Writing is about overcoming obstacles: self-doubt, scheduling, silence. Creative nonfiction poses an additional challenge to its writer. You have to live what you write. While memoir forces an author to confront difficult internal circumstances, the science writing I wanted to pursue created external issues for me.
When I began working on my M.A. thesis, I had no idea how much the CW program would influence my life. After ‘speed dating’ mentors, I walked to Kirby Hall with the creative nonfiction faculty. I was the only member of my cohort to choose CNF, so for the next hour, I had the nonfiction superstars all to myself.
Becky Bradway explained my project to the other faculty members. “Sam’s book is about dinosaurs,” she announced. “He’s drawing on his own obsession and knowledge to write about his childhood.” Becky coaxed the dinosaurs out of me during my first semester. I had no idea what I would write when I entered the program, but if writing what you know is a sound maxim, then dinosaurs seemed an appropriate choice.
That’s all I had then—a decision to write about dinosaurs. As the faculty posed questions to help me develop my manuscript, I realized I had no idea what I was doing or how to do it, whatever ‘it’ was. How would I structure the book? How would I use my own experiences? I struggled to answer these questions convincingly.
After listening to ten or fifteen minutes of discussion, Dr. Lennon intervened. “This is all well and good, Sam,” he said, “but you can’t write a book about dinosaurs sitting behind a desk. You have to go on a dig! You have to get out there and really do it.”
His words sliced through me. I was terrified by the weight of what he said because it was the truth. The truth resonates in your ears, and your heart, and your gut, whether you want to face it or not. I had a competing truth, however: anxiety. A paralyzing travel anxiety that had been growing and festering for years. I could feel its tentacles consuming me like the deadly embrace of a strangler fig.
The anxiety started—as you might expect—with dinosaurs. My parents spirited me to Disney World in 1996. I was ten years old, and as much as I loved everything Disney, I craved dinosaurs—specifically, the animatronic dinosaurs at the Universe of Energy pavilion at Epcot Center. Mickey could wait. We had to start with the dinosaurs.
I rushed past the dancing fountains and shimmering flower gardens toward the Universe of Energy building, its angled roof adorned with thousands of solar panels capturing the Florida sunshine. Upon arriving at its doors, my heart plummeted. A tiny notice delivered the bad news.
“ATTRACTION TEMPORARILY CLOSED FOR RENOVATIONS”
I’d come all this way and I’d be forced to settle for dinosaur-shaped shrubs outside the building. Topiary does not satisfy a ten-year-old’s lust for gigantic robotic monsters. My parents, with ‘we have to come all the way back here again, don’t we’ faces, pledged that we’d return some day to see the refurbished dinosaurs.
The second Disney trip took place three years later. I was suffering with a sinus infection, but neither headache, nor fever could deter me from the extinct giants. At Epcot, I found the Universe of Energy pavilion had been rebranded. Now, as Ellen’s Energy Adventure, the ride was upgraded to include an animatronic Ellen DeGeneres, with a mechanical Bill Nye the Science Guy thrown in as well. I don’t even remember them though. Sorry Disney.
I remember the brontosaurs—anatomically and behaviorally incorrect in just about every way, but breathtaking nevertheless. As I passed beneath the thunder lizards in a serenely cruising tramcar, the behemoths swung their serpentine necks towards me. Fronds of water plants dangled from their clumsy mouths. Overhead, the lights of artificial stars twinkled in the darkening sky. Rocky canyon walls faded into the painted horizon beyond. The last rays of a red sunset bloomed into the blackness, pierced by a shimmering crescent moon. It was a surreal prehistoric heaven.
Among the dinosaurs, time and place evaporated and I felt like I was actually riding through the Jurassic. As a boy, this was the only place I wanted to be–the American West, 150 million years ago, where colossal animals struggled to survive in a savage, yet beautiful world. Aesthetically, the scene referenced the animated Disney classic Fantasia, in which dinosaurs battle to the odd time signatures and violent percussion of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The connection to the film deepened as the ride turned a corner and I saw the plated Stegosaurus, my favorite dinosaur, and Allosaurus, a bloodthirsty, bipedal carnivore locked in a perpetual, mechanical struggle. My neck hairs stood on end. How I wished I could take a journey to the time of the dinosaurs. How I longed for a dinosaur safari.
By this time, other dinosaurs had made their way to Orlando. The new Animal Kingdom park opened with a ride called Countdown to Extinction, but I can’t remember much about it. Unlike the peaceful tram in Epcot, Countdown to Extinction thrashed me from side to side like a roller coaster. I spent much of the ride clutching the brim of my baseball cap, hoping it wouldn’t fall off and be lost forever in the Cretaceous period. The villain of the adventure was a large, razor-toothed predator that sported bony horns on its head—Carnotaurus, the meat-eating bull. I was more frightened of the way the ride jostled me in all directions. Carnotaurus was scary, but the rough treatment from the ride was worse.
A few days later, baseball cap intact, I boarded a plane bound for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport. During the ascent, the plane struck an air pocket, dropping a few dozen feet in a miniature free-fall. My hands turned white as I clenched the arms of my seat. I felt sick. My breaths came shallow and fast. Every one of my neurons fired danger. I felt like I was on Countdown to Extinction again, but this wasn’t a thrill ride. This was real. I felt the distance between my feet and the earth and imagined the air swirling around the plane’s fuselage. My brain couldn’t keep up with my thoughts. I wasn’t able to think or talk. The unfamiliar feeling of claustrophobia rippled through me. I couldn’t fight the fear. I could only endure it.
The plane landed safely in Pennsylvania, but could not pull up to the terminal. We landed in a raging winter storm. Several inches of snow had already fallen. As other travelers walked across the tarmac, cursing the blizzard and wishing for a return to Florida, I crouched down on all fours and kissed the sweet-smelling snow. I had no business being miles above the planet’s surface, I reasoned. I would never allow myself to feel that way again. More than a decade would pass before travel anxiety would revisit me.
In 2010, my then-girlfriend wanted to see a blues festival in Chicago. If there was time before the concert, we could visit Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History—a place rich in dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. I couldn’t wait.
My girlfriend’s parents drove the twelve-hour journey west to the Windy City. From the backseat, I eagerly awaited the transition from the forested hills of Pennsylvania to the Midwestern plains. But the flat Ohio farmlands bewitched me. After several hours of seeing nothing but cornfields in every direction, I felt a numbing fear coursing through my limbs. My feet moved involuntarily. I became frightened of the immense sky, the same enormity that nearly swallowed me as a child. The flight or fight response became my entire reality. I could not disengage the fear and it devoured me. I was pulled into shadows I didn’t know existed. My thoughts rushed so quickly that I felt dizzy. My vision spun. In my delirium, the clouds and the atmosphere dissolved, and I could see the distant stars. I felt like the Earth was crashing out of its orbit and beginning an endless fall.
A rest stop a few miles down the road allowed me to stretch my legs and put myself back in touch with the physical world. Recovery took time. I was far from home and every point of the horizon offered only more cornstalks. Worst of all, we had left late. There would be no dinosaurs on this trip.
I returned to Chicago only a few months later with some friends. I wanted to prove to myself that I wasn’t going to let feelings of discomfort rule my life. And although I did see the dinosaurs, I didn’t shake the anxiety. Each trip I took thereafter only made the worry stronger. No matter what I tried to do to alleviate the fear, it grew worse.
During that second trip to Chicago, I decided to return to my undergraduate alma mater to pursue a degree in creative writing. As I began to write my dinosaur-laden M.A. thesis, the anxiety developed still further. I could no longer bear to be on the highway for even a few miles between exits. My hands produced sweat at the thought of highway driving. I decided to avoid interstates altogether. Even the lengthy wait at red traffic lights began to affect me. My lungs would constrict. Every muscle in my body would tighten. I could not control my brain or my body.
My eighteen months as an M.A. student passed quickly, and I spent nearly all of my time assisting with the production of SenArt’s Kids for Cash film. I had very little time to write, and wasn’t pleased with what I’d produced for my thesis. However positive the encouragement I received, I knew I had a much better book in me.
I decided to take time off after graduating. I needed to learn how to write the book I wanted to create. I needed to figure out the form and structure of my manuscript. I wanted to put dinosaurs in a new context and produce something original.
I returned for the beginning of the M.F.A. program at the January 2015 residency. I’d never really left the program. I came to the readings at every residency during my sabbatical. I needed the biannual recharge that residency offered to focus on my project. And I wrote hundreds of pages about dinosaurs, throwing most of the digital words away. I experimented with structure and form, examined what worked and what didn’t, and kept going.
“Still working on the dinosaurs,” became an answer I was embarrassed to give during residency conversations. I felt it was turning into my ‘Gaza book’ and asked Jeff Talarigo how he finally found the way to tell his story.
“Just keep writing,” he said. “You’ll find it.”
Beverly Donofrio told me I needed to think more deeply about my subject matter.
“How do I go deeper?” I asked, laughing. “It’s about dinosaurs.”
“I don’t know,” Bev answered, “but you need to figure that out.”
When I returned as an M.F.A. student, I had found my voice and figured out how to go deeper. I came back with a structure—interviews with scientists, artists, and pop-culture figures about why dinosaurs are so popular. The book was taking shape and I knew I was ready to write it as I crisscrossed the northeast U.S., interviewing dinosaur experts and traveling into museum backrooms, offices, and basements.
But Mike Lennon’s words still reverberated in my ears. I couldn’t write a dinosaur book by sitting at home. For my book to be legitimate, I had to conquer my anxiety. I had to fulfill the dreams I had as a boy, to visit the American west, to see the fossilized dinosaurs in the lands they knew as home.
My mentor, Becky Bradway, lives in one of the most cherished paleontological areas in the world—Denver, Colorado. The rocks in the surrounding Rocky Mountain foothills, and in the deserts of western Colorado have captured the remains of the most famous Jurassic animals. These great creatures were first found in Becky’s proverbial backyard, and she invited me to visit her so I could finally see the remnants of the dinosaur world for myself.
I tried in 2012. I have railroading in my blood (my mother’s father was a flagman), and the first dinosaur hunters crossed the country by train. Since flying was out of the question, what better way to see the U.S. than through a coach window? But I wasn’t mentally prepared for the trip. The anxiety was waiting for me—waiting for the first cornfield or open sky. I was always worried about becoming worried. I could not escape the fear of going to that place where everything was out of control. I returned home after only reaching Pittsburgh. It was a sore defeat, and I had to tell everyone who was excited about my big trip that I wasn’t able to complete it.
But when I started the M.F.A., I knew I had to get myself to Colorado. My book just wouldn’t work without the material I’d get in the West. My M.F.A. paper research showed me that. But more than anything, I needed to prove to myself I could make it there. I wanted to see the snow-crowned Rockies, and the scrub brush littered deserts that provided the backdrop for every dinosaur documentary I considered sacred as a boy. I resolved to conquer my fear.
Through counseling and exposure to highways and journaling and meditation, I reversed the patterns that caged me. Slowly, I began to think—began to know—the trip was possible. None of it was handed to me. There was no magic bullet. Overcoming the fear was rooted in hard work. But I always thought of the dinosaurs (and if I’m honest, Bilbo Baggins, too).
I set out from Harrisburg on Wednesday, July 22nd. It took two and a half days to reach Denver by train, but Becky was waiting there when I arrived. Together, we explored the museums of Denver, with their exquisite dinosaur specimens. We hiked to fossil track ways and visited prep labs.
I continued west, through the Rocky Mountains to Grand Junction, Colorado. The sun set in a brilliant red sky behind the stone ramparts of the Grand Valley. It was there, near the Utah border, that I first saw the spectacular colors of the desert rocks. This was no documentary. I was finally walking in the land of the dinosaurs. No longer were dinosaurs only to be found in museum displays, or the sound stages of Disney robots, or childhood fantasies. I had arrived in the rocky relics of the Jurassic. This is where dinosaurs are born a second time, where they are pulled from their stony tombs and live anew in humankind’s imagination.
The next morning, I boarded a small white van. I looked at the immensity of the sky, and the strange shapes of the ridges and bluffs. Oddly, I felt at home. As the van rumbled down I-70, I laughed at myself. Only a few months earlier, I couldn’t drive 10 miles on the highway from Pittston to Scranton, and here I was on the other side of the country, on my way to a dinosaur dig site.
As the gravel crunched beneath my feet and I was given my tools, I thought of everyone in the creative writing program that encouraged me. I was able to fulfill my dreams and become a better writer—and a better person—because of our community. My book takes place at the vertices of my life, where fear and fascination meet. And although this is my story, I know anyone can push themselves further than they thought possible with the support of their peers and mentors.
Writing is about overcoming obstacles, and if it wasn’t, why do it? On my travels, I learned that it’s the most difficult things we encounter that define us. Doubts and worries and missteps will always happen, but it’s our response to them that matters.
“Well, I’ve made it this far,” I thought as I walked toward the quarry. “I’d better find something good…”
Sam Chiarelli is completing a book-length manuscript about his dinosaur obsession. He’ll earn his MFA degree this January.