Why I Write Nonfiction About Animals
I just saw Hamilton (and it really is all that)! One of its themes is “who tells the story”—who gets to write history and determine others’ legacies. At the end, long after Hamilton has died, the cast sings a song about this, leaving the audience kind of undone, unable to get up and leave the theater.
In case you don’t listen to it (but you should!), George Washington opens with:
Let me tell you what I wish I’d known/
when I was young and dreamed of glory/
you have no control/
who lives, who dies, who tells your story.
I’m painfully aware of the “no control who lives, who dies” part, but the song helped me name the fire in my belly. It’s the need to tell the stories of vulnerable and threatened animals, the creatures without voices. (“Will they tell your story?” Eliza sings to Alexander after he’s gone.)
In college, I wanted to be a journalist, but soon learned I wasn’t exactly a crackerjack investigative reporter. I never could have imagined that, decades later, my favorite project would involve listening to those who don’t actually use human language.
I’ve learned the stories of so many cats, dogs, wombats, koalas, kangaroos, bats, wallabies, and wallaroos. If I have my way this year, I’ll take in more stories from seals, sea lions, anteaters, and kinkajous. These stories are all nonfiction, but may have elements of comedies, melodramas, farces, parables, mysteries, or tearjerkers. Like all good stories, they have characters you invest in, strong narrative arcs, unique voices, and intriguing settings and details. And, sometimes, on a good day…a happy ending.