Friday, June 17, 2005

the project

Some of you have expressed curiosity at what I could possibly be doing that takes precedence over long, self-indulgent blog posts. Well, now that I'm done with it, I figure I can tell. There were some moments where I thought I wasn't going to pull it off, and how bad would that have been? You would all be down at a little museum in Southern California straining to hear my turns of phrase in the audio tour, and they wouldn't be there!

Not to say that they are now, either. Writing interpretive stuff for museums has proven to be very different from anything else I've done so far. Trying to be completely accurate, clear, and understandable by A great exercise in editing oneself, let me tell you. I use a lot of modifiers, ordinarily, and boy do they sound prissy when you've got two minutes to tell a five-minute story and need to cut, cut, cut.

SoCal needed a new reservoir, as emergency back-up. So the water district found themselves a nice four-and-half-mile-long valley, with mountains to the north and south. Dug a big hole in it, dammed the ends, piped in billions of gallons of the Colorado River and la voila, Diamond Valley Lake. Just to make it more appealing, they dumped in a bunch of fish, too, and built some parking lots large enough to accommodate trailers with boats.

You can't swim in it--no body contact, that's meant to be drinking water if need be--but you can catch fish in it. Don't talk to me about what fish do in water, I don't want to think about it.

While they were digging their big hole, exciting things were popping out of it. Bone things. Tusks. Remains of giant sloths, sloths that weighed as much as an SUV. Mastodons mammoths sabre-tooth cats dire wolves short-faced bears yesterday's camels (yes, camels started here and went east over the Bering land bridge, I didn't know that either) flat-headed peccaries Bison antiquus Bison latifrons small horses. 140 animal taxa all told. All the stuff they've been pulling out of the LaBrea Tar Pits for the past hundred years, but without the asphalt. Also archaeological things: proof that people had lived in the valley for at least nine thousand years, maybe longer.

So they decided, hey, let's build us a museum (excuse me, interpretive center) and stick all our tusks and things in there.

And I've been writing all the A/V scripts--things like a documentary-style film, and an interactive computer game, and a thing with a decomposing frog, and so on. The project was broken into six sections, and each one had anywhere from one to six pieces of writing associated with it, and just about each piece required something different. I've been sifting through hundreds of pages of transcribed interviews, ethnographic, archaeological, and geological reports, blueprints of exhibits.

I am so fortunate...I was talking to another writer friend the other night about how hard it is to find writing work that we feel good about doing. He copped to having once written a college essay for pay; I mentioned my wake-up-screaming fear that I'll find myself writing ad copy for a tobacco company. So this project has been really exciting. I got to buy a copy of Ice Age Mammals of North America: A Guide to the Big, the Hairy, and the Bizarre, which is such an awesome title, and write it off. I am telling kids about ancient critters, which I do here for free anyway, and why it was wrong that the Cahuilla were dragged to the missions for forced conversions, and how cool it is to grow up to be a scientist. I will get paid good money for having gleefully written about coprolites, putrefecation, and the archaeological importance of trash heaps.

My job rules. What was it I did before? Do I even want to remember?

I'm not sure when the museum opens. Not for a while, I think. Time enough to find a silly T-shirt with a mammoth or something on it to wear when I visit. Maybe a mammoth wearing reading glasses and a bathrobe, hunched over a laptop and eating cookies.