The Outdoor Writers Association of America has awarded Ann Hirsch’s feature “Getting Off the Grid” first prize in the “outdoor fun and adventure” category of its annual writing contest. The article, which gives tips for safely exploring the backcountry, was published in the September–October 2012 issue of Arizona Wildlife Views.
Ann is the daughter of legendary outdoor writer Bob Hirsch, so she grew up in a family that valued exploring and communicating about the outdoors. Bob wrote for The Phoenix Gazette, The Arizona Republic and other news outlets. He also hosted a television show and a radio show. A generation of Arizonans grew up loving their state’s natural wonders because of Bob’s communication skills.
I think “Getting Off the Grid” succeeded because it was more than a list of tips. Ann made it personal by telling the story of a trip she took with her dad to the Black River. As a new mother, she was nervous about leaving her baby for five days, but she and her father prepared well and traveled safely. In the end, she was glad to have made the journey. “We shared time with each other in Dad’s favorite spot; a beautiful, quiet place in his beloved Arizona outdoors,” she writes.
I think this intimate connection to Bob Hirsch through his daughter’s memories resonated with many readers. It certainly did with me. I had the good fortune of working with Bob for two years. When I joined the staff of Arizona Wildlife Views back in 2005, he was writing a one-page humor feature for every issue of the magazine. I offered the occasional edit, but usually I tried to just let Bob be Bob. I came late to Arizona, so I never saw the TV show or read his earlier articles, but I knew I was working with a legend.
Now, I’m working with a legend’s daughter. It’s a pleasure to celebrate her latest success. I know her dad would be proud.
There are clichés in every line of business. Wait, is “line of business” itself a cliché?
Over time, there are a few cliché’s specific to writing about wildlife that have started to get under my skin.
See! There’s another one. The truth is, clichés are unavoidable. But as an editor, it’s my duty to try to help writers avoid them anyway, when possible. Some writers appreciate this more than others, of course. I try to approach it as a suggestion rather than a command.
There are clichés, and there are clichés. That statement itself may be a cliché. See how tough this battle is? There are garden-variety clichés, which anyone might use in casual conversation or in writing. Then there are those specific to this topic of wildlife conservation. Among the latter, my least favorite is this one: “the places animals call home.”
I probably missed a few dozen of these in the first couple of years that I worked at Arizona Wildlife Views. But at some point, I started noticing how often our writers use it. Once I noticed, it started to bug me, like an itch that won’t go away. Now, I can’t stand it.
Every time it crops up, I have to stop myself from pointing out to the writer that animals don’t “call” anyplace “home.” They just live there. That would sound snarky. I try not to be a snarky editor. It doesn’t make the world a better place.
Instead, I gently suggest that the writer try to find some other way to convey the concept of “home range.” I cross my fingers, hoping they’ll agree to change the wording, even if they don’t manage to invent the next great metaphor for this concept.
This is, I know, a “peeve.” All editors have them. I’d like to think it’s part of our charm, but I’ll bet it’s just a milepost on the way to curmudgeonhood. I suspect that the longer you work with words, the more peeves you have. I’ll try to develop mine slowly.
Last year I had the honor of interviewing Cecil Schwalbe. Now retired from the U.S. Geological Survey, Schwalbe was Arizona’s first state herpetologist—the guy who launched a program that today works to conserve the desert tortoise, rare native frogs and all the state’s reptiles and amphibians.
I’d never met Cecil until the interview, but he was already famous in my mind; not for his many accomplishments over a long career, but because when I met my favorite author, Barbara Kingsolver, at a booksigning and told her I work for Arizona Wildlife Views magazine, she said, “I used to subscribe to that magazine! Do you know Cecil Schwalbe?”
For the interview, Cecil and I sat together on a bench in the shade on the UofA campus, students walking past, cars idling in the distance. My colleague at the time, Gary Schafer, a video producer, asked most of the questions. Gary already had the dirt on Cecil—the caiman he walked on a leash, the Gila monster that took a piece of his finger when he was giving a talk to 200 people. He had no trouble getting Cecil to talk.
Cecil’s an enthusiastic and able storyteller. I don’t know how long we sat together on that bench, but the time went quickly. Later, I transcribed a digital voice recording of the interview because I want to quote Cecil directly as much as possible in the story I’m writing about him. I was surprised when the transcript ran to more than 9,000 words. It didn’t seem like we talked that long.
This week, I took that huge transcript and whacked it back to around 2,000 words, which is about right for a first draft. It took most of a day to do it, removing big chunks of text at first, then successively smaller ones. I haven’t done much sentence-by-sentence work yet; I hope to find another one or two hundred “extra” words when I get to that level, but these things take time.
Fortunately, I have it: The piece isn’t slated to run until the July–August issue.
Its working title: “Anyone Who Gets Bitten by a Gila Monster Deserves It: Adventures of Arizona’s First Herper.”
A recent post on a blog called “The Open Notebook” explored the personality differences between writers and editors.
Many smart things were said in this two-part post about traits that may dispose a person toward one job or the other. What signposts might guide a person who is skilled with words and enjoys using them well, if he or she is offered a choice between these two careers?
It’s important to note that those who contributed to the post mostly explored the differences between staff editors and freelance writers. Of course, there are staff writing jobs, and freelance editors, which muddies the waters somewhat. Let’s put that aside for now.
One of the insights in the post was that (staff) editing jobs are both collaborative and hierarchical, and so invite a certain ability to adhere to a goal set by others, along with respect for external authority. (Freelance) writing jobs tend to be more conducive to an individualistic mindset.
Interestingly, my nature fits the description offered above for staff editors: respect for authority, adherence to group goals, and comfort in a hierarchy. But the freelance writer in me thrills to the absolute freedom of creativity. I am never happier than when filling a blank page with whatever comes to mind, unbound by any restrictions.
I have been asked whether I’m a writer who also edits, or an editor who also writes. I’ve never been comfortable voicing a choice. Until I came to work at Arizona Wildlife Views, I was a writer, through and through. But in the past seven years as the associate editor of Arizona’s wildlife magazine, I’ve come to love the collaborative, coaching nature of the editor’s role. Working with writers who care about words is deeply satisfying.
In the end, I am fortunate not to be forced to choose. My job allows me to be both an editor and a writer. The job has always fit me very well, and now I have a better understanding of why.
Is the word “wildlife” singular or plural?
You’d think this question would cease to haunt my dreams, now that I’m well into my eighth year on the staff of a wildlife magazine.
In a previous post titled “10,000 Hours” (August 2012), I confessed to feeling that I’m becoming worse at choosing whether to deploy the singular or plural form of a word such as “dove” in a sentence. The Wildlife Conundrum is the granddaddy of these problems. Imagine how often I’m faced with it when editing a magazine about Arizona’s critters.
Like “dove,” wildlife is a “mass noun,” something that is “uncountable … because it refers to an indeterminate aggregation of people or things.” (The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition) As the subject of a sentence, a mass noun may take either a singular or plural verb form. Wildlife is? Wildlife are? That’s the conundrum.
Chicago, of course, offers an answer: “A singular verb emphasizes the group; a plural verb emphasizes the individual members.” In other words, either choice might be right, depending on the writer’s intention.
To my way of thinking, the sentence “Wildlife is all around us” indicates an abstract idea, a web of wild and mysterious “other” life. “Wildlife are all around us,” on the other hand, creates an image of lots of different animals.
When I deploy “wildlife” as the subject of a sentence, it’s not too much trouble to decide between a concrete image, a varied horde; or something more vague, an idea of wildness embodied in animal life.
The trouble comes when two sentences in close proximity to one another use “wildlife” in different ways. Here’s a recent example from a booklet I’ve been editing:
Wildlife is often active in poor weather. Most wildlife seek cover during really bad weather.
In revising those sentences, I opted for the plural verb to emphasize the individual members rather than the group. In fact, I combined the sentences into one:
Although wildlife often are active in poor weather, most wildlife seek cover if the weather becomes very bad.
When I’m flummoxed by the Wildlife Conundrum, it’s comforting to remember I am not the only one. Here’s another example from the booklet:
Some wildlife appears only during certain seasons, such as when they are migrating.
I hardly ever receive mail about my articles in Arizona Wildlife Views magazine. So it was a surprise when, a few days ago, I received a letter from a reader. I opened it with some hesitation, for reasons revealed below. My fears were unfounded. In carefully chosen, well-crafted prose, the writer praised my story “Wild Life at House Rock” in glowing terms. He said it took him to a part of Arizona he’d never visited, and he really enjoyed the trip. I won’t quote the letter, so as not to (cliche alert) toot my own horn. Suffice to say, he made my day.
The reason I felt trepidation as I opened the letter was that it was postmarked from one of Arizona’s prisons. I had no idea what to think as I opened it. I’m sure prisoner mail is read by staff before it’s sent, so I wasn’t really afraid of the contents. I guess I just didn’t know what to think.
It turned out, neither did he. In the letter, the writer said he hoped I wouldn’t mind receiving it. As a writer, I’ve always sent my words into the world assuming without question that they will find warm welcome. It’s hard to imagine being behind bars. You read something, it speaks to you, you want to thank the writer, but you have to wonder whether your words will even be read, not to mention what the person reading them will think or imagine of your situation.
It took some courage for this person to write me, and it really touched me that he did. He said my story took him away from his environment for a little while. I’m not sure any story I’ve ever written has ever received higher praise than that. What a nice way to begin 2013.
A five-minute walk from my front door waits a wetland fringed by reeds and encircled by walking trails. The ponds are a haven for ducks. Even this deep into December, I see them in rafts on the unruffled waters. Not a surprise: It’s been a mild winter so far.
Earlier in the year, there were seen-but-not-heard sora (secretive, long-legged waders). During the fall, red-tailed hawks patrolled the skies. Now and then, an osprey cruises above the waters. I have also seen prairie dogs and Harris’s antelope squirrels in the grasslands around the ponds.
It’s my favorite place to walk, largely because I don’t have to get in a car to reach it. Having this kind of access to nature is crucial. A person who writes and edits stories about wildlife needs to have some wildlife close at hand. I don’t need them for material for my work — it doesn’t matter if I ever write about these birds or this wetland — I just need to be able to get there. They give me the typical experiences and feelings one has in the natural world. I need this place, to refresh the well from which words flow.
The fact that this wetland was created by the local water district to reclaim treated wastewater is beside the point. The birds don’t care where the water comes from, and neither do I (and neither, apparently, does my neighbor, who lets his dogs swim in the ponds despite posted warnings). Water lures birds, birds lure me, and life is good.
I wish everyone could live within walking distance of a place they enjoy, whose creatures they care about. Would we treat each other better if we could spend time alone in the natural world every day?