on June 6th, 2017.