William Zinsser said, “There are no dull subjects, only dull writers.” I could not help but think of this as I lost myself in “Dig,” Sam Chiarelli’s book about dinosaurs.
In “On Writing Well,” which I use as a text in my college classes, Zinsser talks about once enjoying an article on chickens even though he has no interest in chickens. He says it’s because of the writer, because of his ability to engage the reader, his effective use of the written word, and his undeniable passion for his subject. While I am more interested in dinosaurs than I am chickens, Sam Chiarelli won me by utilizing those same skills. When it comes to putting words on paper, Sam Chiarelli has a way about him. And when it comes to his passion for dinosaurs, well, let me put it this way: read his book. Or at least attend his book talk and signing at 2 p.m. next Sunday, Sept. 29, at Pittston Memorial Library.
Early in Sam’s book, described on the back cover as “part science and nature adventure and part memoir,” he mentions his friend and traveling companion, Tim, taking John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley: In Search of America” along on their pilgrimage to dinosaur digs in Colorado. I’m no Steinbeck expert, but Sam’s easy, clean style reminds me of him. As happens when I read Steinbeck, particularly “Travels with Charley,” I feel Sam is reading his book to me, and I am just sitting there listening. I curled up with his book last Sunday night, and although it had been a long, exhausting day, I found myself on page 75 before I knew it. And way past my bedtime. Sam’s writing goes down that smoothly.
Full disclosure: I was predisposed to like Sam Chiarelli’s book. That’s because I like Sam Chiarelli. It’s hard not to. I also like his parents, Sam, whom I’ve known since he was 8 years old, and Mary, the former Mary Kepich, whom I’ve known at least as long as young Sam has been alive, which is 33 years.
Sam (the younger one) did some writing for me as a newspaper correspondent when he was in high school and college, but after earning a bachelor’s degree in English from Wilkes University in 2008, he put his writing, as well as his dinosaurs, aside for a few years to pursue a music career. His band “The Silentreatment” enjoyed a good run over a three-year period, winning awards, and even opening for rock legends “Kiss.” Sam says the band made enough money to pick up the cost of health care for the members, which ain’t bad.
In 2010, Sam enrolled in the Master of Creative Writing program at Wilkes and after earning an MFA, did some adjunct teaching at Luzerne County Community College before rekindling his love for writing and dinosaurs.
Considering himself a “dinophile,” a term he says he “half invented,” Sam insists he’s “not an expert in dinosaurs, but an expert in being a dinosaur fan.”
Looking back on his youth and wondering how he had allowed his love for dinosaurs to go dormant, Sam writes: “My family’s refrigerator was lined with dinosaur magnets and dinosaur drawings. I ate on dinosaur plates, drank from dinosaur cups, and wiped my mouth with dinosaur napkins, all the while watching dinosaurs on television. In school, I wrote with dinosaur pencils on dinosaur stationery. I owned dinosaur erasers, dinosaur folders, dinosaur lunch boxes, and holographic dinosaur rulers.
My birthdays featured dinosaur cakes, either fashioned into dinosaur shapes or outfitted with miniature dinosaurs, palm trees, and gushing icing volcanoes. I dressed as dinosaurs for Halloween. Dinosaur ornaments hung on the Christmas tree. Inflatable dinosaur rafts floated in the swimming pool. Dinosaurs were the glue that held my life together.”
From his book you can tell they still are.
I once wrote a story about Sam, as a young man, rescuing a hummingbird from a spider’s web near his home. He gently took the hummingbird in his hands and carefully peeled the web away from its body before setting it free. I asked Sam about that over coffee Monday evening and he said, almost sheepishly, “I don’t know if you’ve ever held a hummingbird. They weigh less than a penny. Still, as I held that one and worked on the spider’s web, I couldn’t help thinking, he has little dinosaur feet.”
Listening to Sam go on about dinosaurs and reading his book, you get the impression removing that spider’s web from the hummingbird was a lot easier than it would be to try to remove the love of dinosaurs from Sam’s existence. This he does not deny. He said someone recently asked one of his old friends if he knew Sam Chiarelli. “Sure,” the guy said, “he’s all about peanut butter and jelly and dinosaurs.”
“Peanut butter and jelly?” I asked.
“Yep,” Sam said, “I had two double decker peanut butter and jelly sandwiches today. It’s almost all I eat.”
The dinosaurs I already knew about.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.