Who is Juli Berwald? [Or: The Allure of Something That's Barely There]


Recently, I had the opportunity to interview the wonderful Dr. Juli Berwald, the author of Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone. She’ll be the guest speaker at Module 1 of Cider Spoon’s Intro to Memoir Writing Course, and I got to talk to her about the inherent weirdness of jellyfish, the art of finding an inciting incident, and why you should always be 100% sure you want to see your end goals before you actually reach them.


Ben Richard, Cider Spoon Stories’s Fall 2018 Intern

Ben Richard, Cider Spoon Stories’s Fall 2018 Intern

BR: Thanks for meeting with me! At least virtually. So yeah, the first question I wanted to ask was, ‘Why jellyfish?’

JB: Well, I mean, I think that answer is kind of scientific. It started off as a question about what’s happening to our planet. And it seemed like there were these changes that some people were noticing in jellyfish abundances that were saying a lot about bigger questions about what we’re doing to the oceans.

And that moves into this story that was more interesting than other ways to tell that story because jellyfish numbers seem to be growing more in certain places. But no one can agree if the population of jellyfish is actually growing or shrinking. Jellyfish are interesting and we don’t know much about them, which made me kind of curious, and so they were a way into this bigger kind of story that I found kind of fascinating—so fascinating.

BR: Yeah no, they really are. I went through your book a couple days ago and there’s so much cool stuff!

JB: Yeah, they’re so cool! And then once I started looking around scientifically, I was finding out about how they sting, and how they swim, and I just found those stories super interesting, on top of the overall question.

BR: Yeah, that was my favorite part, learning how they swim, how they pull themselves through the water instead of push. And how you tied that into how humans have been developing boats, I was like, man, they’re so simple but they got it figured out.

JB: Yeah, they got it figured out, huh? (laughs)



BR: So in memoirs, there’s often an inciting incident that spurs the person writing the memoir to pursue what lesson they’re gonna learn. So my question is, what advice would you have for someone who was looking for their own inciting incident?

JB: I think the answer is simply being open to good things that come to you in the universe, and instead of walking by a moment and saying “Oh no, that’s not actually something I should step into or deal with,” or “I’m not good enough,” or any of those internal “hater” kind of thoughts, you should just embrace those moments. I could have easily walked by the question “What do we know about jellyfish and acidification?” if I hadn’t been open to it.


BR: So you wrote in your book about the emptiness you felt after finding that rare jellyfish in Japan that you had worked incredibly hard to see in person. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that.

JB: Yeah, I mean, I think that a big part of that was just that it was dying, and you know, although I have feelings about jellyfish, so this is kinda hard to say, but, because jellyfish have this complicated life cycle and they start as a polyp, they’re kind of like fruit. The jellyfish scientists don’t like it when I say that (laughs). But, you know, the medusa (Note: Medusa is the term for the stage in a jellyfish’s life where they look like the picture at the top of this interview) dying was already gonna happen. It was already at the end of its life cycle.

It wasn’t a triumph because I’m not sure I learned anything by seeing that jellyfish. And I kind of hoped I had, that I would learn something, but I didn’t. Because I didn’t know what to look for in the animal. I didn’t know what answers I would get by pulling it up on the back of the boat. I should’ve paid attention to that before I went looking. So I think it was maybe because of my ... there was a sense of my own unpreparedness for the moment. I was so excited by the hunt, that I didn’t really know what to look for at the end of it.

BR: That’s so relatable though. Definitely worth writing about.

JB: (laughs) I’d have to agree.

BR: Well, that’s all the questions I have. Thanks so much for sitting down and talking with me.

JB: No problem. I’m lucky because my job’s done, now you have to sit down and transcribe all of this (laughs).

3 Gadgets You Need to Write Your Memoirs

So, you want to write your memoirs. (Or ghostwrite your mother’s.) You’re going to need some equipment.

1. Invest in a quality digital recorder.

If you struggle to put your thoughts to the page, try telling your stories instead. Out loud. Just like you do every week at bridge club or pilates. You can record yourself actually telling them to someone, or you can pretend like the recorder is your friend and speak to it.

The Yamaha Pocketrak 7: the only tool you need for crystal clear audio.

The Yamaha Pocketrak 7: the only tool you need for crystal clear audio.

The easiest and cheapest recording technology comes built into your phone. You can use any voice recording app—just make sure you have enough free storage space.

But what if you’re in a noisy place? Or you intend to turn the audio recordings into their own oral history archive? Then you’re going to want something better. I recommend anything in the Yamaha family

Personally, I use and have been delighted with the Yamaha Pocketrak PR7. It’s small, portable, easy to use, and I have over 160 hours of audio stored on mine currently—with no end of available space in sight! (Make sure you’re always backing it up on another device or cloud!) Best of all: I can be interviewing someone in the noisiest coffeeshop ever, and when the beans suddenly start whirring and grinding, you can still hear the subject clearly: thanks to those XY microphones.

2. Transcription software? Try transcribing it yourself.

Use Dragon Naturally Speaking to transcribe your audio files.

Use Dragon Naturally Speaking to transcribe your audio files.

Transcription is tedious. Unless you do it all the time, it’s a skill that can take a while to master. The last contractor I hired transcribed at a rate of 8:1, bless his heart. That is, 8 hours for every 1 hour of audio. Not efficient.

You might be tempted (understandably) to try a transcription software. Dragon Naturally Speaking is still the best on the market, but it sucks. It’s slow, and while it’s supposed to get ‘smarter’ with use (by learning your cadence and intonation), it never got any more proficient that I noticed.

Instead, hire a professional human transcriptionist (search for someone who can transcribe at a rate of at least 2:1, if not 1:1), or do it yourself! I am always surprised to find, upon listening to recorded footage, that I invariably come to a story that I don’t remember hearing. That’s because it’s human nature for the mind to wander. Half the joy is in re-listening to your recordings … and laughing (or weeping) all over again. Plus, if you’re ghostwriting, it’s a great opportunity to listen for vocal tics and vocab—the key contributors to narrative “voice.”

3. Pick the perfect word processor.

Adobe InDesign is the gold standard for creating book layouts.

Adobe InDesign is the gold standard for creating book layouts.

Whether you hire out your transcription or do it yourself, at some point you’re going to end up with a whole lot of text. It’s perfectly fine to work in Microsoft Word or Apple Pages—two of the most basic and user-friendly softwares on the market. You might also try upgrading to Scrivener. It’s a subscription service, but for your money you get a lot of cool features, like the ability to easily storyboard or rearrange story sections. Google docs can make it easy to share files with your editor or other contributing writers, and saves your precious work to the cloud (for free!)

When you’re ready to layout your book, play around with Adobe InDesign. It’s the premier book design platform, and can require some practice (or maybe an introductory class!) if you’re brand new to the Adobe suite. Check your local community college for affordable and informational Adobe suite classes.

Once you’ve done all this, you’re ready to self-publish!

Who are Daniel Pinchbeck, Terrence McKenna, and Graham Hancock? [Ayahuasca and Other Psychotropic Plant Medicines]

This post is the THIRD in a series of mini-biographies that chronicle the power of the memoir. Some of the stories are great and inspiring; some are tragic and teachable; some are about ordinary people just like you. Maybe after reading them, you’ll consider writing your memoirs.

I really love contemporary satirical rocker Father John Misty’s music, and not least because his song “I’m Writing a Novel” mentions doing ayahuasca—a psychotropic plant medicine from the Peruvian Amazon. The first time I heard of ayahuasca was in a lecture by Daniel Pinchbeck on the Mayan 2012 prophecy, which of course predicted an end to the world that never happened. Whether or not some other, more subtle shift in global consciousness took place is up for debate, but I remember thinking, This Pinchbeck guy is either nuts, or a genius. And I had to respect someone who’d managed to integrate himself into what are still remote tribes in the Amazon and experience what I’ve come to understand is that rather powerful medicine called ayahuasca.

If I’m honest, sure—I’m curious. I’d like to have that mind-altering, consciousness-shifting experience for myself—one that a close friend describes as the “hardest and the best thing he’s ever done … ten years of therapy in four hours” (that’s how long the high/visions last). But. I want to work for the FBI, and there’s a drug policy. So for now I’ll live through others!

Before we get to McKenna and Hancock, one more name bears revisiting: Timothy Leary. You probably know of him as the LSD guy in the ‘60s. Especially if you've read Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception. You could say Leary was McKenna’s and Hancock’s predecessor, and indeed McKenna has been called the “Timothy Leary of the ‘90s.” Basically, Terrence McKenna studied shamanism and Tibetan folk religion at Berkley, discovered psylocibin mushrooms in the Colombian Amazon, had a bunch of visions, and determined a fractal pattern in the I Ching that he called Novelty Theory, which supposedly predicted the 2012 world-endingness that had Pinchbeck’s panties in a twist. McKenna was less concerned with the end of the world, however, than using plant medicines to access the collective human memory (he was highly influenced by Jung) in an attempt to manifest that alchemical treasure: the Philosopher’s Stone.

Though McKenna, and later Hancock, were largely dismissed as New Agey, McKenna himself stressed not New Age dogma, but the importance of the “felt presence of direct experience.” He wanted people to trust their inner knowing (called prajna in Ayurveda). Unfortunately, McKenna died of brain cancer (1946-2000) and didn’t make it to see 2012; but Hancock is still going strong.

Graham Hancock espouses a “mother” civilization from which all ancient civilizations sprang. Like McKenna, Hancock believes in using plant medicines, particularly ayahuasca, to access that mother culture (also the collective human memory). According to Hancock, ayahuasca encourages self-improvement and social progress, especially in the form of curing deadly addictions, from alcohol and tobacco to controlled substances.

Want to try ayahuasca for yourself? It’s not legal in the States unless you join the church of UDV. First watch Chelsea Handler’s hilarious exploits with the drug in Peru. Then check out these Peruvian retreats.

Are you 'obsessed' [enough] with your own story?

Now here's an interesting article about memoir-writing as a cultural practice. I'm more concerned with the American point-of-view than the Asian one, as the only direct experience I've had of Asia was a 2-week research trip to India in 2008; whereas I've been an American all my life. And really, aren't Americans the most fascinating creatures anyway? Or wait, is that the self-obsessed American in me talking?

According to the article Why Americans are Obsessed with Telling Their Stories + Asians Aren't, "Storytelling helps us shape our 'selves.'" And in the land of the free, that's what it's all about, right? Any individual can achieve anything she wants ... even if it means stepping on other people to get there. Because we are separate 'selves," we have to look out for number one. Darwin taught us that. Was Darwin American? He should've been. He will be when he's reincarnated.

And yet, the more self-obsessed we are, the greater the distance and the disconnect from others ... in turn, the lonelier we get. So then we tell our stories and listen to others' not as a way to stand out and be different, but as a way to reconnect and reaffirm our shared humanity.

We learned how useful this tool was when we were 3:

"Sharing personal stories is an essential ingredient in everyday conversations: We are eager to tell our stories and are fascinated by those of others. Even at preschool, 'sharing time' is a common Monday-morning activity ... "

Ah, yes. Preschool, where we in America learn everything we will ever need to know. Wash your hands, celebrate birthdays with cupcakes, build improbable wood block towers (i.e. dream big), and SHARE. YOUR. STORY.

I ask are you obsessed ENOUGH because I want you to know how important you are, Asian or American or Brobdingnagian. YOU have a story to tell that only you can, and I want to help you get it out as a fellow self-obsessed American. Because when I listen to it, I see all the ways that you and I are different ... and all the things we have in common. I share your joys and your triumphs and your heartaches and your losses and your dreams.

A spiritual leader once said, paraphrasing the Bhagavad Gita (interestingly Asian): "Your life is like a strand of pearls, each experience a new bead. When all is said and done, no one has ever had a necklace like that." To wear your necklace proudly (to read your memoir proudly) let's start building it, one bead at a time, today.