The Climate for Writing Masterclass

Tabitha Potts

A recent event organised by the Mechanic’s Institute Review online Birkbeck students and writers generally to think about how to approach writing about climate change. MIROnline set up the event to coincide with a call for submissions from UK writers on this topic. They run a series of free workshops which are open to the general public as well as Birkbeck students.

The Masterclass was a panel discussion between Jean McNeil (author of The Ice Diaries, a memoir about her time in the Antarctic) and Richard Hamblyn (an environmental writer and author of Clouds: Nature and Culture) chaired by Peter Coles, Deputy Managing Editor for MIROnline.

The main subject of discussion was how a writer should respond to a subject as vast and challenging as that of climate change. McNeil explained that even if you are working to a brief, it’s a writer’s job to resist it rather than be accountable for everything you write. ‘Don’t respond to stimulus head-on literally if someone asks you to write on a certain topic’.

Hamblyn said you will find that ‘climate is by definition too big to see. Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get’. ‘Climate change and the sublime are aligned’ McNeil added; both are topics that can overwhelm language.

McNeil added that ‘We’re living in an unfolding emergency. Put ego aside. It’s not a platform for your literary ambition. It’s not an event, it’s a process.’ Humility is important for a writer exploring science, she explained: many of the scientists she worked with were also writers, painters and musicians while she had to make huge efforts to understand their disciplines.

Hamblyn had some reassuring words for writers of non-fiction, explaining that ‘You can’t know it all. There is so much information and testimony out there. Look for telling images and details. You’re telling a true story, or as true as you can make it. It needs to have relatability as well – it’s not a huge difference from fiction… All art is on the human scale. One detail will help you know more on a topic.’ He gave as an example an anecdote he’d recently heard from a friend who visited the South Pole and found it was raining.

McNeil added that there’s not a lot of difference between fiction and non-fiction when approaching this topic except that your moral responsibility is higher when writing non-fiction in terms of facts. Another difference was the freedom in fiction writing to employ metaphor.

She found writing about the polar regions quite difficult, so she went for emotional truths; because we have an ‘inner climate’. Meteorological phenomena such as drift and ice are all very relatable to humans. ‘We are emotional and subjective beings, that what we work with as a base to reality’. To write fiction go for what you feel rather than responding to a brief as you would in non-fiction. ‘It has to come from you’.

Asked about their view of what the future holds, both writers were pessimistic. ‘Climate change is Anthropocene, caused by us. Species extinction is inevitable. Human beings are very adaptable, but we haven’t evolved sufficiently to deal with this issue’ responded McNeil.

Hamblyn spoke of the ‘suicidal strain in history’ (a quote from Rebecca West) and McNeil explained that the word ‘Apocalypse’ in Greek meant uncovering or revealing. She said that dystopia was ‘reportage from the now’, saying that the Masai tribe in Africa had recognised that climate change was happening a long time before there was a scientific consensus on it.

Hamblyn summed up the discussion with a quote from William Gibson: ‘The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.’ He felt that climate change and other issues are inextricably linked: ‘You can’t isolate global warming from things that are happening at the same time. 55 Tufton Street in Westminster is where the headquarters of Vote Leave was based. The Global Warming Policy Foundation [run by climate skeptic Lord Lawson] and Taxpayers Alliance [a right-wing think-tank] are based there. They share resources, personnel and an address’.

In other words, climate change denial is a political act. Hamblyn says that he is usually preaching to the converted and finds the easiest way to try and win over climate change deniers is to focus on easy-to-understand issues like plastic pollution in our oceans. We can all hope that the writers who attended this masterclass will come away with more ideas about how to focus public attention on the urgency of combating climate change.