Rachel had a best friend, Dorothy. They met in Southport, Maine, where both owned a summer cottage. They wrote to each other constantly while Rachel was working on her book The Edge of the Sea (1955). In fact, Rachel dedicated the book to Dorothy and her husband Stan Freeman. Their friendship provided Rachel with stability she needed while maintaining her household (her mother passed and she had to adopt her niece's son, Roger) and adapting to her fame after winning the National Book Award for The Sea Around Us.
In her letters, Rachel told Dorothy:
"All I am certain of is this: that it is quite necessary for me to know that there is someone who is deeply devoted to me as a person, and who also has the capacity and understanding to share, vicariously, the sometimes crushing burden of creative effort."
It may sound glamorous, but being an author means spending a boat-load of time alone. Just you and your laptop at a cafe, desk, library. Whatever. Rachel spent a lot of time writing at her home in Maryland so she could spend her summers in Maine with Dorothy. They would watch the tides, collect specimens, and listen for veeries singing in the woods.
Rachel had other, less personal connections, scientists she relied on for data, editors, nature writers, and people of influence in the world of literature. Unassuming by nature, she was not shy about approaching people for assistance and guidance. That's a benefit in the world of writing. Writing, as Rachel says in another letter to Dorothy: "is hard and full of anguish and disappointments, but I also know it brings deep satisfactions and rewards that have nothing to do with best-sellerdom."
Many of those satisfactions are in making connections with librarians, archivists, authors, and the many people involved in the publishing process. And let's not forget the readers. It may only take one avid fan, as Dorothy was for Rachel, motivating an author to keep going. It helps having people believe in you.
Source: Always, Rachel. The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman 1952-1964. Edited by Martha Freeman. 1995.
In her acceptance speech for the National Book Award, Rachel Carson said this: "...no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry." Which was why her book The Sea Around Us (1951) was so popular. Rachel had the knack for making the sea sexy.
Of course, anyone who has visited the ocean is drawn to the undulating tides, but not everyone understands the machinations and the life forms dependent on them. Rachel describes it all in vivid detail. How the tides are drawn to the moon, following its waxing and waning, rising and falling with its cycles. One can visualize the neap tides, when the pull of the moon is in equilibrium with the sea and the highs and lows are not far apart. And the spring tides, twice monthly, when the moon is new or full, and the tides are at their highest. Rocks had "glistening backs...laid bare at low water." Waves are "armed with stones and fragments of rock." Her description of fog while aboard the research vessel The Albatross has an eeriness of a horror movie:
"Day after day, the Albatross moved in a small circular room, whose walls were soft gray curtains and whose floor had a glassy smoothness. Sometimes a petrel fluttered across this room, entering and leaving it by passing through its walls, as if by sorcery. Evenings, the sun before it set was a pale silver disc hung in the ship's rigging, the drifting streamers of fog picking up its diffused radiance. The sense of a powerful presence felt but not seen, made manifest but never revealed, was far more dramatic than a direct encounter with the current."
Her description of the grunion fish mating habits made me want to travel to California to witness it. But her words were enough to evoke the image of "shimmering" fish flinging themselves onshore on the crest of a wave. And once onshore, they lay "glittering" on the wet sand to mate. They bury their eggs before catching the next wave to return to the ocean - leaving behind their offspring. It's truly an art to distill the essence of an emotion, a place, an event in a format that is both brief and eloquent.
While her musings on the sea explain the technicalities, she brings the reader to a place where even the most minute organism holds a profound secret for all. Ending her essay titled The Sea: Wind, Sun and Moon in The New Yorker, Rachel describes how the tiny worm Convoluta, no matter where placed will not forget the tidal rhythm of its being.
This book was vindication for Rachel after the dismal failure of Under the Sea Wind. The New Yorker published a few chapters of The Sea Around Us pre-publication and by the time the book came out, readers were eager for more. In fact, publishing the chapters in serial format most likely propelled the book to best seller status. It stayed on the New York Times Best seller's list for 31 weeks, hitting number one. It sold over a million copies and was translated into 28 languages.
I've been told once my writing allows people to feel as if they are right there in the scene. I've also had a reader ask me why my work sometimes reads commercial and other times literary. Not all readers have the patience to divert their attention from the plot to a string of words that makes them pause for a moment to savor. I'm ok with that. In fact, reading Rachel's work makes me think I may be on the right path for my next novel featuring her as one of the characters.
Sources: Carson, Rachel. The Sea: Wind, Sun, and Moon. June 16, 1951. The New Yorker
Carson, Rachel. The Sea Around Us. 1951.
Brooks, Paul. 1989. Rachel Carson: The Writer at Work.
Rachel's first book, Under the Sea Wind (1941), was a flop, selling less than 2k copies. Carson chalked it up to timing - it came out on the eve of World War II - but also blamed her publisher, Simon and Schuster, for lack of marketing. Specifically, she was miffed that they hadn't taken her guidance on the target market - naturalists, nature lovers, sportsmen and women. Her only consolation was the rave reviews the book received from places like the New York Times, colleagues, and critics. Even so, she only netted 1k for her efforts. Rachel need for income beyond her government salary caused her to hesitate to pay $150.00 for the rights back from Simon and Schuster for Under the Sea Wind. But when they refused to issue a reprint, she found the money.
She knew she was on to something and her love of the sea and the general lack of knowledge about its secrets piqued her innate curiosity to discover more. But she was also a realist. She had mouths to feed. Her work with the Fish and Wildlife Service bar3ely paid the bills and Rachel sought wider recognition for her talents. Bored with writing technical documents on commercial fishery production reports, she sought out stories at that may interest the general public and spin a tale she could pitch to magazines. For example, a piece on bat echolocation skills landed her a paid gig with Reader's Digest magazine. The random $150-$200 for a piece must have kept her satisfied in the creative realm but Rachel knew she was capable of more.
I can relate to some of her disappointment at sales. I've spent my own money on research for the Durant Family Saga and The Truth of Who You Are. It was all worth it - staying curious is another blog post to watch for - however, there does come a time when, as a creative you have to consider how much of your time and money to put into something and realize a pay out. In Rachel's case, she was supporting a family. Same goes for me. At times I feel as if what I'm doing may be more frivolous than art. I know I have fans that enjoy my work, but like Rachel, I've had to deal with a lot of rejection. And not much monetary compensation for my time and effort.
I'd like to attribute Rachel's eventual success to 'grit' or stick-to-ed-ness. However, I'm inclined to think that perhaps her greatest talent (besides conveying complex scientific information in a form that is both creative and inspiring) was knowing when to move on. She kept up her oceanic research, taking notes on scientific discoveries and the latest sonar technologies. She even managed to get on a research vessel, rare for a woman in those days, observing a fish census for eight days conducted by scientists of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Feeling she had enough material to embark on a new project, she enlisted a literary agent to pitch it: The Sea Around Us - a biography of the sea that would appeal to the lay public. Oxford Press agreed to publish (1951). As was the custom in those days, she sent the first few chapters to several magazines for pre-publication and to entice an audience of potential readers. And was barraged with rejections. Readers Digest, The National Geographic, The Saturday Eventing Post - all said no.
It was an editor at the New Yorker who saw the potential of her work. And things started happening for Rachel.
Source: Brooks, Paul. 1989. Rachel Carson: The Writer at Work.
As I procrastinate on my next novel, I think back at how invested both financially and emotionally I've been to my writing life. I traveled everywhere to research the Durant Family Saga, and when I decided I wanted to turn it into a tv series, I took a course on screenwriting. I dedicated about a year to the effort, attending webinars, placing scripts in contests, paying for feedback, etc., etc. I'm pretty determined when I want to be. In fact, I've a few notebooks filled with ideas for new plots, novels, short stories and screenplays. I thrive on the creative work.
But I never know what to expect from it. It's hard at times not to compare my experience with more successful authors.
Rachel Carson grew up knowing the world expected something from her. In a college essay she claimed to be seeking a "fuller determination of her dreams." And she did it all without social media. She did it because she stayed focused.
Although not one to pursue materialistic enterprises, her ambition did lead to financial freedom for her and her family. She grew up in Springdale, Pennsylvania in a small home with no running water or electricity. Even though the family was broke, her parents (most of all her mother) believed she had something special to contribute to the world and encouraged her to attend college. Rachel's laser sharp focus on her studies may well have been due to the fact they were always scrambling to come up with the $300 tuition to the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University), at one point selling off their dish-ware.
When selling the family goods didn't prove enough, her father agreed to put up parcels of land he owned as collateral to the school. By the time Rachel graduated in 1929 she owed the college $1500.00. Her father lost his land.
She went on to attend graduate school and ended up caring for her ill father, mother, and sister who was twice divorced with two daughters. They all crammed into an apartment in Baltimore where she attended Johns Hopkins University. To keep the family fed she took a job as a lab assistant in the medical school maintaining a colony of rats and fruit flies. It still wasn't enough. A friend visiting them at their cramped apartment found the family hovering over a bowl of fruit for dinner.
Rachel pursued research at Woods Hole in Massachusetts where she discovered her passion for all things having to do with the Sea. She was always drawn to writing (she entered contests at an early age) and it was her ability to convey the wonders of the ocean to a lay audience that eventually propelled her to fame. But it took time. And Rachel didn't allow her family obligations to distract her from her goals. If anything, the financial turmoil she faced made her more determined than ever to make a living wage from her talents.
Source: Souder, William. 2012. The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson.
When people ask me what I'm working on, I tell them I'm writing a novel set on the Maine coast that centers around a young protagonist pretending to assist Rachel Carson (1907-1964) with her research in order to impress a boy. Inevitably people ask me, who is Rachel Carson?
If you ever studied environmental science, as I have, you would know Rachel is famous for her non-fiction Silent Spring (1962) which upended the chemical industry, made people aware that the Bald Eagle was at risk of extinction, and is credited with STARTING the environmental movement.
And I've come to learn from reading one of the many biographies about her, she was a slow writer. Yay! Something to emulate. Because the idea for writing this story has been brewing in my mind for well over three years now. I've collected all of her books, read a tome of personal letters she exchanged with her best friend Dorothy and visited the Inn along the coast of Maine where her ashes were scattered. Yet I only just started writing the novel.
It's not like me to take this long. I've published five novels in the span of ten years and have three completed works, in draft form sitting on my laptop (one will never be published - it's that bad).
But for some reason, I'm only at 1600 words for this novel and the motivation to write it is paralyzed by my motivation to get it just right.
I'm embarking on this blog to educate and excite the reading public, to draw attention to this woman scientist, a quiet revolutionary, so I can procrastinate. Join me! And learn more about this remarkable woman and her work.
Source: Souder, William. 2012. The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson.
Hi, I'm an author of contemporary and historical fiction. My next novel features a young protagonist living on the coast of Maine who pretends she's doing research for Rachel Carson to impress a boy. Join me as I procrastinate writing the novel by blogging about Rachel.
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