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Jeanine Ikekhua 0:31
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Jeanine Ikekhua 0:58
In this episode Aiden Farmer interviews retiring North Carolina State University English professor Dr. Cat Warren, she shares her thoughts on journalism, nonfiction writing and her panel at the fall 2021 North Carolina Writers Network Conference title to tell the truth.
I guess to start out, I mean, looking through looking through your career, I'm interested, you know, what made you return to academia? Because that seemed to seem like a fairly long career in journalism, what was what interested you to come back to the academy?
Dr. Warren 1:30
So I think, you know, you try to divide up a life and look back and think, Well, you know, what happened when, and, and quite literally, Aiden, I- when I was a journalist, I was always involved in sort of employee activism. So journalism in the 1980s, was this moment when newspapers were going through a kind of bean counting phase, which just got worse and worse. And that is that that newspapers decided that they had to have more of a profit than they had in sort of previous iterations. And the net effect was that it was undermining good journalism. So there was a moment when I decided that journalism was not going in a beautiful direction. And I started teaching by accident at a small university, I was just going to take a break from journalism and go back. And I was in my sort of mid 30s and I realized that I really loved teaching. And I didn't expect to be doing it, I was actually just a replacement teacher for a journalism class. And so by the time a newspaper called me and said, "Hey, we're really interested in hiring you", tt was, like, you know what I think, I think I'm good. I think I'm gonna go on, and maybe think about something else. And it's, it was literally then that decision of, do I go back to school for my PhD, versus just do my experiences a journalist and a couple of master's degrees for teaching. And I then looked at what it would take to get a PhD, and realized that it was going to give me the opportunity to learn. I was a little scary, right, because I was, you know, in my mid 30s, and going back to school felt like a little bit of a risk. But that's what I did, and NC State was a beautiful landing, right out of my PhD. So I was lucky to get a tenure track job at NC State, and that was in '95. And so that we go from '95 to a few months ago, and that was my career at NC State.
So how do you- I'm curious, you talk about a journalism, not going in a good direction, the 80s, you know, and then you translate that to now, you know, the 80s seem like the golden age of journalism, How do you-
Dr. Warren 4:23
How do you prepare students for that kind of environment, teaching?
Dr. Warren 4:27
You know, I think it's extraordinarily difficult when you have super creative, invested passionate students, where you're essentially saying to them, Look, you're probably not going to get a job as a full time journalist these days, right? And so, what do you do and how do you prepare students for what is inevitably, a pretty rough economy, a world that is filled with uncertainty, the inevitability that students are going to have not just one or two or three jobs, but many different jobs over the course of, of their careers. And I think, Aidan, that there's no way to fully prepare people for a world that looks like this right now. I think that the best you do is that you understand that people are resilient. And I think that your generation is having to be especially resilient, and especially sort of flexible in the face of- between climate change and, and democracy being undermined, and jobs not being kind of guaranteed anymore. I mean, I, frankly, think it's a deep pity that unions are not doing well in this country. Because, you know, being able to have some protections as a worker, that's going away. So what do you say? You say, you say that, that the mind is a marvelously plastic thing, and that there are ways to do and find things that you love. And, you know, I look at the kinds of careers students have sort of gerrymandered for themselves, and I'm, I'm totally impressed. I mean, what do you say to people?
Yeah, yeah, I thought that was interesting. Look, yeah, you, you, according to your CV founded the Women and Gender Studies major here, and it is interesting, you know, what was that proces like? I mean, obviously, this is somewhat of a more conservative institution, and I was impressed, you know, in the mid 2000s, is a fairly late time to be starting a Women and Gender Studies major at a major university. So what was that like?
Dr. Warren 7:26
So it was. So you know, those processes are sort of, Aiden, I was thinking, I was thinking, it's similar to when we look at what happened just now with the infrastructure bill, and Congress, with Democrats sort of coming together with a few Republicans, and that concept that it's like sausage making, it is a, in some ways, kind of ugly, and compromising process with, in a sense, all these little hoops to jump through. So in a way, when we think about it, it's it's not about this grand moment of victory, but it's that people have been plugging along and doing things all along to sort of created a ground work for this a foundation. And that's what happened with women's and gender studies, there were a number of people who came before me, who had been quietly working for years to try to get those kinds of courses in at NC State, and I sort of took it to it's sort of natural. But can I say, coming of age, right? Sadly, what's happened since is that these programs have been undermined because of budget cuts, in the humanities and social sciences, and so at this point, that major is pretty inactive.
Dr. Warren 7:34
I mean, we can see what's happened to programs like this. And, I think that, once again, imaginative students who want to create their own disciplinary path, can find a way to get the courses, the courses are still out there. But I think that once again, the numbers of hoops that you have to jump through to make something like that happen is is more difficult.
Dr. Warren 9:35
Again, I look at the students who graduated with Women's and Gender Studies majors and you know, they've gone on to do wonderful work in nonprofits in academia. It was and is a truly sort of interdisciplinary kind of major.
Yeah, you see that interdisciplinary thread a lot and I'm looking at some of your classes that you offer here or have offered in the past. I think it's interesting. Okay, so much of your courses are centered around science writing, or creative nonfiction, I think is something that comes through and it seems- I'm curious, was that more of a compromise in the sense of you wanted to teach something that was more in line with the STEM mission of the university? Or was that really something that you were engaged with? Like, how was the- what's the process for those courses? What are they like?
Dr. Warren 10:32
So so when I was hired in 1995, it was specifically part of my part of what they were looking for, was not just somebody who could teach journalism, but somebody who could teach science journalism or environmental journalism, because I was essentially asked to teach this graduate course in science writing for the media, which I created, and which continues and is being taught this fall by a new talented journalist, science journalist, who has a tenure track job doing that. And so it's wonderful to see that much of this sort of material, and work continues. Under, with a new professor doing it, and then taking it probably in a slightly different direction, but that's what should happen, right? And the creative nonfiction was a collaboration with the creative writing department, and with a couple of professors who were really interested in, thinking about what essentially nonfiction could bring to creative writing. And Bell Boggs, who is currently director of the MFA program, the Master of Fine Arts program, is teaching those classes now, as well. And so those have come along too.
And how did how did those teaching in those environments kind of inform your process for your book? Because obviously, that's also sort of creative nonfiction, in a certain sense, like, was there a connection there? Was that was that something you're interested in before?
Dr. Warren 12:32
Yeah, I mean, I mean, it is Aiden, it's really true that I've always been in environmental science writing has always been in my wheelhouse. My father was a biologist, a fisheries biologist, and water pollution was his- and studying water pollution, was his jam. And, you know, I kind of grew up in the country, and so that connection between science and dogs, and, essentially crime, because, you know, I was when I was a reporter, at crime, and courts were part of my sort of natural beat. And so having those things kind of come together, made a ton of sense. And also that when I was looking at the work I was doing, I realized that with the dog, with Solo, I realized that much of it was about science, and was raising all of these questions right? To me about, what do we really know? And how do we know it?
It's tnteresting. And then, so kind of going off that you're teaching a course at the MC writers workshop here soon in creative nonfiction. So I believe he said that registration will be open through the rest of this week till November the 12th. Tell us a bit about what that program is going to be like and what people who sign up can expect.
Dr. Warren 14:06
Well yes, I'm actually working on some of the presentation right now, and part of the concept of this is that many of the people who are part of the writers conference are writers of fiction, right? But not all of them. And one of the things that I realized early on, even as a reporter was that everything every piece of writing, that you are going to have when people are investing their time, that question of wanting to know what happens next is so central to any fiction or nonfiction writing. People don't have to pick up a book or a magazine or a newspaper. They are not obligated to keep reading something, when they pull it up on their computer screen. The impetus to do that is because you're creating this sort of sense of pulling somebody into the story. I do think that John McPhee sort of said it best is that when you write nonfiction, that your entry has to be sort of like a flashlight that leads into your story. And, so I've been thinking a lot about that, and a lot about the other thing that McPhee said, which I think is really central is that using fictional techniques, and nonfiction, okay. If you were using the exact same kind of techniques in fiction, you would think it's just so obvious. I mean, that's just like a Harlequin romance or a badly written thriller, and you sort of roll your eyes. But these kinds of techniques brought to nonfiction end up working extraordinarily well, because, because it's the truth. And so you add, you add story and narrative to something that is true. And you get something that's really compelling. And there are so many writers who do that super well. And I want to highlight those writers, and then do some exercises, right? Where we say okay, here's the plot of a romance and here's some nonfiction facts. Take 15 minutes and write a quick romance.
That's interesting. Do you see that, is that something you see is missing in a lot of journalistic or nonfiction writing? Or do you think it's more something that just isn't recognized that these fiction techniques always live there?
Dr. Warren 16:59
Yeah, I mean, in any in any good nonfiction writing, those techniques are there. And I think that you're exactly right, Aiden, that, people don't notice them. And in some way, that's, that's a great thing, not being able to notice those is how you get away with using those techniques subtly to create suspense, or tension, or I want to know, what happens to this person, you've made me care about this person. So you know, we talk a lot about how reading fiction creates empathy, and we know from studies that that's true. I think that good nonfiction does the same thing that it makes you invest and care about the people and animals and world that's being evoked in the nonfiction.
Cool, how do you balance that component of wanting to create a compelling narrative and build empathy with trying to make sure that you stick to the factual basis so that you don't misrepresent? What's going on in the real world? Is that a struggle?
Dr. Warren 18:18
Of course. Yeah, I mean, it's a huge struggle. I think it's a scary struggle for some people. I think that for me, that tension between the truth and creativity, I will always in writing nonfiction, want the needle to point to the truth, right? So you don't make up dialogue. You don't misrepresent the facts, you quadruple check everything that it creates. It creates anxiety, this is the waking up at night in a cold sweat, you know, the day prior to something being published and going, "Oh, my God, did I get that right? "And, and yet, with all of that, there's still tons of room for using creative systems, and I think that it's partly that people are storytellers, right? This is this is a really, I think deep in the human brain. One of the ways we make sense of the world, one of them ways we order it is through narrative. And so in some ways, I think that both the writer and the reader are unconsciously able to create those narratives, because that's how we want to order the universe.
So in your program, how do you, so how do you approach that kind of order from a conscious perspective? Like how do you take that kind of underlying human impulse to want to impose narrative and turn it into something that can be structured, and that can be rigorous and accurate while still being compelling?
Dr. Warren 20:18
Right. So So part of so part of what you do is, and when I was teaching at the university, reverse engineering, really good writing is incredibly helpful as an exercise to then learn how to turn around and mimic some of those kinds of techniques. So, you know, Tanisha Coats, and Dan Berry and Sy Montgomery and I mean, I have probably 15 immediate go to writers, where I will literally pick them up and read them before writing to be sort of unconsciously inspired by what they're doing, and and how it works. That's kind of a long, it's kind of a long explanation. But I think, I think it's really necessary to do the studying, of good writing, and also to occasionally study bad writing, okay? Just to say, Why doesn't that work? Right? If this works, why doesn't that work? And George Saunders is one of my sort of favorite fiction writers, he did "Lincoln in the Bardo", and he just put out a book last year, maybe a year and a half ago, "A Swim in the Pond in the Rain", where he actually deconstructs several Russian short stories, not not my favorite thing, Russian short stories, right? But what's fascinating about what he does, and what he does, in terms of looking at them, is literally sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph he figures out, why does this work? What makes this work? And again, 19th century translated from Russian short stories have nonetheless these things about them, just like, you know, great nonfiction writing, they have these things where you can look and say, oh, yeah, you know, there's a moment and there's a moment and there's a moment.
And so with translations, is that really come in with the construction of the narrative? Or is it more on a granular prose level? Like the the ordering of the words? How do you?
Dr. Warren 23:13
You know, it's so I'm, I'm very conscious when I look at sort of the structure and rhythm of something in a native language, for instance, where I know that I'm doing alliteration, or I know that I'm pairing things where you know, that that term lost in translation, where it might not work in a different language, as well, right? So, you know, like the title "What the Dog Knows," right? It's a play on dog, nose, the nose of a dog, right? And it's also it, it has got this, it's got several subtle little threads. It's a very hard title to translate into another language. Because you inevitably lose some of that with the other language. So that's sort of why translated short stories, that they still work is a pretty amazing thing.
Yeah. All right well, thank you so much for your time. People can still sign up through the end of the week, and if you would like to hear more of Dr. Warren's thoughts or would like to practice these techniques yourself, what was the name of your seminar again?
Dr. Warren 24:46
To Tell the truth.
To tell the truth. Okay. You can see to tell the truth at the NC Writers Workshop. Thank you!
Jeanine Ikekhua 24:55
Music for today's show was Come Over by MCI beats licensed under music archive. This has been Aidan Farmer for WKNC Radio. Thank you for listening. You can listen to more episodes at wknc.org/podcast and you can also tune in every Sunday at 6pm to hear new Eye on the Triangle episodes
Transcribed by https://otter.ai