Cracking Open the MFA: Exploring Science Writing with Bethann Merkle

25 September 2019 on Blog, The Writer's Hot Seat  

"What are you going to do with your MFA?" We've all heard this question before.

Most people with a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in creative writing use their degree for teaching, editing, or freelance writing while pursuing their art on the side. But are there other alternatives?

According to Bethann Merkle, who holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction and currently serves as the Director of the University of Wyoming’s Science Communication Initiative, the answer is yes.

Last month, Merkle hosted a workshop titled "Sketching for Scientists" at the University Of New Hampshire. The goal of the workshop was to teach students how to think and communicate as scientists by looking past visual biases.

While science communication and nonfiction writing may seem like different species entirely, Merkle's career path offers unique wisdom and guidance for those who are pursuing an MFA in creative writing.

One of our Fiction Readers, Luke Cai, interviewed Merkle to learn about her career.

This interview has been edited for length and content.

Cai: Can you tell me more about your education?

Merkle: Well, I finished my undergrad about ten years ago at the University of Montana with a B.A. in Environmental Studies and an emphasis in sustainable food and agriculture. I was also making art at the time and got a minor in Studio Fine Arts, mostly doing photography. I received my Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing (science writing; nonfiction) from the University of Wyoming. My thesis was a memoir-in-development about ecology, local food, and how one’s relationship to places changes from childhood through adulthood.

Cai: I’m really intrigued by  how you found your passion and time for art; I draw comics completely unrelated to my MFA workshops. Could you tell me more about how juggle science, writing, and art? 

Merkle: So, a lot of what I do is science illustration. I keep in the same style of what I write about, that being how humans, science, and wildlife interact. I enjoyed making something that could visually accompany the text I create, and eventually, that grew into a career in science writing. 

Cai: What eventually inspired you to pursue a Master of Fine Arts? 

Merkle: I think that was a little roundabout. I spent 5-6 years after graduation teaching people how to raise a garden in the city more or less. Then my husband moved to Quebec to pursue a PhD studying bison. I wound up doing science journalism in Quebec City. By chance, I accidentally fell into academic editing, too. All of that came together when I started to recall my undergraduate program, and how I always loved my literature classes.  Then, I started to find the stuff I wrote back then, but the problem is that when you look back to the stuff you created years ago, you can see room for improvement (laughs). [...] I didn’t have a plan for my career after my husband graduated, so I did a lot of freelancing. [...] I eventually applied for the MFA,  and I got in with a focus on nonfiction. [...] But I spent as much time in the art building as I did in the English program. 

Cai: Wow. So you took advantage of everything on campus, not just the MFA program.

Merkle: Oh yes. The University of Wyoming MFA program is very flexible. They have a strong connection with the environmental studies program. Many MFA students will do a double major on campus. [...] In the MFA program, you’re here to practice your craft whereas other programs have a specific curriculum. My approach was more like  an academic scientist’s graduate experience, pushing on the edge of what you know. 

Cai: But what about the science side of things? That’s not something most people have. 

Merkle: I consider myself an ecology groupie (laughs), being around scientists for the last ten years. I do a lot of work with scientific researchers and hang with them a lot. For a yearI did some research on science writing, particularly with my husband’s PhD project on bison. [...] For a writer and an artist, I have a strong background in doing field research into what we consider science. Over time, I’ve become more interested in how we share science. I work with K-12 to undergrad students and teachers. That’s why I’m here [giving this workshop on science illustration today]. [...] We use different aspects from the humanities to figure out how teaching and sharing science can be more effective. I’ve become more interested in how we train scientists and educators and how to use communication more effectively. 

Cai: So you were interested in [science communication] before your graduate program? 

Merkle: Well, I think it all relates. My thesis is this manuscript about where we grew up, and how we grew up. I lived in Montana, close to national parks with deep ties to indigenous groups, but I didn’t know a lot of this as a kid. [...] During my undergrad, I learned about science and how to meld it with art. During my MFA program, I spent a year on a committee that developed a three-day symposium on art and science integration. 

Cai: Then you must have found a number of connections outside the MFA program. 

Merkle: Of course. A big part of the typical MFA career is connecting to AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, where you meet agents and publishers and writers. [...] In contrast, I was more involved with the Ecological Society of America several years before starting the MFA. I even founded a club within the society that focused on science communication, where I met Dr. Purrenhage. I wouldn’t be here at UNH without the science connections I made at the Ecological Society of America. 

Cai: You just gotta keep making those connections, right? 

Merkle: Yeah! If the only people I talk to are artists and writers, I’ll only learn from them. I want to work with scientists, so I have found ways to go to where they are, like science conferences. [...] Because I was at the University of Wyoming, I took advantage of their resources. While you’re a student, you have access to resources you won’t have after you graduate. A lot of colleges can support you if you’re going to conferences and workshops where you can get more training. They can help you apply for fellowships, and build your application, and so forth. [...] Even if you don’t have support within the program, you may be able to receive funds at the University level. [...] If you want to do science writing, as an example, going to conferences where people talk about science is valuable. [...] A bit of advice no one gave me in my program is that if what you’re interested in is writing that isn’t in your program, you have to go to conferences or conventions with people who have the same interests. And, as a student, you have so many opportunities to meet people. Go for it!

Bethann Garamon Merkle, MFA, is the Director of the University of Wyoming Science Communication Initiative. Her career has spanned public engagement, journalism, and nature writing. Merkle works in collaboration with entities including the Biodiversity Institute, Harvard Forest, and The Wildlife Society, delivering art-science integration courses to science educators, biologists-in-training, and the public. Merkle can be reached at bmerkle@uwyo.edu.  

Luke Cai (@lukecwolf) is a first-year fiction writer in the University of New Hampshire MFA Writing program and one of the readers on the Barnstorm editing team.

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