Working with Words: Rob Morrison
Rob Morrison is a science writer and broadcaster, perhaps best known as a co-presenter of The Curiosity Show. He spoke with us about feral mouse mishaps, doggerel verse and the challenges of writing for kids.
What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry?
I suspect it was Coles Funny Picture Book on both counts. I have always liked animals and, as a toddler, dogs especially. I was always distressed by anything in which a dog was in trouble, and would turn two pages at once to avoid offending text or pictures. I thought this odd when I was older, but my son did it when he was very young and my granddaughter does it now, so it may be more common than I thought.
Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?
I did, but in my teens it was mostly scripts for university revues. I was pretty flat out writing other stuff for my university subjects, but revues gave me a creative outlet. I was never very good in prose, as I couldn't make scripts funny enough, but I found I could do it in verse, so produced a fair amount of doggerel which had topical subjects and seemed to go down well.
I have continued this in adulthood, with diverse offerings on how to grow old disgracefully, some antipodean observations on the prolonged illness of Charles Darwin, how flatulent dinosaurs might have caused their own extinction and rather more. Some call it poetry but I will not have it so dignified. Doggerel it is.
What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?
As a student I had the usual run of part-time and vacation jobs, from making cardboard cartons to selling shoes. None of that inspired much writing at all. Longer stints of employment were my two careers, run together, as a university academic and a science communicator and broadcaster. It would be hard to separate those two as influences, as they are so closely linked and each informed the other. For example, my book writing.
I have now published 34 books of my own and co-written 13 more. Some are books on natural history (The Field Guide to Tracks and Traces of Australian Animals) but many have been books on science matters for children. Writing for children been some of the most challenging but also the most rewarding work – simplifying complex matters without patronising the readers or getting things wrong. I think these mainly came my way because I taught science within an education faculty, but I think the media experience helped, as that also requires making complexity understandable for non-specialists.
Apart from that, I have for years written pieces that are, if you like, reflections and essays on matters that interest me in the science realm. These have ranged from pieces on how Australia could be more innovative, how scientists corrupt their own scientific language, the language of ships, book reviews and quite a bit more. The form and style of these is often shaped by the fact that they are for broadcast; for The Science Show and Ockham’s Razor on the ABC and either news segments or documentary TV.
I think there should be two kinds of punctuation – one for reading and one for speaking.
If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I am not a full-time writer, so I only put pen to paper (as it were) when I get an idea worth writing about or get sufficiently enraged to whip off some missive to the editor. I am still active in science and presenting science shows and talks, but my other pastimes are silverwork and jewellery – I try to have a couple of exhibitions each year – and playing trumpet in jazz bands. In my youth I thought that doing the last two for a living would be great. I now recognise the value of having a well-enough-paid job to allow me to do them as a pastime, meaning that I can do or play what I like, rather than what I must do to earn a crust.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
Specifically about writing: keep sentences short. It helps to focus and clarify. My book editors would possibly say that ‘use fewer commas’ was the best advice I have had (from them), but my counter is that I write stuff that I often have to read on radio or TV, and commas help you to know where to pause and breathe.
I think there should be two kinds of punctuation – one for reading and one for speaking. I know that my scripts have many bits of self-designed annotation to help with emphasis and pacing – they would look very odd to another reader.
Not specifically on writing but greatly affecting it, was a lecturer's advice: ‘Make yourself an expert at something, it doesn't much matter what.’ I found the value of this when I had to write my field guide on the tracks and traces of Australian animals. I had to start from scratch and work out how to make it authoritative, but at the same time, understandable to a lay reader. It was a huge learning curve.
Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now?
Only the tiny day-to-day diary that lets me know where I should be or have been.
In my youth I tried a proper diary a few times, but only managed it for a few days. I am not the most orderly person – a look at my desk, study, workroom and shed would confirm that – and I didn't seem to have the discipline for it.
My closest effort is to keep notes of ideas that could work for columns, scripts or doggerel. That is partway there, I suppose.
Which classic book/film/television show do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?
That is a hard one, partly because the answer changes over time. I was hugely affected by J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye as a youth. I tried re-reading it later in life and was not nearly so affected. Sometimes a book can be so influential that it changes and influences the style of other books written after it. If you then go back to it, it then seems somewhat derivative – but that is absurd – it can't be derivative of the stuff written after it. But we don't always read things in the order in which they are written.
I loved James Thurber as a younger reader, and still regard his children's story The Thirteen Clocks as a masterpiece, and he was influential in his day (New Yorker, Walter Mitty etc.) but who talks of Thurber today?
I thought The Thorn Birds was awful (is that a classic?) but have always loved the poems of Hilaire Belloc – that's the influence that drives my doggerel!
Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?
These have always fascinated me and I collected the quirks of various authors and composers at one time. I used to swear that I would never write on anything but my old typewriter, but Word put an end to that. I like having music on while I write, but no words, so songs are out.
I would not put this in the same league as customs or superstitions, but when writing a piece or book, I travel with a small voice-recorder in the car beside me. There is something about driving (and showering) that can bring good thoughts and ideas to mind, but if you don't capture them, they evaporate. My recorder ends up with strange cryptic messages to myself, but it keeps track of fleeting ideas for later evaluation.
Have you written anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?
I once had a book in which I had signed off the proofs with one of my publishers (which should make them sacrosanct and immutable) but some editor, finding a photo of a mouse that she wanted to include, changed my text so that I found a feral mouse included in my list of native marsupials. I have never shown that book to anyone, as trying to explain that I didn't write such an absurdity just sounds like a feeble attempt to blame someone else for my mistake.
I wish I had been more inclusive in some of my acknowledgements. There is always someone who comes to mind when it is too late. There are some predictions that I made on world fuel consumption, peak oil, the potential of stem cells to cure things etc. that I'd like in retrospect to change, but that is being wise after the event.
Which artist, writer or fictional character would you most like to have dinner with?
First to mind is David Attenborough, but I have had that pleasure when I had to look after him for a few days. Even then, we didn't get nearly enough time to talk about shared interests.
Second to mind is Edward Lear, who is one of those interests. As well as the limericks and nonsense rhymes, Lear was one of the very greatest of bird artists and, despite serious mental problems, fashioned an extraordinarily inspiring life.
My last pick (I could go on) would be Charles Darwin. Getting all three together would be fun: zoology, biology, TV production and science communication would all be part of the conversation.