On awards and blacksmiths

Take pride in your horse shoes

Welcome to Team Trash, a newsletter about the places where humans and wildlife meet. I'm Bethany Brookshire, science journalist and author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains.

This week, I got to go to MIT to talk to the 2022-2023 Knight Science Journalism Fellowship. It was delightful, if it weren't for that fellowship, I would not have a book (that you should buy!), and I wouldn't have met my wonderful fellowship class. We still love and support each other even now.

Anyway, I was there to give a talk. I could have given a talk about the content of the book, but I'll be honest that seemed very boring. Instead, I talked about the organizational process of writing a book, how I figured out the narrative structure and the structure of individual chapters and sections. And at the end I included a couple of things that learned in the process. One was, as I mentioned in a previous newsletter, about having your own measures of success. And another was knowing yourself as a writer. (There's whole side note in here about creativity, and how I don't actually think of myself as particularly creative, but that's for another newsletter, now isn't it.)

And then I told them that, as a writer? I'm a simple blacksmith.

I'm not really. But it's a way I've found to think about my work, and to stop comparing myself to other people.

Let's say all science journalists are blacksmiths. We're all different. Some blacksmiths are true sculpture artists, and science is merely their medium. They might turn out scientific memoir, beautiful freestanding driftwood sculptures with iron filigree insets. Others might blend form and function, with huge, wrought-iron gates full of curlicues and animals. Still others might do investigative pieces, massive, imposing opening doors bound in delicately-formed scientific bands of iron.

Me? I make horse shoes.

I make very good horse shoes. They are serviceable. They come out clean, on time, every time, and editors know to come to me for some nice, serviceable horseshoes that will make their horse (er, magazine/newspaper) full of interesting, factual science journalism.

When I wrote a book? I made a wrought iron fence. It doesn't have curlicues or lacework. But it's a good, strong fence. It delineates its property. People might stop by and say, hey, you know? That's a fine looking fence! Being a nice fence, it's maybe got a certain simple grace. Some people really like the look of a simple fence, a simple horse shoe.

The problem is that many people want to compare all blacksmiths to each other. And so when they give out awards, they are not going to give an award to the most solid, serviceable fence (at least, they haven't so far. I do keep trying). They want to give the award to the stunning wrought-iron gates. The massive driftwood sculpture. Because these things are beautiful! These things make you gasp. They make all your colleagues stand up and pay attention.

In some respects, they may be better. Better-selling. More awarded. The smiths who make them may become famous throughout the community of blacksmiths the world over. Some blacksmiths may indeed put out bad things: Weak nails and shoddy shoes and gates that turn out to be merely iron-painted wood.

When the quality is good, though, a beautiful gate or sculpture is not always better than a simple fence or shoe. They are different things, different things that can do their different jobs equally well. The reality is there's room in the world for many, many kinds of blacksmiths. For beautiful artists and horse shoe makers alike. Awards and flattering attention do not reflect that reality. They reflect only what certain people value.

You could respond to that knowledge in a few ways.

  • You could try to make your own fancy gates and sculptures, trying to imitate the masters.

  • You could grow bitter and jealous. This one's the easiest, especially for someone like me.

  • You could achieve acceptance and pride in your own work.

This last is what I am trying to do. I'm trying to take pride. Pride in my horse shoes. In my fence. I may never get an award for them, but that's ok. (It's hard to do this. I will go back to this essay when awards season comes around. I should probably tattoo it backward on my forehead in preparation.) I work hard, and, dare I say it, I'm good at what I do. And there's room for all of us. For those making nails and horse shoes and swords and gates and sculptures. The Earth, after all, has a lot of iron. So we can always use some good blacksmiths.

Where have you been? 

And is it reading (and, if you're a writer, signing!) this open letter to The New York Times? The original authors are spot-on that recent coverage of trans issues in the Grey Lady has been...problematic, at best. Op-eds and articles "just asking questions" about gender-confirming treatments promotes a manufactured controversy that makes the lives of people just trying to live as themselves far more difficult. I'll just quote this:

Some of us are trans, non⁠-⁠binary, or gender nonconforming, and we resent the fact that our work, but not our person, is good enough for the paper of record. Some of us are cis, and we have seen those we love discover and fight for their true selves, often swimming upstream against currents of bigotry and pseudoscience fomented by the kind of coverage we here protest. All of us daresay our stance is unremarkable, even common, and certainly not deserving of the Times’ intense scrutiny. A tiny percentage of the population is trans, and an even smaller percentage of those people face the type of conflict the Times is so intent on magnifying. There is no rapt reporting on the thousands of parents who simply love and support their children, or on the hardworking professionals at the New York Times enduring a workplace made hostile by bias—a period of forbearance that ends today.

- https://nytletter.com/

The NYT's response to the letter (which was separate from a letter from GLAAD, though they both arrived on the same day) has been, er, disappointing but not surprising. There's a lot of accusing the authors and signers of things like 'advocacy' (which is basically accusing journalists of bias, and is rather a slap in the face), and a lot of defensiveness. It's not a good look.

And on the topic of blacksmithing: How do you think about your own work? How do you think about what you do compared to others in your field? Some of you send me lovely notes every week when I ask questions, and I so appreciate it. It makes me really happy to hear from you, and the conversations are really good.

Finally this week's newsletter rec: Courtney Maum's Before and After the Book Deal. It's full of great advice and thoughtful ruminations on publishing. And her latest newsletter is about the awful huge layoffs at Catapult, and devoted to helping the people there continue their work.

Where have I been?

As I mentioned above, I got to go to MIT this past week and talk with some wonderful KSJ fellows! You should check them out their projects are amazing.

And if you missed me: I'll be BACK! In March at Harvard! Sign up!

Lovely to do a Q&A with Audubon about my book! The best part is when people mention species of birds in the articles they include the CALLS of the birds they mention! I love this so much.