Woman-Made, Nature-Inspired: Michelle Balz

In honor of Women’s History Month, Great Parks is celebrating seven local women writers who find creative inspiration from the natural world around them.

The views and opinions expressed in the interview are those of the artist and do not represent the views or positions of Great Parks.

Michelle Balz

Meet Michelle Balz, non-fiction writer

Great Parks: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work?

Michelle Balz: Sure. My name is Michelle Balz. I’m a native Cincinnatian. I’ve lived here my whole life, except for one study abroad summer when I was in college. The environment and sustainability has always been very important to me. For my undergrad, I attended the University of Cincinnati for environmental studies, and then I went on to get a masters in professional writing and editing, also from the University of Cincinnati.

I have worked for Hamilton County pretty much my whole career; I’ve worked there for 21 years. Recycling, sustainability, waste reduction, and resource use have always been really important to me, in that we are mindful of the resources that we’re using. So that’s pretty much what I’ve dedicated my career to.

GP: So when did you first want to become a writer?

MB: When I was really little, like in elementary school, I wanted to be a writer. In fact, I would write little poems and short stories. I always imagined myself as a fiction writer when I was a kid. I never really thought too much about nonfiction, and it wasn’t until I started writing in 2009 the Confessions of a Composter blog on backyard composting that I really amassed quite a bit of knowledge on how people could compost easier, different problems they might come across, and how they can fix them. I really enjoyed injecting humor into my writing. I didn’t want it to be boring, and I wanted people to enjoy reading it. Because of that blog, the publishing company reached out to me and asked if I would write a book on backyard composting.

GP: As a solid waste manager, you must be surrounded by technical writing and a lot of numbers. What role does the creative process of writing play in your work-life balance?

MB: I’ve written two books, and both of those were on my own time, completely separate from my work for Hamilton County. All of the time that I spent writing was my own vacation time or on the weekends.

And I’ve now forgotten the question… Ohh! Creative writing in my regular day job! So, most of the writing I do for my job is grant writing, outside of the blog. I think the blog is the most creative that we get to be. Most of my job involves technical writing, and that is one of the things that we covered in our master’s program. Grant writing and writing technical articles requires creativity and you can always make technical writing more interesting with some creativity thrown in.

GP: So what inspired you to write the composting guide in the first place? Who did you write it for?

MB: OK, so the first book, which is Composting for a New Generation, is a little bit more broad. I wrote it for people who are interested in getting into composting in general, usually people who have backyards. That was our main target. If you had started composting, but weren’t quite confident in everything you were doing, or if you wanted some new ideas of new composters you could build, I wanted it to be a very step-by-step instruction book where you could do it yourself.

The second book, which is No Waste Composting also encompasses backyard composters, but also people who have smaller spaces; they might just have a balcony, a really small backyard, or no space at all outside. I tried to come up with ways that you can compost in small spaces. I also really tried to incorporate reuse, so every project has focuses like reusing pallets to make a compost bin or reusing old pots to make a stackable compost bin.

The other thing that I really liked about No Waste Composting was researching ways that other countries compost, so it’s not just the traditional kind of backyard compost bin. For example, the clay pots that you can stack and compost. That is really popular in India and Peru. They don’t have a lot of space, especially in the urban areas in India, to compost in a traditional backyard. They’ve developed this method of composting out on a patio. I incorporated bokashi, which is really popular in Japan. So I was trying to come up with some other ideas that might not be quite as popular in the U.S., to introduce those ideas.

GP: What impact does writing have in the world of conservation?

MB: Writing is really important because it allows you to express ideas and important information from the scientific world and from research. Something that I think is really important is being able to translate that into language that the average Joe would understand. So something that the person who doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree in science would be able to understand. That to me is really important.

And I think writing allows you to do that. It allows you to translate those ideas, numbers, and statistics and turn them into something that is consumable by the average person who might care but might not take the time to read a scientific paper.

GP: Yeah, that makes total sense. And when you’re creating these pieces of writing with that goal in mind, what does your process look like?

MB: I always inject humor in it. I don’t want it to be boring. I know people are busy. People are stressed. They are getting information bounced at them from 50 different angles. So whenever I’m writing something, I always want it to be simple and easy to understand. I also inject fun, jokes, and analogies. Analogies allow readers to relate it to something that they do know about.

For example, I talked about the composting process as a party: the different microorganisms and their roles. I talked about fungus being your friend who’s going to hang out in the kitchen and help you clean up after the party because they’re at the end, decomposing the woody stuff that is the last to compost. I really try to think about daily experiences that people would have, and then how you can relate that to something like microorganisms in a compost pile that people aren’t necessarily that excited about.

GP: Our last question is, are there any projects that you are currently working on that you’re really excited about?

MB: So with my regular job, we are working with small-scale community composters: people who are composting in plots that are less than 500 square feet so you don’t have to get an Ohio EPA registration. We’ve been working a lot with them to improve the local composting infrastructure. We’re also doing an organics study on how to best expand the capacity for us to compost food scraps in the area—or process food scraps. We’re not calling it compost, so we are asking, “Is there another technology besides composting?”

I think the best work and the most impactful work that we’re doing in our office is reducing wasted food. We have a campaign called, “Wasted Food Stops with Us.” When you’re looking at climate impact, reducing your food waste is the most impactful thing that the individual could do. by far. Hamilton County is known nationally for the work that we’re doing in reducing wasted food. Those are the things that are exciting me.

I am not planning on writing another book anytime soon. It’s a lot of work.

GP: Cool, that’s definitely something to be proud of. I’m excited to check out your blog and learn more about composting. I live in a small apartment, so I’ve always been curious about that.

MB: Get No Waste Composting. It’s at the library. That has a whole chapter on different ways that you could compost in an apartment. That’s probably your best bet.

GP: Thank you so much.

Michelle’s Blog can be read here, and her books can be purchased here.

Michelle Balz is one of the local artists whose artwork will be on display at Instinct: Woman-Made, Nature-Inspired, a nature-themed art show happening March 22 & 23 at Fernbank Park.

Jack Fogle
Nature Interpreter, Miami Whitewater Forest