After Donald Trump won the election, I made myself an action plan to resist the administration on whatever level I realistically could, if only to feel like I had some small amount of control and positive effect on a world that seemed to have lost its mind. My plan included supporting organizations that I feel strongly about, including the ACLU and the Washington Post, with whatever money I could spare. But I also promised myself that I would donate more of my time to take part in protests, since it's one of the few means we have of exercising our democratic rights at the national level outside of an election.
I'm an introvert, so this was no easy promise for me. There have been many times in the past that I've thought about participating in a demonstration or volunteering my time somehow, but haven't because I'm shy and often struggle with getting out of the house and interacting with other people. Once I get my butt moving, I almost always enjoy the activity, but I know how drained I'll feel by the end of it, and that's been a major obstacle to doing more. I'm working on it, because introversion is no excuse for letting your country circle the drain.
So several months ago, I decided to attend the March for Science. I was going to drive up from North Carolina and stay with my parents in Maryland in order to demonstrate on the National Mall on Earth Day. It was a good plan.
Then my husband and I decided to split up, and frankly since then, it's been really tough. It just feels like I'll never be happy again, even when I know we're making the right decision. I'm trying not to wallow in my sadness and self-pity, but it's hard when you're losing someone you love. Understandably, a lot of my good writing, exercise, and productivity habits have deteriorated over the last few weeks as a result. I'm definitely still working at finding my sense of equilibrium again.
Yet ironically, one of the few things that separating from my husband made easier was attending the March for Science, since I wound up moving back in with parents and was only a hop-skip-and-a-jump from D.C. anyway. Even though I've been feeling pretty low of late, I still managed to get myself out of the house on Saturday, in the pouring rain, so that I could march for a cause I really believe in. This wasn't easy, but I'm glad I did it.
A lot of people were out there marching against the suppression of truth and data by an administration that unabashedly favors big business in the face of damning evidence to choose otherwise. Another perhaps less publicized reason why we were marching was to save our jobs. The Trump administration has proposed unprecedented cuts in funding for scientific research, particularly in the medical field, which makes so little sense. You would think that an administration that claims to put America first would also support American research, so we can all benefit from the basic and applied studies that result in new technologies that can save and improve lives AND make money.
I stopped doing research about a year ago, but I now work as an editor for scientists, helping them to communicate their findings more effectively so they can publish their work faster and in better peer-reviewed journals. So if there are cuts to funding, it will certainly affect my customers, who will either have to tighten their belts, or in some extreme cases - close down their labs and stop conducting research altogether. Under those conditions, very few researchers are going to be able to hire someone like me.
And in the big picture, it's such a loss. Why should we stop supporting scientists, whose highest aim is to find new information that could keep our planet and our bodies healthier, but also could be used to employ more engineers and companies to create amazing new devices and technologies, which will make more jobs! It can all be traced back to the work of a few lowly graduate students and their over-worked, under-paid, and under-funded advisers. It's an investment that pays off. There are so many reasons for supporting science with public funding. I couldn't possibly do the argument justice.
So I marched to show my support, along with several thousand like-minded people around the world. To be frank, it wasn't much fun. It was wet, cold, and over-crowded for me, and I have no doubt that my current state of mind colored my experience more negatively than I would have wished, but I'm glad I did it anyway - using my presence like the vote that I feel was taken from me back in November.
Here's some pics if you have any interest. They don't really do justice for how many people were out there that day, far more than I had expected. Some of the signs were fun, the chants were pretty weak at best, but how much can expect from a bunch of nerdy introverts who have traditionally shied from making political statements. This was a big move for my community and it shows how seriously we take the administration.
A few weeks ago, I laid out my writing plans. I wanted to spend the rest of October working on my Organic Chemistry Primer (a step-by-step method for teaching the basics of electron-pushing), and then I promised myself I would set that project aside to return back to my novel for NaNoWriMo. I figured that I could in theory finish my book in the month of November if I hit close to that 50,000 word goal. Mostly, I wrote those plans down for myself. If the gantlet had been thrown, so to speak, would I answer the challenge?
Well, I'm all about accountability, so here's how October went:
I wrote four chapters of my Organic Primer, out of the planned nine . I'm really happy with that! One of the things I forgot when I wrote that writing plan was that my husband would be traveling for a week during October, which meant all the home and animal care would fall to me. Whenever that happens, my writing progress slows down. So given all the extra responsibilities I had last week, I'm still very pleased that I got through my Primer as far as I did. Now it's a solid project and not just this vague idea in my head that I've been kicking around for the last few years.
Much more work remains on it of course. There's still at least five more chapters to write (although they're short, this is a very small book). Then I have to go back and re-format the figures I drew, which are still very rough. And then I'll have to decide what problems to include in the book, since it will be a kind of workbook. So yes, a lot remains. But I'll get there.
Still a few days left in October to work on the Organic Chemistry Primer, and then come Sunday it will be NaNoWriMo and I'll transition back to the novel. We're throwing a Halloween party on Saturday evening, so I'll do my best not to drink too much like I did last year... Nothing worse than trying to accomplish anything while hungover and that would be such a bummer way to start NaNoWriMo.
What are your writing plans? Will you be doing NaNoWriMo?
I was listening to This American Life (one of my favorite radio shows/podcasts) on the car ride into work this morning, and in it they briefly interviewed a forensics expert about some evidence related to the assassination of the Israeli prime minister, Rabin. It was a very interesting story about conspiracy theories, but one thing that struck me was the description of the forensic expert's home lab. He was a ballistics specialist and so had his own microscope, trace analysis tests, firing range, tissue simulant - the works, all in the comfort of his own home in Arizona. Sounds like he's quite in demand for his expertise, so with that comes some money that I'm sure helped him to build his own lab and work independently.
In the phenomenal book, A Wrinkle in Time, you may remember that Meg's mother, Mrs. Murry also had a lab in their home. It was located in an old stone dairy that was connected to their house, if I recall. I believe she was a molecular biologist? If I were at home I would be able to check my copy. Anyway, the joke was that Mrs. Murry would cook for her family (mostly stews) using a Bunsen burner in her lab, I guess so she could work at the same time. Of course, that's a huge safety no-no (food and labs do not mix), but that's ok. It's just science fiction.
Until I started working in science, I'd never thought twice about Mrs. Murry's home lab, but now, oh man, that would be the dream, particularly as a woman. To do science at home and be able to take care of your family? That would be nice.
I thought Mrs. Murry's lab was just fiction. You have no idea how expensive it is to do research. The equipment usually costs at least $50,000. Often exceeding $100,000, say for a particularly nice microscope. The supplies cost several thousand dollars a month, as well. But I guess it's not total fiction if that forensics expert had a home lab too.
Anyway, just a fantasy of mine. A lab in a farm house, out in the country with lots of space for my dogs or maybe kids to play. Lovely.
Ever have one of those days where the prospect of doing anything made you feel almost physically nauseous? That’s the day I’ve been having (as I’m writing this, on Monday). Sometimes, it’s inertia that’s the enemy, less so the real problems.
Or maybe I can partially blame the weather? We had our first frost on Saturday night, which more or less means the end of the gardening season. So depressing. My garden has been a huge source of fun for me all spring and summer, but now it’s fall. It’s freezing cold. It’s dark in the mornings. Soon it will be winter, which is even worse. Can you tell I am a summer person?
What I’d really like to do is use the privilege of my own blog space to whinge some more, but I suspect that’s just going to sink me deeper into the trough of despair. Plus, it’s boring to hear other people complain about their problems.
So about face, kid. Let’s shake this off. It’s chilly out, but the sun is shining. What am I really happy and excited about?
1) My Chemistry book. The Lewis Dot chapter is taking me ages longer than I had hoped it would, but I’m having a ball writing it anyway. The fact that it is winding up to be a fairly long chapter I think is a good sign. College students can’t draw Lewis structures worth a ding-dong, hence, they cannot do Organic Chemistry. An almost painful step-by-step chapter on drawing correct Lewis structures seems in order.
2) Working on my Chemistry book has also been a welcome reminder that I do still love Chemistry. My issues of late have had more to do with the project I’m working on. So yay! There was a reason I got that Ph.D. I wasn’t insane!
3) NaNoWriMo! As much as I’m enjoying working on the Chem book, I’m also looking forward to jumping headlong into the novel again. What fun it will be not to have to mess with ChemDraw to make my point!
4) Oh my god. Aubrey/Maturin. Desolation Island. Insanely good. I didn’t enjoy the previous book in the series, The Mauritius Command. There was just so much sailing back and forth between La Reunion, the Cape, and Mauritius, I thought I would never get through that tedium. But Desolation Island, wow. Icebergs, and lady spies, and a broached Dutchman. Just a crazy good story.
5) Slush reading! Look, if you’re in the business of submitting short stories to magazines, I’m sure you know the crush of rejection. I’m familiar with it myself. But know this. When I slush read, I read the story all the way through. Even if it has problems. Even if the writing isn’t very strong. And even if the subject is a little goofy. It doesn’t matter. I still enjoy reading your stories and I’ll think about them a lot. As far as I can tell, the other slush readers do the same. It always kind of amazes me the number of people who are motivated enough to write an original story from start to finish. That’s a pretty amazing skill. Even if the story isn’t right for the magazine (or, as is often the case, could just use a little work-shopping to spruce it into shape), I still like to read all the new material.
6) Christmas! It’s not that far away, if you can believe it. I’m less about the gifts and more about the anticipation. Being cozy. Admiring the tree. Eating too much cheese and smoked salmon. Once, my family sent me out to Trader Joe’s to pick up some more smoked salmon and I got two packs that were longer than my arm. The cashier asked if we were having a party, and I was like, “Ummm, nooo. No, just us…” She looked a little horrified, but we polished those fishies off so the joke’s on her!
7) My father-in-law was super awesome to buy us plane tickets to the Bahamas for Christmas. If there’s one major benefit of working in academia, it’s the lengthy holiday vacation. School’s closed! Must look ahead to that. Hard to even believe it’s going to happen. I mean, the Bahamas!
Will stop there. Seven good reasons to feel happy and motivated today. Not one good reason to mope that won’t be a past problem in just a few months time.
Hope you’ve got seven reasons too and feel free to share them. Have to admit, that was very helpful to do. Clearly, I’m an incredibly privileged person, and I know that, even if I’m a selfish brat at the same time.
I wish I could write more about the fun things we’ve been doing lately, but it’s been kind of a grind. Need to take steps to address that.
Happy Thanksgiving to my Canadian friends!
I feel like I vague-blog a lot about my "projects." I've always felt conflicted about "leaning in" to a high-powered job because I've never wanted my career to interfere with all the side-work I do for myself. But I'm starting to wonder if I'm spreading myself too thin. I have too many ideas; too many things I want to work on, and never enough time. Here's a list of what I've been up to lately:
That's a hefty load and I'm wondering how sustainable it is to attempt all of these projects even if I enjoy them. Writing the blog itself is a major time commitment, but I like the discipline of daily writing (well, four times a week plus a Friday link-roundup). The slush reading is also fun and helpful for my writing, so that's also something I'm not willing to give up. I've reigned back the science editing to just my long-term clients, because my time is really worth more to me than the money right now, but I don't want to give that up completely in case I do eventually start a full-time business.
You might notice that I've marked a few items on that list with asterisks. That's to indicate which projects I think have any chance to make money (with more asterisks indicating greater earning potential). The science editing already does make me a little money. I also used to sell paintings when I was younger. I started painting again recently and I think I've still have the knack for it, so I may try selling those on Etsy or at a local bar or something to see if there's any interest.
But one thing I haven't talked about at all on this blog is my Organic Chemistry Primer (**). For a while, I've thought there's a need for a very simple, "electron-pushing" guide to prepare pre-med students for organic chemistry. Just a slim book you'd read the week or day before you take your first orgo class. College courses do a terrible job of explaining the most basic concepts behind organic chemistry, because there's such a large volume of mechanisms to learn. Professors tend to rush ahead and leave students totally confused and struggling to understand what's going on.
So I've started writing a very simple, "how-to" kind of book on organic chemistry based on all the things professors should be teaching their students in the first week of class, but don't because of time constraints. My idea is to sell this book as a kindle-single, fairly inexpensively, and then market it on pre-med forums. Originally, I was going to go through all the trouble of preparing a book proposal and attempt the traditional publishing route, but then I thought, why bother? Why not just get it out there now?
Ideally, I'm looking for a source of income that will help support me so I can spend more time writing and improving my fiction (which I know, will probably never be a full-time job). Maybe my organic primer book could help me do that? Or at least be an additional source of income that shouldn't require too much time once I've finished it. Again, that's the ideal case. I have no idea how much time it would realistically take to market and promote it.
Even though I prefer working on my novel every morning during my daily writing session, I think I'm going to have to switch that time over to finishing my Organic Chemistry Primer. That's the logical order, right? Start on the items that have a chance to make money first, then move on to less commercial projects.
So here's my goal: I want to finish my Organic Chemistry book during the remaining days of October instead of working on my novel. The Primer isn't meant to be long, so I think I can do it. Then I'll be free to work on my novel during NaNoWriMo, when I intend to finish the first draft. Then in December, I'll edit and hopefully publish the Organic Chemistry Primer on Amazon, followed by editing my novel in the subsequent months.
There. It's out there. That's my promise to myself. That's what I'll aim for.
Am I crazy?
Ugh. That is all I have to say about this week. Just, Ugh.
Now let's top it all off with a hurricane! Amazing!
just keep swimming. just keep swimming.
No seriously. If you're on the East Coast of the U.S., stay safe this weekend. And go buy some toilet paper. It's the law, or something.
Meanwhile, here are some links from cool stuff on the web that I enjoyed this week. I hope you do to. Have a great weekend, kids!
How new trends in education are failing introverted students. It's like someone took all my complaints about school - the group work, the lack of reading time, the emphasis on asking questions instead of quietly listening - and wrote it down all in one great article. I'm an introvert,but I never thought that could be part of the reason that I dislike certain school and work environments. (The Atlantic)
Hemingway's idea of heaven and hell - a letter to Fitzgerald. I like his idea of owning a country house and a town house. I wouldn't need two town houses, though. I'm quite modest. (Brain Pickings)
The X-Files is back! Watch the trailer here. (Tor)
Not the Log Lady! I have such mixed feelings about Twin Peaks (what was with those soap opera scenes?), but the Log Lady and the other bizarre and dark creations of that show were the best part. (The Nerdist)
I want to read this graphic novel about life in the 70's from a kids perspective. (NY Times)
Um, why have I not seen this video of Bill Murray doing a reading from Huckleberry Finn until now? (Open Culture)
Was I the only one that thought NASA's water on Mars announcement was a whole lot of hype? Turns out no, I'm not the only one. (WaPo)
The only direct evidence the authors of that paper have was of hydrated salts. True, salt would help raise water's boiling point, which could prevent the liquid from boiling away into gas, even at Mars's low atmospheric pressure. But we have no evidence that this salt water is actually sitting around or percolating through the soil (despite what those images suggest, that could be a completely unrelated phenomena). So again, the only direct evidence these scientists have is of hydrated salts, which they suggests indicates the presence of water. Sure, maybe, but show me the water. Oh, wouldn't you know it? The spectroscopic instrumentation only takes measurements at 3 p.m. when Mars is at its hottest and all the liquid may have evaporated away. Because they haven't detected water. They detected hydrated salts.
So I don't know, this announcement just feels off to me. Like they wanted everyone to get everyone really excited about all this liquid water - that we have no direct evidence of (just in time for The Martian too..., a movie NASA has been cross-marketing promoting.)
It sucks that climate change doubters have made "skeptic" a dirty word, but being a responsible scientist means being skeptical of results until your experiments have ruled out as many possible hypotheses as possible until there's only one likely conclusion. I'm sure these scientists did very careful work, but it's their (or the media's) conclusion that seems a little optimistic to me. Report the facts: You have evidence of hydrated salts, which suggests there might be liquid water on Mars at certain times of the day. But until you actually observe that liquid water, you can't responsibly report that conclusion.
The Martian. You may have heard of it. You may have heard of its unusual route to publication. You may also have heard that it's been made into a movie, staring Matt Damon, which is coming out this Friday. It's kind of a big deal.
Honestly, I really did not want to read this book. I'm suspicious of hype. I got burned on Ready Player One. I couldn't even make it through Gone Girl (which, in my defense, I accidentally purchased on audible because I mixed up the title with The Goldfinch). So when I started seeing The Martian at the bookstore, with that slick cover, sitting next to Ready Player One on the display table...well, to me that was a bad sign.
But, then I saw the trailer for the movie, and I'll admit, it looked pretty cool. I don't think there are enough science fiction movies being made, so I started to feel like maybe I should support it.
But if I was going to see the movie, then I wanted to read the book. I placed both physical and digital copies on hold at the library, but there must be an epic number of people on the waiting list, because I haven't gotten it after weeks of waiting. Finally, I caved last night and bought a copy for my kindle.
I should have trusted my instincts. This isn’t a good book.
My first warning sign was the babyish writing that starts on page one. Even if the book discusses science and engineering problems that are clearly targeted towards adults, the prose seems more appropriate for fourth or fifth graders. Weir tries to get away with it by framing the novel as an epistolary story, but I still don’t think it really works. The sentences are too uniformly easy. I almost wanted to read more tangents, more poorly organized paragraphs. That’s how real people write, especially scientists, who’ve never seen a run-on sentence they didn’t love.
And anyway, if we were actually reading an isolated astronaut’s journal, wouldn’t we hear something about his thoughts and feelings? Instead what we get is one continuous description of how to survive on Mars. We know nothing personal about the astronaut. He doesn’t even seem all that afraid. His emotional arc is a lot of “aww darn” and “a-ha, yay!” sorts of experiences. So if he’s not emotionally involved in his predicament, then why should I be?
Oh well, I shrugged it off and hoped the science would be interesting. And at first it was...when he was talking about a subject I know nothing about. I perked up when our hero discusses soil science (cause I’m a gardening nerd). That was interesting, but I fully admit, I know almost nothing technical about soil biochemistry. Then he got to the part about making water – and I just lost it.
Now Weir was talking about something I’m more familiar with: handling dangerous chemicals to do synthetic reactions. And it’s all bullshit. You can’t secure a rubber hose to a tank of hydrazine with a “thread.” When you open that valve, even if you do it very carefully as Weir repeatedly emphasizes, the pressure will just blow off this absurd fitting and spray the toxic, flammable stuff everywhere. But no, our hero “just” (that word comes up a lot in this book) slowly drips the hydrazine over the Iridium catalyst. Where did he get this catalyst by the way? Maybe he explained it, but the writing is so sloppy and ambiguous, it was a mess to figure out. I started to highlight all the sections I thought were completely unrealistic takes on how an astronaut would jerry-rig a chemical reactor to make water (transferring liquids and gases in air and adding controlled amounts of energy is a complicated science), and I had to stop myself.
Nit-picking the science in a science fiction story is a great way to ruin all the fun. Sometimes, you just have to let go of your disbelief so you can enjoy the story.
But that’s the problem, there is no story. There’s no character. The writing is practically in bullet-point format. It’s all tell, no show. There’s nothing except this half-cocked attempt to discuss science and engineering solutions for survival on another planet. If the science is questionable, then what left is there to enjoy?
I’m going to finish this book, because it’s short and an easy read, and I’ll bet I enjoy the rest of the science that I don’t know enough about to get annoyed with (a soil chemist though, I don't know, they might hate that part). And I’m probably going to see the movie, because a movie can show us these ideas without getting lost in the sometimes-tedious explanations.
But it’s not great science fiction and please don’t call it that.
I think one of the great if unspoken truths of writing is that you will need a day job to support yourself. Plenty of succesful writers not only had a day job while they were writing, but kept it after they had published as well. Borges was a librarian for his entire writing career. Lewis Carroll was a teacher. T.S. Elliot was a banker when he published The Wasteland.
One of the things I'm trying to figure out right now is what would be the best day job for me if what I really want to do is write in my spare time. I have a degree in science, and it would be nice to actually use that degree, but research requires a lot of concentration. It wears you out. The work can be a little emotionally draining too (often the answer to an experiment is simply that your hypothesis is false; It's akin to hearing "No!" a lot).
There are plenty of non-traditional jobs in my field. I could go into scientific publishing, or policy, or good old-fashioned teaching. But I've been thinking that the best way to make this decision is to look where I traditionally get the best feedback on my work.
For me, it's almost always, always editing (again, please don't judge my editing skills based on the typos and nonsense of this blog - I have to sacrifice accuracy for speed to publish five times a week). My peers and students are often asking me to read their papers or manuscripts, and I take that responsibility seriously. I stop what I'm doing (because timely returns are key) and spend several hours going through their writing line by line. I proofread, but I also copy-edit. I check for consistency, logic, flow, holes, etc. and make detailed notes or ask questions to help them improve their work.
For whatever reason, maybe this is just what I'm naturally best at, I always get strong feedback for this work. Often, I'm profusely thanked, because the student was having trouble getting anyone to read their work at all!
Noticing this trend, I started freelance editing for scientific manuscripts in my free time, to test the market. I barely advertise and mostly rely on word-of-mouth, but I've gotten more jobs than I can accept given all the other things I'm trying to do in my life.
If I'm honestly best at editing science papers, then maybe I should do that as a day job rather than research. I think I'm ok at research, not the worst, but not the best. I'm reasonably well-published, but not particularly well cited and certainly no one has ever complemented me on that work. I do get better feedback when I help other people in their research, which has meant that I have more third-author papers than first (the order of authorship indicates the extent of contribution to the work), but third-author papers count for almost nothing in the cut-throat world of academia and research.
Have you ever asked yourself that question? Where do I get the best feedback in my work? Maybe the trick is to "pivot" as the entrepreneurs would say, and focus your career or day-job on those skills where you seem to do the most good. Just because you started in one direction doesn't mean you couldn't shift or adjust your focus. Did you know that Twitter was originally a podcasting platform? Now look at them, practically the most powerful communications platform in the world. They're a classic example of "pivoting."
Where do you get the best feedback in your work? Could you pivot your day-job to fit that feedback?
The other day, I was hanging out with some friends at a local bar. In between sets, we were sitting outside and somehow got onto the topic of why we worked in science. I said something about wanting to help other people, and I casually included my friends in that statement. Like, isn't that why we all got into science? Wasn't that obvious?
They were pretty quick to correct me. No, they said, they didn't become scientists to help other people. It wasn't their primary reason, anyway. They liked the mental rigor of science. They thought the topics they worked on were fundamentally interesting or cool. They enjoyed hanging out with other scientists too.
I'm not going to lie, this answer took me completely by surprise. I really (and I mean really) believed that everyone goes into science because they want to help other people. For example, I want to understand how we can make better batteries so we can actually use renewable energy sources on a global scale. My husband wants to understand how to make better vaccines. I think what we're doing is important because it could help someone, even if what my husband or I do only helps them indirectly. Maybe our research isn't the precise answer (it isn't), but it might help the next scientist come up with a better solution or insight.
Sitting at that picnic table, I felt I had never learned something so big about my friends. To be clear, I'm not condemning them. They each do their own thing to make their world better, they just don't necessarily see science as the best method to make changes. (And frankly, the more I read about the refugee situation in Europe right now, the more I'm inclined to agree that science won't solve all our problems in the time frame that we need them to.)
What struck me about that conversation was that I could be so wrong about the motivations of people I thought I knew pretty well. And then that made me think about the assumptions I make in my own writing.
If you write science fiction, then you are practically required to have some kind of scientist in the story. But what kind of motivation do you give them? Are they working to do good and help other people? Are they a mad scientist archetype, driven by their ego? But maybe some characters do science because it makes them feel good. It tickles an analytical need. Maybe they're just innately curious, or they believe that the pursuit of knowledge, no matter how esoteric, is worthy.
There's a character in my novel who is a citizen-scientist type. He's unfunded, unaffiliated with a university, but he's compelled to study a strange event that's happening. Why? Because he wants to help other people? No, he's a misanthrope, so that can't be his reason. It's something more personal, maybe even compulsive. I'm trying to understand him better and yet he's eluding me. Why are you doing this? I want to ask him, and he just looks smug. We're not alike.I used to think I was pretty good at understanding people, but clearly my own opinions get in the way, and I think it's getting in the way of my writing too.
How do you let that kind of stuff go?
My mini-bio in the corner of this webpage says that I’m a “Scientist by day…,” which is true, but have I told you that I was also an English major?
English was my first love and I started college absolutely sure I would be an English major, but I’ll never forget how disappointing that first semester class was, an introduction to British Literature. The students were dull and uninterested. The professor was equally as dull and uninterested. I remember in particular that we read Wordsworth’s The Prelude…and I couldn’t make heads or tails of it, and frankly, I don’t think the professor could either.
Things perked up a bit in later semesters, but for the most part I found that my English Department was fairly mediocre. I had been spoiled in high school with a series of talented English and writing teachers who really pushed us. We learned all sorts of literary theory, cool stuff like post-structuralism and deconstructionism. I liked digging into the wordsy-dirt, signs and signifiers and all that. But they don’t really teach much literary theory to English undergrads (not at my college anyway), so each class was like one bad book club after another.
On the side, I started to take more science classes because I wanted to beef up my English degree. I had a vague idea that I might try science journalism as a career.
I had a particularly good teacher in Chemistry who encouraged me to try undergraduate research. As frustrating and difficult as research could be, it was also incredibly satisfying. The analytical side of your brain gets a thorough workout designing experiments, running them, and analyzing the data. Based on this, I ended up double-majoring in English and another science (don’t want to say which, for anonymity’s sake), which ultimately led me to graduate school for my Ph.D. I finished that English degree, but my heart wasn’t really into it by the end.
I took just one creative writing class during college and ended up doing pretty well. The professor made me submit one of my short stories in a University contest and it got third place. I thought that was pretty cool and I was certainly proud, but I’d also gotten snobby about the humanities (since I was a budding scientist who clearly knew everything) so I didn’t pursue it any further. The professor asked me to join her by-invitation-only novel writing class…and I turned her down. I had too many science classes to take, I told her, I couldn’t possibly find the time to do that.
Not joining that class is one of my major regrets. Why did I need to be such a damn know-it-all? That’s the problem when you first start taking science classes; it gives you the mistaken impression that the universe is there for you to understand and you are a wizard that can do or make just about anything.
Of course, the more you learn, the more you realize how little you actually know. You’re not a wizard. You’re just a kid who starts to build some expertise in a very limited arena. You specialize to the point of being useless to practically anyone but yourself. I didn’t figure this out until a few years into graduate school though.
So knowing what I know now (and how little that is), I’d give my Junior year self a stern talking to. I’d remind myself that I’d always wanted to write and publish a novel, so why not take the darn class?
Do you ever wish you could go back in time and change one decision? I have no illusions that my life would be completely different if I had taken more writing classes, but it seems like a wasted opportunity that I can’t easily get back.
Did your life take an abrupt turn? Was it for better? For worse?
I don't regret going into the sciences, but I do regret turning my back on literature.
Writer, editor, scientist.