Cross-Pollination: What Happens When Science Journalists Pursue the Creative Arts

Watercolor painting of a cougar walking, looking toward the viewer. The outline of the animal is filled with forest imagery: trees, brush, berries, and a vibrant blue bird.
Writer-artist Sarah Gilman painted this mountain lion after a curious juvenile cougar followed her and her dog through the woods. The piece appeared in an essay she wrote for High Country News, exploring the reasons why people fear the species so much. See the story where this image was published here. Sarah Gilman


Several years ago, freelance environmental journalist Ben Goldfarb immersed himself in the story of efforts to save the world’s rarest marine mammal, a small, endangered porpoise called the vaquita. His articles on the topic, including one based on a reporting trip to the vaquita’s habitat in the Gulf of California, appeared in several top science journalism outlets. But for Goldfarb, these achievements felt hollow.

“It wasn’t at all clear to me that any of my coverage was going to be helpful in any way,” Goldfarb says. “I was having all of these dire thoughts about what the point of anything was. But there wasn’t really room in the stories I was writing to explore those thoughts at all.”

So Goldfarb turned to fiction, writing a short story about a film crew tasked with documenting the death of the world’s last remaining walrus in the remote Arctic. The story was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, a prominent literary award, and helped Goldfarb grapple with the emotional fallout of his reporting. “I think the role that my fiction plays in my life is that it allows me to explore aspects of my work that the journalism hints at but doesn’t plumb fully,” he says.

As it turns out, many science journalists have not-so-secret second lives in the arts; I spoke with more than a dozen of them by phone, email, and Twitter DM. Some of these journalists are also fiction writers, like Goldfarb, or poets, essayists, and screenwriters. Others are photographers, painters and illustrators, fiber artists, musicians, songwriters, and dancers. They’re serious about it, too: While the boundaries between hobby and vocation can sometimes be difficult to draw, most of the journalist-artists featured here are, on some level, pursuing a dual career.

The rewards of these efforts are rich. Many discover that their art makes them better journalists, and, in turn, find ways to use their journalism skills to deepen their artistic practice. Still, negotiating the varying norms and demands of different genres can be complex. And given the fast-paced nature of journalism, it isn’t always easy to find the time to develop this kind of hybrid career. That said, many journalists have come up with various hacks and strategies to help them cultivate their creative side.


Artistic Mindset

A cartoon with multiple vignettes depicting scenes early in the coronavirus pandemic, with some explanatory captions about the virus and its name.
This cartoon by Malaka Gharib appeared at NPR’s Goats and Soda site in late February, as part of a piece explaining the new coronavirus to kids. See the rest of the comic here. Malaka Gharib

Many science journalist–artists describe beginning their creative pursuits in early childhood; art is a deep and enduring part of their identity. Creative projects can also support journalists amidst the day-to-day challenges of their work. They might be a chance for emotional or intellectual processing when journalism falls short, as Goldfarb’s fiction is. Or, they can help journalists get out of their heads. For example, Madeline Ostrander, a freelancer who covers climate change and is also a musician, singer, and songwriter, says music sometimes “feels to me like exercise—particularly if I am practicing an especially difficult or technical passage or set of runs or a riff. It requires real muscles and coordination. And for that reason, it can offer some nice balance against the journalism.”

Similarly, quirky art projects help break up the workday for NPR global health reporter Malaka Gharib, who also draws comics and zines and is the author of a graphic memoir about her Filipino and Egyptian immigrant family. “Sometimes I see getting to make art as a little reward—like, once I’m done editing this story or writing this [paragraph], I can take a break and [use] some of this scrap paper on my desk to make some french fries, or gather some flowers into a little bouquet and leave it for someone around the office,” she says.

But art isn’t only an escape from journalism; creative pursuits can also make one a better science journalist. A poet’s focus on rhythm, repetition, and metaphor, for example, can make an article about science a more compelling read. “[As] somebody who cares so much about images and word choice, and sound and flow, I really like putting sentences that sound great when you read them aloud into even journalistic stories,” says science writer, poet, and essayist Kate Horowitz. Fiction writers’ skills in character development and building narrative tension can also contribute to more engaging and effective journalism.

The benefits of creative work expand beyond just the nuts and bolts of writing craft. Some artistic endeavors may boost a journalist’s ability to improvise and think flexibly. “I think playing music can create an intuitive, open-minded feeling that’s also valuable in the search for story ideas or during an interview,” says Kelly Servick, a staff writer for Science magazine and member of the Washington, DC–based band Near Northeast.

Nicoletta Lanese, a staff writer for LiveScience who has studied ballet, modern, contemporary, and other forms of dance since the age of four, says that years of working with dance teachers and choreographers primed her to take constructive criticism from editors well—and to push back when she feels that her own vision for a piece is at risk of being squelched.

Knowing the business side of creating and selling art can also help journalists, says freelancer and fiber artist Theresa Machemer, who sells her crocheted work on Etsy and at art fairs and anime conventions. “I learned how to value my time and my effort and my expertise,” she says. Planning ahead, researching markets, and being comfortable with self-promotion are all skills that apply to both the art business and freelance journalism, she adds.


Two crocheted dolls, one with black hair and a blue sweater, and one with white hair and a red sweater.
Theresa Machemer crocheted these four-inch-tall dolls of “Queen of Carbon” Mildred Dresselhaus and physicist Shirley Ann Jackson for an MIT class on the history of women in STEM. Theresa Machemer


The cross-pollination also goes both ways. For example, writing skills developed in journalism, such as crafting a narrative structure, often translate to other genres, says Deirdre Lockwood, a poet and fiction writer who spent eight years as a freelance journalist and is now a writer for the Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. “Some of my earliest fiction was a bit formless. Science writing has trained me to create a backbone or thread the reader can follow,” she says. “I try not to be as logical and predictable in my poetry and fiction, but having a structure is important, even if only you know it’s there.”

Similarly, Servick says her journalism training has shaped her approach to writing song lyrics. “There’s value in keeping them concise and efficient, and in planning out their structure so that they reward the listener for following you somewhere,” she says.

Other skills honed as a journalist can also benefit artistic endeavors. “We’re super good at research as journalists,” says Elisabeth Eaves, a journalist currently covering nuclear weapons and biosecurity, who recently wrote a television pilot based on her first book, about a peep show in Seattle in the 1990s. These research skills can help a novelist, for example, build a richly detailed fictional world. And when working on her graphic memoir, Gharib says she used reporting skills to interview her parents and corroborate their comments with other sources or historical documents.


A band of five people perform on a small stage. One man sits playing a box-drum, a woman plays the violin, and three men plays guitar-like instruments.
Kelly Servick’s band Near Northeast playing in Portland, Oregon on a tour in summer 2019. Marina Budimir


Then, of course, there’s the way science journalism serves up an endless flow of inspiration for creative work. Horowitz felt this way when she got her first science-communication job. “I would go on EurekAlert! every morning and read everything I could find about, you know, stars and mushrooms,” she recalls. “I really fell into an entire new world of material and imagery.”

Lanese says she sometimes draws on science in her dance work, such as a piece about memory that used a repeated sequence of movements, altered a little each time, to represent a cognitive process called reconsolidation. “I often have writing as part of my choreographic process,” she adds. “So, I’ve started with actual articles I’ve written before, and taken tidbits and imagery I’ve used within an article and tried to then incorporate those ideas into dance.”


Hybrid Vigor

Some science journalists have found ways to create hybrid works that fuse writing with various other creative pursuits. This can be especially fruitful for visual artists. For example, Gharib has recently created a printable zine about COVID-19 etiquette and drawn other pandemic-related comics.

For Sarah Gilman, a freelancer who divides her time roughly evenly between writing, editing, and illustrating, opportunities to combine journalism and art developed gradually. Her first big break was illustrating a book about the Ice Age in North America by a writer whose work she had edited for High Country News. More illustrating commissions followed, and as she gained confidence, Gilman says, she started pitching her own jointly written and illustrated stories. “I’ve only had a few of those published at this point but they’re by far the most satisfying to me,” Gilman says. Next spring, she will be a Knight Science Journalism fellow working on a long-form illustrated piece about controversies over road building in Alaska.

Still, it can be hard to get editors to take a chance on hybrid work, Gilman says. Her first fully integrated illustrated feature was published by High Country News, where she had an established working relationship,  after several other outlets passed on her pitch. Publications similar to High Country News may be a good bet to place offbeat projects, she advises: “I’ve found that the regional publications are generally more receptive to that for whatever reason, maybe because they’re a little smaller and more nimble.”

In some cases, combining journalism and creative work isn’t so seamless and straightforward. For example, Lisa Martine Jenkins keeps her photography separate from her work as an energy reporter for Morning Consult. “My photography work tends to be more nebulous than typical documentary photography, which complicates my ability to use it in a journalistic context,” Jenkins says. She has also found it difficult to shift her focus between interviews and photography when reporting in the field.


Hundreds of microscope slides sit next to each other, completely covering four walls in a room.
This previously unpublished photo by Lisa Martine Jenkins documents a display of microscope slides with archived specimens in the Grant Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy in London, from 2014. Lisa Martine Jenkins


Navigating a dual career can get especially tricky for journalists who also work in other genres of writing, where there are varying norms and conventions. For example, Lockwood says, a writing teacher once “noticed that I was jamming lots of explanatory, fact-filled phrases into my fiction,” a habit she inadvertently brought over from journalism. “I realized it’s important to slow down in fiction and think about how your narrator would really talk.”

Similarly, when journalists write poetry or creative nonfiction they may have to adjust to the pursuit of literary truth over a strict adherence to facts. “I don’t have hard-and-fast rules. Sometimes it breaks one way, sometimes another,” Horowitz says. But, as a science communicator she does feel a responsibility to hew closely to the science in her creative writing. “If I’m writing about a squid, I want to make sure I’m describing the squid accurately,” she says. That’s why Horowitz typically fact-checks her poems, using techniques borrowed from her journalistic training, at some point during the revision process.

Balancing facts with poetic license is the “biggest point of tension” in working in both journalism and creative nonfiction, according to Sabrina Imbler, a freelancer covering biology and the environment who is working on a book of personal essays organized around sea creatures. “It feels like you have to make ethical calls for yourself,” with little guidance on how to navigate these issues, she says.

For Imbler, essay writing has afforded opportunities to write about science that she missed out on covering as a journalist, such as the story of an astonishingly devoted mother octopus. But she also worries that her creative work could lessen editors’ trust in her journalism. While this hasn’t yet come to pass, she says, “I feel like I have to really try and hold myself to the highest standard in my reported work to let myself continue doing these essays, and then in my essays to hold myself to a really high standard so that they don’t jeopardize my ability to be an objective reporter.”


Finding the Right Time

Creative activities often ebb and flow over the course of a journalism career. For example, Jude Isabella, editor in chief of Hakai Magazine, started painting almost 15 years ago. “I was dutiful in submitting to art shows, putting up canvases in local cafés, and began selling,” she says. “But it dawned on me that by painting, I was avoiding writing.” So, she stashed away the canvases in favor of focusing on journalism. Now, though, she’s thinking about starting a photography project focused on the architecture of the city where she lives.

And for those just beginning to establish themselves as journalists, it can be especially hard to maintain creative projects. Freelancer Julia Rosen stepped back from making music when a move to a new city, a bad band breakup, and her entry into science journalism all coincided. “I was already worried about editors and readers judging my work, and part of me felt like I didn’t want to expose myself to that sort of judgment in yet another domain,” she says. “It kind of paralyzed me for a while.”

But that’s starting to change. “As I’ve gotten more confident and less anxious as a journalist, it’s allowed me to be more comfortable making music again,” she says. “Learning to be less of a perfectionist as a writer has actually helped me be less of a perfectionist as a musician too.”

When journalists want to carve out time and space for creative work, blocking off a certain number of days per week—or a weekend day—may help. “On the day I’m working on my novel, I might turn off my phone, I might not check email,” Eaves says.

To make this kind of schedule feel less risky and more within reach for freelancers, Eaves suggests a suite of strategies: build up a generous emergency fund, set targets for both a minimum and maximum number of journalistic assignments to accept each month, cultivate a stable list of clients, and communicate with them clearly about when you will be available to check in.

A woman on a stage lit by a warm light dances, folding her body backwards, lifting her knee up and extending her arms above her head.
“Second Draft,” choreographed by Stacie Cratty and Nicoletta Lanese, in collaboration. Todd Bedell

Others find they can make use of smaller snatches of time. Lockwood relies on one-hour timed writing sessions to make progress on creative work. And Ostrander aims to devote at least 10 minutes a day to musical pursuits—although this often expands, she says. “In the best scenario, music can take up time that I might otherwise spend on puttering, smartphone-gazing, or other time-wastes and diversions.”

Figuring out the time of day that’s most promising for creative work can also be key. “There seems to be a golden window in the early evening when email [and] Slack traffic dies down but I’m not too tired to do something creative,” Servick says.

For performing artists, dedicated time for creative work often comes baked in. Lanese says she has often appreciated the way that set times for rehearsals and performances have forced her to be more efficient about getting her journalism work done. “That kind of structuring of your day is super helpful for me,” she says.

Others have found tricks to create external structure in the form of creative deadlines. Goldfarb keeps an eye out for calls for submissions from literary magazines looking for short stories on environmental themes. That way, “I know that I’m not just sending a story out into a void, I’m sending it towards a potentially receptive editor,” he says.

But don’t be afraid to respond to a general call with something about science, Imbler says. “I think that, especially in the literary community, there’s such a desire for stories that are about science,” she says. “They’re just less common than stories about family or food or culture.” She recommends staying abreast of calls for submissions or pitches by following literary magazines on Twitter and subscribing to newsletters such as Where to Submit or Opportunities of the Week.

Solidarity and accountability with other artists can also help feed creative productivity, much in the same way many journalists rely on a network of colleagues to stay motivated. Earlier this year, Lockwood collaborated with another poet on a series of haikus that they traded back and forth via text message. “Having someone there to immediately catch that energy and then send it back felt so good,” she says.

Perhaps making space for creative passions and building community around them should also be a goal for science journalism at large, Gilman suggests. “The more editors and publications that are out there that are receptive to people doing different stuff, the better and more exciting journalism will be,” she says. “Everybody should play with the form—we’d all be happier.”



Sarah DeWeerdt Owen Rogers

Sarah DeWeerdt is a freelance science journalist whose work has appeared in publications including SpectrumAnthropocene, and Nautilus. DeWeerdt is also a poet, with work published in Hawk and WhippoorwillCascadia Rising Review, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter @DeWeerdt_Sarah.



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