Combining the Sciences and the Arts: 5 Simple Steps to Fuse Ocean Science with Storytelling
Interdisciplinary research is a buzz word among universities. Our world is socially, politically, economically, and environmentally complex. This complexity demands solutions that cross the traditional boundaries of disciplines. Partnerships have arisen between the marine ecologist and the mechanical engineer, between the social scientist and the remote sensing specialist. However, I have yet to hear the discussion of interdisciplinary research to partner the sciences with the creative arts. What about the forest pathologist and the creative writer, or the landscape ecologist and the musician?
For Canadians, the silos that separate science and creative arts develop in high school. Anyone with the slightest inkling to pursue a STEM field is forced to leave photography or visual arts behind, filling their schedule with mathematics, chemistry, and biology. The trenches only deepen as we enter university. When I studied Natural Resources Conservation at the University of British Columbia, I was declined a minor in creative writing as my schedule required the “proper science electives”.
I have experienced first hand how our current education system is stifling our creativity. Any storyteller that lingers inside us as scientists must venture out between lab tutorials and research papers. If you’re curious for more proof that our school system kills the storytellers within us, I suggest you watch this eye-opening TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson.
Despite these hurdles, some scientists have emerged as powerful storytellers. Bill Nye the Science Guy is the public face of science, with his popular TV series Bill Nye The Science Guy and his current features on many news outlets. Another example is Diana Gabbeldon, who published the world-famous series Outlander after completing a Ph.D. in quantitative behavioural ecology.
So, you are trained in the sciences and want to become a storyteller? I commend you and urge you to not give up. Here are 5 simple steps to begin your journey as a storyteller, one that our planet so desperately deserves.
Step 1: There Is No “Right” Way to Be Creative
This is perhaps the hardest step to grasp as someone trained in the sciences. Creativity is subjective. There is no formula for creativity. Humans are unique, so a one-size-fits-all approach would not only be false but also counterproductive to creativity itself. In fact, if you follow the exact methods as another to create a story, regardless of the medium, I guarantee that your results will be different (your inner scientist gasps!). That is the beauty of creativity. The example below is a quick and fun way to prove just that!
Grab two pieces of paper and a family member/friend. Hiding your paper from one another, your goal is to draw an imaginary creature. Take turns suggesting a single body part for you both to draw until your creatures are complete!
Person 1: “draw a square head”.
Both of you draw a square head on your hidden paper.
Person 2: “draw tentacle arms”.
Both of you draw tentacle arms on your hidden paper.
Person 1: “draw a monkey tail”
Both of you draw a monkey tail on your hidden paper.
Go back and forth until your creature is complete.
Then reveal your paper to the other person.
Your creatures look pretty different, right?
Step 2: Understand the Fundamentals of a Well Told Story
Regardless of the creative medium, there are fundamental elements to any story. These elements include: plot, characters, and setting. Each story element will entangle itself differently in your medium of choice, but a firm grasp on each will strengthen your storytelling. If you are just starting your journey, continue reading below to examine each element in turn. If you are already a seasoned storyteller, I'd recommend the book "Story" by Robert McKee for an in depth examination at the fundamentals of story.
Plot is the action that drives your story. In creative writing, this is oftentimes broken down into the following: introduction, inciting incident, hurdles, climax, resolution, conclusion. Many books out there have detailed entries on the sections of a story. For example, the journey of Luke Skywalker follows the arch of the 17 stages of a hero's journey. Check our Joseph Campbell to learn more. For comics the plot is often subtle but centred around a hook, or an “ah-ha” moment. Lastly, within the plot lives your theme. The theme is the purpose you have for creating your story and the message you want your readers to uncover.
Characters are the voice of your story. Your chosen characters should evoke emotion from your readers - happiness, sorrow, laughter. In a photo-journal the main character is yourself, your thoughts revealed with an inner monologue. In an art piece, characters will most obviously reveal themselves through facial expressions, and subtly through the clothes they wear or their features that are emphasized. As the storyteller, you choose how much to present your characters; you define who they are and why they are of value to the story.
Setting is where your imagination can truly run wild. It provides context, and context is vital to immerse your audience. Remember, this is your story. You get to create the rules of your work and the details of the setting. The best writing advice I have received about setting was: “do not tell your readers what your characters are doing, bring them up onto the stage and show us”. Expanded further, don’t tell your readers you traveled to an old farm, show them your hand drifting across the cracked barn door and how the flaking paint stains your fingers. In our more visual mediums like videos or photography, the setting is captured by the elements you include in the frame and those you chose to leave out.
Step 3: Gather the (inexpensive) Tools You’ll Need to Tell Your Story
A variety of tools exists for you to become a storyteller that will cost you little to no money. Below we will briefly explore some options that we have used for Tales For Gaia:
Comics: Medibang paint is free to download and allows you to create comics with ease. If you have access to a tablet or touchscreen, this is an excellent tool to take advantage of. We created many of our comics, such as this octopus comic, with Medibang paint.
Creative Writing: Microsoft Word is your best friend. Word offers book formatting templates, and a “headings” option to allow yourself to quickly navigate between chapters.
Artwork: Artwork has a lot of mediums and generally speaking, the tools you would need to create everything from a paper and pencil sketch to a watercolour painting are relatively cheap. The artists who have submitted work to us either had the supplies already at their disposal (like this hand-drawn colouring page) or only made a small purchase to get the right equipment that lasts for multiple uses like paint, brushes and canvas (to paint a beautiful canvas).
DIY: Our DIY tales source many items from our own homes because these projects are focused on reducing, reusing, and recycling! Sometimes we make affordable purchases (like vegetable seeds) with great payoffs (like a vegetable garden!).
Step 4: Start With a Single Literacy Fact
To connect ocean literacy to storytelling, it is your job to break down the facts into something digestible to your readers. Decoding a scientific paper in a foreign field is challenging enough as a scientist, let alone as a member of the general public. We suggest starting with a single ocean literacy fact, and explore how to work it into your story.
At Tales For Gaia, we love to use this technique to create engaging stories for our readers using facts such as the closest living relative to the manatee is an elephant or that humpback whales have the longest pectoral fins of any whale species. We use the general formula: species + fact + emotion. For example, a fiddler crab who is self-conscious because his left claw is larger than the right. Grab some chart paper to work through this formula in a brainstorming session!
Step 5: Share Your Work
In my opinion, the very subjective nature of storytelling makes this the most daunting of steps. However, no matter how intimidating it may be, sharing your work with others is perhaps the single greatest step to develop your skills as a storyteller. The first novel chapter I submitted to an anonymous writing forum received a comment that I should “really sign up for some writing lessons”. It stung, for a while. But I was 16 at the time, and in hindsight, I am grateful that I had the courage at a young age to share my work. Storytelling takes practise and persistence, as does any field.
If you’re looking for a friendly place to share your work, Tales For Gaia is a great place to start. We encourage diversity and inclusiveness in everything we do. We strongly believe everyone has a story to tell. So, want to strengthen your storytelling skills? Venture to our Contact Page and submit your work. Regardless of your creative medium, our team would love to provide feedback, give advice, or edit any rough drafts you might have.
The ocean needs more storytellers. Yes, that storyteller is you.