ali benjamin

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Archive for The widening gyre

Writing, writing, writing + some kudos among the words

Posted by: ali | Posted on: Oct 22, 2013

Have been writing, writing, writing, writing.

One book hits editors’ desks today, and I’d be crossing my fingers if my fingers weren’t so busy…well…writing.

Another book is mapped out in post-it notes on my office wall. Ideas that have been reduced to shorthand (“Nut Hut 1,” “Pale Blue Dot,” “Pee Disks,” “Heroes and Villains”) are scrawled onto different shades of neon post-its, as I try to figure out what is the beginning, the middle and the end of this thing.

Okay, Aristotle, but can you tell me which is which?

You know what? Even when you know the chronological order of things, it can be surprisingly hard to figure out where the beginning, middle, and end of a book lie.

In the meantime, an editor I work with forwarded some nice praise on a piece I did for the Smith Alumnae Quarterly. UMagazinology, a blog from the Johns Hopkins University communications office, complimented Smith College’s “In Her Own Words feature,” with a link to my article about Jean Merrill, an MS researcher. Doing this type of feature, writes Dale Keiger, a self-described “grump,” and “gimlet-eyed editor,”

is harder than it looks,  requiring a skilled interviewer who can elicit smart,  articulate,  thought-provoking answers and a skilled writer/editor/compiler,  whoever does it,  to pare the answers down to something potent that accurately conveys the subject’s meaning and stays as true as possible to how she actually said it.

Ah, but those pieces are awfully fun to write. I love them. I love trying to figure out how to take these big ideas, decades of research and life experience and distill them down to a few choice ideas. Not to mention, I learn something new every time I do one. There is nothing like sitting down with a foremost expert and having the freedom to just pick his or her brain for a while.

Have another one coming out soon in the SAQ…on the fascinating Henry Molaison (known in almost every Psych 101 textbook as H.M., the man with no long-term memory) and the researcher who worked with him for decades. I love that this — plus neon post-its — is my job.

I have been trying to remember

Posted by: ali | Posted on: Jan 31, 2013

Draft 1 of project 1: what it is ain't exactly clear.

I have been writing. And I have been trying to remember some things.

I have been trying to remember the advice that I give to a great group of students — a weekly writing club of fifth through ninth grade students with whom I meet each week — that the difference between a writer and a non-writer is that the writer knows it’s a job. You sit down, you write. You don’t wait until you’re in the mood, until you’re “inspired,” whatever that means. You sit down. You write.

I have been trying to remember the words of Somerset Maughham: ”I write only when inspiration strikes,” he said. “Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”


I’m at work on two book-length pieces. One is fiction. It is about grief and obsession and jellyfish and love inside a 42 billion light-year universe. I have a first draft of this project, some 50,000 words. It is a mess. It is beautiful at moments.  It mediocre at moments. But mostly, it just doesn’t flow like it should. There is a structure to it that I haven’t yet found. The pacing is off. Nothing happens for half the book, then everything happens. Ultimately, it doesn’t say quite what I want it to say, which is something about grief and obsession and jellyfish and love inside a 42 billion light-year universe.

So I have been trying to remember other piece advice that I give to my weekly group of young writers: that the first draft is just the first draft. It gets better from here. That we must not be discouraged if our first drafts are less than we want them to be; they are always less than what we want them to be. That the greatest and most successful writers on the planet — writers whose final products unfold so effortlessly it seems the words must have popped into their brains just-so — write first drafts that are not good enough.

I am trying to remember that my job is to keep going, to barrel through.

I have been trying to forget Annie Dillard’s metaphor about the sea star:  every once in a while a sea star disposes of one of its rays, and must generate a new one. Writing a book, says Dillard, is a bit like that. It is a bit like losing a ray. Except that writing a book often requires growing a whole new sea star from a single ray. I have been trying to forget that, but it keeps lurking around me as I work, occasionally jabbing me with a stick, as if to say, “I’m still here. You’re still holding the sea star, but I’m here to tell you that perhaps you should be holding that lone ray.”

I am 80% through another first draft, another book. This one non-fiction, the story of a teenager with courage, a kid who has the potential to teach us something. Something about being unafraid, about compassion, about who we are as humans at our finest and our worst. It is not my own story, but I’m trying to remember that perhaps, if I can write it just right, it will be everyone’s story.

I am trying to put one word down, then another, then another: a string of words that form a line (not always straight) to a finished product or two.

I am writing. Yup. I’m writing.

Emmy nomination

Posted by: ali | Posted on: Jul 23, 2012

Update: we won!

Apparently summer 2011 was well-spent. I spent it finding stories of hunger, then figuring out how to tell those stories, for Sesame Street’s Growing Hope Against Hunger. Last week, the show got an Emmy nomination.

Coincidentally, I went out to Chicago last week to be the closing speaker for a Feeding America conference, based on my work with the show. I spoke to a full ballroom of people who were in the business of telling stories about hunger every single day. Although these were the experts, it turned out I had plenty to say, plenty of lessons learned that I wouldn’ t have learned if I hadn’t been working with a team like Sesame Workshop. But the most important thing I said that day was simply this: there are millions more stories like the ones we told. Literally, there are tens of millions more stories to be told: please, please, go and tell them.

What an honor it was to share the stories of the incredible families who opened their lives to the nation. What a pleasure it was to work with the team at Sesame Workshop, who have been the best at what they do for as long as I’ve been alive.

Categories : The widening gyre

On storytelling and ruthless editors

Posted by: ali | Posted on: Apr 06, 2012

Once upon a time, when I was a fresh-faced college grad, ready to wow the world with my myriad literary talents, I wrote a manuscript for my then-employer. After the first draft, I thought to myself, “Okay, that’s done.” I figured it was good enough. It was fine. Time to move onto the next thing. I swiftly routed it to a handful of folks, including the president of the company. He was a ruthless editor, not known for his subtlety, and he returned the manuscript with just two words: this sucks.

Welcome to the real world, Ali B.

That gentleman is still a friend; I respect him tremendously. And I’m deeply grateful to him; he made me a better writer. A much, much better writer.

I was recently invited to be the closing speaker at a conference in Chicago, based on my work with Sesame Workshop. I will speak to community activists about storytelling: how to select the right story, from all those stories they come across daily, in a way that moves people to action.

It’s a real honor, and I’ve been thinking about what I’m going to say. The most important things I want to say are these:

1. Don’t tell the story that you want to tell. Tell the story people need to hear.

2. Then be ruthless until you get it right.

Crafting a story isn’t about getting an idea down. It’s about letting a tale unfold in a way that actually makes people feel something.

Certainly, there are a dizzying number of considerations — pacing, rhythm, language, voice, the dance between vivid detail and reflection, between action and long, deep breaths. What’s essential? What can we leave aside? But if you’re doing all of those things, without moving people, you’re not doing your job. You’ve got to tap into something universal, something that is so powerful/exciting/beautiful that the world needs to hear it.

They may not know they need to hear it, but they will by the time you’re through.

Then write. And rewrite. Accept the fact that your first draft might not be so good — it might even suck (ask any writer about the phrase, “shitty first drafts.” He/she will nod knowingly). Write until you get it right.

I have heard that a good photographer throws out 90% of his photos. The person who told me that said, “fortunately, one doesn’t have to be so judicious when writing.” I didn’t say anything, but I thought to myself, “I’m not so sure.” I recently wrote a chapter of my book. Like that manuscript from way back when, it was okay. It was perhaps even pretty good. But it wasn’t good enough. I woke up at 4:30 one morning and rewrote the whole thing — every single word.

Don’t stop, don’t settle for less, until it’s right.

Because that story you want to tell? It’s connected to an even bigger story: the one that people need to hear. It’s time to get started.

Categories : The widening gyre

Still running

Posted by: ali | Posted on: Mar 26, 2012

“So I was standing in the basement of a funeral home last week, looking at these naked bodies laid out on the cold steel tables.”

My sister was speaking. She was breathless. It was an unusually mild Thanksgiving day, and we were running.

It should be noted: she says things like this, my sister. She reports in from other places the way Buzz Alrden might have once reported from the moon. An email from her might read something like this: in China the masseuse wears a surgical mask and there are condoms in every hotel room. Or like this: Just left a party with Elijah Wood and Judith Light. Or like this: I’m wearing a borrowed bracelet worth $65,000. A report from the basement of a Florida funeral home is neither remarkable nor demands much explanation.

She went on. “There were these two guys laid out next to one another, and I kept looking back and forth between them. I realized they had never met in life; they didn’t have anything to do with one another, except for the fact that they died on the same day. And I keep thinking about that.

“This is all we’ve got,” she continued. “So, you know, I just figure we might as well keep running.”

So we did.

It’s a different thing to run at 41 than it was at 25 years old. There are fewer artificial goals. Sometimes, when people find out that I run, they’ll ask if I’m training for something – a marathon, a half-marathon, a triathalon, a dodecahedralon, whatever. I’m not; I never am. That’s not to say I’m opposed to running the occasional race; the funeral home conversation took place in the middle of a Thanksgiving morning 10K Turkey Trot. But the race isn’t the goal. By 41, I’ve seen plenty of friends go for the half-marathon and lose themselves to the achilles tendon. They shoot for the 10-miler and get knocked on their butt by the stress fracture.

Nah, I like it too much to make the race the important thing.

I like running, because I can do it using my own two feet and nothing else.

I like running, because I can do it alone and not talk to anyone.

I like running, because I can do it with others and talk. My most common running partners are a bunch of men in their 60s who have run together for 30 years. We run in the dark, and I listen to them joke back and forth with one another, and I laugh.

I like running because it removes all distraction, so my thoughts become clear.

I like running, because I don’t have to think.

I like running, because my next step is always clear: just take a next step.

I like running, because I can see my own progress. I was there. Now I’m here.

I like running, because it feels good when I stop.

I am not a particularly strong runner, nor a particularly fast runner, nor a remotely competitive runner. The truth is, I rarely want to begin any run. But still, several times a week I strap on shoes and headphones, head out into the early morning darkness, or into the evening sunset, and start moving. Sometimes I return a half an hour later. Sometimes I return an hour later. Once in a very rare while, I can set a challenge for myself — I wonder if I can run to Monique’s house, 5.1 miles away, then back home again, without stopping? — and then two hours later, I’ve done double digits.

I don’t know how long I get to keep doing it. Nobody gets to run forever; at a certain point, everyone’s knees give out, even if nothing else does.

But for now. For now. I do what I can. On that Thanksgiving Day with my sister, we finished the race together. Then we scooped up our kids and went out for pumpkin pancakes and buckets of coffee at a nearby diner. We were stinky, still wearing our race numbers, and we felt good. Our muscles twitched occasionally as we sat in the booth. Later, we remembered that we hadn’t taken a picture after the race. No matter; on the way home from breakfast, we stopped the car. The children cheered, and we ran again — this time, only 10 yards or so, just far enough to snap a photo.

It wasn’t quite real, that photo, but it was real enough for me.

We had run. We were running. We are running still.

Categories : The widening gyre

Public “I”

Posted by: ali | Posted on: Jan 20, 2012

This week, an article of mine appeared on Grist, and an article on the book, with lots of quotes from me, appeared in USA Today.

Different audiences, different spins on the message, more or less. The message is this: feeding kids is hard — let’s stop judging one another, recognize we’re doing our best, and start from a place of compassion.

Categories : The widening gyre

This post is about being wrong. It’s about sometimes being very, very wrong, even when you’re also sometimes very right.

For me, this one started in a run-down vinyl-sided building on a cut-through road in the tiny New England city where American baseball started. I stood in a thrift store, one of my favorites, a cornucopia of junk punctuated by the occasional treasure. There are more porcelain elephants than, say, 17th century delftware, but that’s the fun of such places; it’s a real-life treasure hunt. There are so few times in life when you literally don’t know what’s around the corner. (I wrote about thrift shops once or twice).

In the book section near the back of the store, next to the stack of old 45s, my eyes moved quickly past the old cookbooks (mine will be on such shelves someday) and hard-bound volumes of Readers’ Digest. There, near a bottom shelf, this book caught my eye:

The American Natural History, by W. T. Hornaday. I don't know a thing about it. No matter.

For one dollar, it was mine.

Old books are amazing — each offers a glimpse into some long-ago time, a moment I was not fortunate (or unforunate) enough to experience. They make clear how what was is different from what is. I like these old books. I like that they smell like grass and vanilla and caramel. I like that they connect me with people I will never, ever meet on this earth, but who were just as real as I am now. I like holding these books, feeling the smooth paper against my skin, the rough linen covers, imagining all the hands that have touched this very object, hands which are now long gone.

I like that — as with the thrift store from which it came — I never know what I might find inside.

In this book, written in 1904, I found a vast catalog of North American wildlife, each classified into their respective orders within the animal kingdom. For each animal, the author, W.T. Hornaday, presents lively descriptions and often charming illustrations, like these:

Hornaday bats

From the order of winged mammals: fruit eating bats, page 67.

Rocky mountain goat page 113

Hornaday occasionally offers up some fascinating real-world encounters. For example, under the heading Electric Eel, he drops this anecdote:

Once while canoeing for zoological specimens in the delta of the Orinoco, we encountered…the renowned and dreaded Electric Eel….Instantly the big Eel became a storm centre of the first magnitude; and it writhed and struggled, and thrashed about until it struck against the handle of the spear. Mr. Jackson received such a shock that he cried out from the pain of it…Whenever (the eel) struck the side of the boat, either with head or tail, we were thrilled by a shock…This specimen measured 6 feet, 4 inches in length, and I believe that when delivered to advantage its electric power was sufficent to administer a severe shock to the largest elephant. Woe to the crocodile or shark which attempts to dine or sup at the expense of Gym-notus-elec-tricus!

He anthropomorphisizes things, to be sure — he says of wolves, for example, that “there is no depth of meanness, treachery or cruelty to which they do not cheerfully descend.” — but many scientists do that, even today.

He call lizards “little sprites.” Flying squirrels are “as sportive as schoolboys playing tag.” The chickadee is “a forest elf, in a black cap and a leather closack.” Reptiles as a whole are “victims of an unreasoning prejudice.” (“Now come!” says Hornaday on the subject of these misunderstood reptiles. “Let us reason together.”)

He has stories of crocodiles dragging victims from boats, whales who died when eels got stuck in their blow hole, explorers spending humankind’s first night in the arctic. He tells of hunting sloths in British Guiana, chasing gophers with a spade and dog, singlehandedly killing rams in the Shoshone. It’s easy see why he was beloved by children of his time, why he inspired a Boy Scout merit badge that bears his name.

I didn’t know any of this when I picked up the book. I didn’t know anything about W.T. Hornaday, had never heard of the man. But his appreciation of science and evolution, his attention to the tiniest detail, his clear passion for the way the natural world works, made me curious. It all seems so…ahead of his time somehow.

It wasn’t hard to learn more about him; we live in a world where nearly all of human knowledge, if not understanding, lies at our fingertips (a world Hornaday — who crouched in bushes, slogged through jungles, trekked through deserts to gather information — surely couldn’t have imagined). Hornaday, I quickly learned, was an dedicated conservationist. Herevolutionized how humans view the natural world, insisting on displaying wildlife in their natural settings — a novel idea at the time. He discovered the American crocodile. He founded the American Taxidermy Society. He was good friends with Theodore Roosevelt, and they worked together to pass legislation that would conserve habitats and species.

Says the Smithsonian Magazine, in Last of the Wild Buffalo:

an outspoken public figure, Hornaday was a leading spokesman for the early conservation movement between around 1880 and his death in 1937…Since Hornaday’s era, the number of buffalo on American soil has skyrocketed, thanks to his efforts and others. In 1902, twenty-one captive bison and 23 wild animals in Yellowstone National Park formed the nucleus of the herd of about 2,500 that survives there today. Meanwhile, other herds throughout North America, including protected herds and livestock animals on ranches, bring the total number of bison to about 250,000 animals. To some extent, all, in the United States at least, owe their survival to Hornaday.

(It’s right there in my book, too: “The weakness of the efforts to protect the (bison) herd is a national disgrace,” he writes on page 100. So he did something about it. And now there are still bison, thanks to him).

Oh, yeah, and he founded the National Zoo and what is now the Bronx Zoo. He wrote vibrant articles and 22 books. He stopped the practice of slaughtering birds for the sake of fashion. He helped save the fur seal from oblivion. He was married to the same woman for sixty years.

A conservationist. Protector of wildlife. Savior of species. Dedicated husband. Is there no end to this man’s goodness?

Well. This is where things get murky.

When I turned to the pages about the Great apes, I found this:

Hm. This is where I started getting a little uncomfortable. Maybe it would be okay, but maybe not.

There was something disquieting about the image — partly, perhaps, because it is the only image where humans show up. Why this one, above all else? So I began to read.

“The man-apes we have. Let those who seek the undiscovered man-ape search…the gloomy equatorial forests of the black apes and the Bushmen of South Africa; for there, if anywhere, will the Missing Link be found.”

And when I did a little more research about him, I found another anecdote — this one decidedly less charming than his Orinoco encounter with an electric eel. In 1906, Hornaday, as director of the New York Zoological Society, made a decision that he believed would one day form a “most amusing passage” in the history of the zoo.

In fact, though, it doesn’t amuse me a bit.

Two years after he wrote this book, W.T. Hornaday displayed a human being, a pygmy from the Congo named Ota Benga, in the Monkey House of the New York Zoo.

It’s a long and extremely sad story, which has since been thoughtfully covered in newspapers and on the radio, and in a book. The short of the matter is this: Ota Benga was a survivor of genocide. He came to America with missionary Samuel Verner to be displayed in the St. Louis Exposition of 1904. Although he was returned to his country, he chose to return to America with Verner. Then his American benefactor hit hard times, and Ota Benga was transferred to the zoo. There, tens of thousands of visitors each weekend came to see him, a full 40,000 on a given Sunday. Though Ota Benga was theoretically free to wander, his living quarters were in the monkey house, with an orangutan and a parrot. And when he did leave, he was followed by crowds who chased him, howling and jeering and poking him and tripping him and laughing.

Although African-American clergy protested, the mayor of New York, George McClellan (son of the General George McClellan, Commander of the Union Army during the Civil War, who once called Abraham Lincoln “the original gorilla” and “nothing more than a well-meaning baboon”) wouldn’t hear the case.

Although protests convinced Hornaday to close the exhibit, he remained unapologetic. Ota Benga killed himself in 1916.

Well then. It’s not exactly as heroic as saving fur seals from extinction, is it?

Reading all of this, as well as Hornaday’s thoughts on the Bushmen and “missing links,” my own hunch is this: Hornaday genuinely was doing what he thought was right. That’s because when it came to evolution — something he believed in, and wanted to help the world understand — he fervently believed that Africans were “less evolved” than whites. He thought that they they fell somewhere between the apes with whom Ota Benga shared his quarters and the crowds who jeered at the man. And if that’s what he thought was grounded in science, he felt a responsibility to teach the rest of the world.

The problem, of course, is that he was wrong.

For all he did right when it came to land and the animals, he was just deeply, deeply wrong here. Reading this makes me think of Eliot Spitzer’s Emperor Club, Joe Paterno’s meeting with the Penn State’s athletic director, Lefty Williams’ 1919 World Series. It is a spectacular error, a colossal one, the kind of mistake that casts a pall over all those other moments that he got right.

Ota Benga.

(he wasn’t the only conservationist who was wrong on this subject, nor was he the worst. Madison Grant, another celebrated conservationist, took things one step further. His 1916 book, The Passing of the Great Race, advocated eugenics. The book profoundly influenced Hitler. And it turns out there’s a whole movement of conservationists who believed in eugenics, who wanted to preserve the world’s endangered “superior” races in the same way that they wanted to preserve, to keep from outside threats, the fur seal, or the giant redwoods. It is the dark side of the early conservation movement, and it is a subject for another day).

There is a wonderful TED talk on being wrong, with “wrongologist” Kathryn Schulz. Being wrong, she wisely points out, feels exactly like being right. We all walk around convinced that we’re right, all the time. We’re not, but we sure feels like we are.

Instead, we are wrong, we are wrong, we are wrong. We are right only sometimes. If we’re lucky, we’re more right than we are wrong, but wrongness, fallibility, is part of what it is to be human, to be a member of homo sapiens sapiens.

I have no idea if Hornaday ever learned how wrong he was. He died in 1937 in Stamford, Connecticut, just a few miles from where my father lives. When he died, the house I live in was being built, the school my children attend was being formed. (and there I go again, reaching out for a connection to the past, no matter how precarious, no matter how flawed the individual I meet there). He died before World War II, before humans learned of the ghastly horrors of the concentration camp, before Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr. He died 33 years before I or most of my friends arrived on the scene, 71 years before the son of an African was elected President of the United States.

The world looked very different to Hornaday than it does to me today.

I suspect Hornaday probably would have made a different decision today. He did believe in science after all, and science has had a lot to say on the subject since the early years of the 20th century. But I’m speculating about what he’d do, of course; it’s impossible to know for sure. And in the end, it doesn’t matter. A legacy is a legacy, and Ota Benga is a part of Hornaday’s.

W.T., I’m afraid you own this one for all eternity.

So what shall we do with Hornaday, with all of these these messy humans, with ourselves, who are both right and wrong — sometimes gravely the latter? What shall I do with this heavy old volume that smells like a distant room on the top floor of some library long ago in my past? What do I do with his cringe-worthy words about the Missing Link next to those about the mean-eyed snapping turtle?

What can any of us do with a man who could recognize prejudice against the snake more easily than he could prejudice against humankind?

What do any of us do with people, really, especially with people who do so very much that we believe in, who invariably let us down in rather profound ways?

All I know is that I’ll put the book away for a while. For the time being, at least, I’m ready to put Hornaday on the shelf. Perhaps I’ll take it down from time to time, hold it and flip through it, and I’ll read descriptions of sulphur-bottom whales and red-eyed vireos. I’ll think about the thousands of animals who are here because of his efforts, the land and the zoos and the museums that people enjoy to this day because of him. I’ll take what seems interesting and valuable.

And the other parts, the uncomfortable ones? I’ll let them stand as a reminder: beware of putting too much faith, too much heroism, upon any one individual. Humans are far too flawed for that.

And I’ll try to use Hornaday as a reminder to myself: what we do today, we will still own 105 years from now, when (one hopes) the long arc of the moral universe will have bent just a little closer toward justice. We will bear greater scrutiny in retrospect. And that means we will be judged by whatever colossal wrongness we commit today…even if it should fall among a sea of good.

My summer on the Street. (Sesame).

Posted by: ali | Posted on: Oct 14, 2011

I wrote a guest post, Telling a Child’s Story of Hunger, on the Feeding America blog about my summer working with the Sesame Street team. My task was to find the real-world stories behind their muppet special on hunger in America. So many beautiful children out there, so many beautiful, struggling families. There’s love and strength in every one of them; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

ring out the false, ring in the true

Posted by: ali | Posted on: Jan 01, 2011

“Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.”

Alfred Lord Tennyson

Categories : The widening gyre