Alumni Profiles Series: Megan Mayhew-Bergman
Megan Mayhew-Bergman is an author, speaker, and teacher who writes about the natural world and remarkable women in a science and art-forward way. Her book How Strange a Season was featured as a New York Times Editor’s Choice and in The New Yorker’s Best Books of 2022 list. She has written columns on climate change and the natural world for The Guardian and The Paris Review and recently co-founded GreenStory, an environmental narrative agency that helps climate organizations, nonprofits, and cleantech businesses articulate their most compelling stories. She currently teaches literature and environmental writing at Middlebury College, where she also serves as Director of the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference. She received her bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Wake Forest University and her master’s degree in liberal studies from Duke University.
Tell me about yourself.
I went to Wake Forest University and studied anthropology as an undergraduate. Then I worked as a business consultant in Washington, D.C., but I knew I wasn’t happy in business: I was a creative person and needed to do something different with my mind and my time. The Graduate Liberal Studies program at Duke was a great intermediatory space for me, where I could keep working at my business consultant job, but I could start pushing in the direction that most excited me. I also had children right when I graduated from Duke.
After that, I did a master's in fine arts program at Bennington College, which really helped me have a lens of development as an artist. By the time I graduated from Bennington, I started to publish short stories. From there, I sold my first book and began publishing and teaching. Now I am a professor in Middlebury College’s creative writing department, where I direct the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference. I am also a freelance journalist with The Guardian, and I am working on publishing a biography on the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.
What’s your favorite memory from Duke?
I loved a thought-provoking course on the “complexity of life,” and I have thought about it almost every day, a decade later. I love that I was able to blend the creative and the intellectual in an interdisciplinary program. I still am yet to find another place that lets me do that as much as Duke does. I still feel the Graduate Liberal Studies program lets you come as a person who cares about vigor and academia and going deep and doing the hard work. And I have carried that interdisciplinary mindset all the way through my work. That’s why I am an environmental reporter and a fiction writer. I just feel the flow between science and humanities is how the problem is solved. I was in the liberal studies class when someone introduced me to the landmark C.P. Snow essay. It’s problematic in many ways, but the essay talks about how science and humanities don’t talk to each other. And the whole purpose of my life in Middlebury, as an administrator, is about bridging that gap. That absolutely came from Duke.
When did you decide you would be a writer?
I am still not sure I have decided that. One thing I like about myself is that I have a very strong work ethic. I am also careful not to burden my creative acts by relying on them for income. Because if you put all your financial needs on your creative projects, you end up compromising artistically. That wasn’t something I really wanted to do, so I have always had a full-time job. It was business consulting for eight years. Then it was teaching. Then I became the assistant director of Bennington’s Master of Fine Arts program. Then I moved over to Middlebury while writing on the side. I would love to be brave enough to just write. But I think I would put too much pressure on it.
When did you first have the feeling that you’ve done something you really wanted to do?
For me, it’s the moment when I opened that first box of books that arrived on my doorstep. It’s Birds of a Lesser Paradise. I was able to open this box and see this object that was the result of so many years’ hard work, so many dreams, so much hoping. And my children were babies at the time; they were in highchairs around the table. That was the moment.
And this is probably the first time I love my work. I am 43. I am involved in documentary filmmaking, and teaching and writing environmental stories, helping other people write environmental stories and fiction. I knew in sixth grade that I wanted to be a writer, so I do have some pride in terms of going back to my inner child, my first inclination and saying we got there. We did it.
You are both a reporter and a fiction writer—two completely different genres of writing. How do you manage that?
I am always thinking about injustice or the way the world neglects women or environmental issues. And I feel like if I want to have an impact, I can channel awareness about these issues through journalism. That really meets a need in terms of having an impact. But there are parts of the climate issues that are affecting us spiritually and existentially, and journalism can’t touch those very easily. I feel like fiction can. The ability to really hit those big notes, to be a little dangerous, to take some risks and to play with language: that’s what I love and fiction satisfies that need.
What career advice would you offer to graduate students who might be interested in pursuing writing?
Read widely. Read outside of your genre. I think you have to pay attention to what you feed and nourish your spirit with. I read a lot of poetry and a lot of nonfiction, and I do a lot of fieldwork. I seek out heavy experiences; I get my heart broken; I feel angry; I feel loved. All those human experiences nourish how we think. One of the ways to become a great writer is by being better able to document and review the human experience on the page. I don’t think we can get access to that unless we are out there in the world, living and getting out of our comfort zone, and reading widely.
My other piece of advice is to develop a relationship with feedback, because it’s coming for you, whether you like it or not. You are going to hear things you don’t want to hear. You are going to have to be agile. You can’t write to please everyone. So you are going to need to be prepared for feedback you don’t necessarily want.
M.A. student, Graduate Liberal Studies
Shu Hu is an M.A. candidate in the Graduate Liberal Studies Program at Duke University. She researches and writes on the intersection of media, technology, and social equity through a cross-cultural lens. Before coming to Duke, she was a senior tech PR professional in China.