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Emotional Investment in Science and Literature

I’ve been exchanging emails with a friend who, to make a very long and complex story short, switched from French Literature to Statistics, and doesn’t trust herself to study the humanities right now because they’re too much about emotions, human problems, and the works stay with you and get into you.

I remember starting to feel that way about halfway through my sophomore year, when I was taking quantum mechanics and topology alongside 3 English classes and having a lot of anxiety about my future as a writer xor (I thought it was xor then) scientist. Many of my friends were going through major league mental health struggles, and I just wanted an escape. Science was my escape then, because it wasn’t about “petty” human problems; it’d be there no matter what. It was impersonal, yet had personal value for me–the best solution in that situation. At the same time, I started to view writing as an illness. My American Drama class focused on the lives of the playwrights, and I began to wonder (though I’d never do so now) if all artists weren’t plagued with self-destructive habits and impulses towards insanity. I had enough drama in my life, and I didn’t trust the writer’s truths. Moreover, I thought that being a humanities scholar meant that you had to be good at life–you had to be a wise and generous-spirited human being, and I didn’t trust myself to ever be that.

Remembering that, trying to answer my friend, I have to wonder what changed. I wrote earlier that I’m driven more towards humanities as a profession now because I want to teach about human solutions to the problem of life and being human. I want to clarify that I don’t see science as impersonal, and that’s why I’m not driven away from it: I just want to claim science for my personal life, and I don’t see a tremendous amount of room to do that in the formal discourse of the profession, so I feel no great need to enter into that discourse.

The thing that’s changed, and that really in the past year I think, is my attitude towards my writing work. I can still be ravished by a poem; some of them still sit with me for months, and that’s as I want it to be. But in studying this literature, I find that I move from personal response to analytical response in the course of my writing, and I derive great value from that movement. My papers are begun in a moment of personal discovery or revelation, and I get a lot of comments on them to the effect of “it’s interesting to see an active intelligence working its way through the piece”–I don’t try to hide the process of discovery of an interpretation and repackage the interpretation as an explication. Literary study still has that childlike impulse to wonder for me, and the calmer joy of figuring out how something works from the inside. It’s often a process of taking an undifferentiated intense reaction and making it intelligible to myself, which in some ways makes it manageable. Making the reaction manageable allows me to incorporate it into my everyday life without being overwhelmed by its powerful, visceral effect on me. Criticism, as I want to practice it, is about, as Forster put it in Howard’s End, “building rainbow bridges between prose and passion”–taking  the insight of a late night, the murky feelings of the soul, the things we don’t speak of, and gesturing towards them out in the open. Or as Roseanne Cash told it in a stunning Kirkland Conversation lecture I was at, it’s about being an artist and going to an emotionally utterly vulnerable place, and being able to come back from it every day to pick up your kid from kindergarten–but not lose the basic insights from that lonelier, scarier, less prosaic place.

The other thing that’s changed is my understanding of myself as a writer–not just someone who writes, but someone who is interested in the writing profession. When I had that rough sophomore fall, I wasn’t seriously considering what it’d be like to be a paid writer–I was wondering if I had it in my soul to be a writer, if I felt deeply enough, if I trusted myself and had the potential for emotional virtuosity that I thought the great literary writers had. (I was also bent on a ridiculous standard of comparison.) Now I’ve had several paid writing and editing gigs, and I see my writing as something I approach as a professional oftentimes. The writing process is one of deep thought, fiddling and rewriting, organizing and arranging and making countless decisions about word choice and structure. It’s about being a technician with words–and even when the topic is deeply personal or emotional, the writing process itself gives me space and distance to process those feelings without being overwhelmed. The conversations I have with others trying to be writers are about craft, where to submit to, good topics to pick up, blogs to follow–making writing an everyday part of life, managing its emotional side. As I’ve grown into myself as a writer, and started identifying as a writer and not “an aspiring writer” or somesuch, I’ve absolved myself from the requirement that writers be wise or struggling or specially tuned to humanity. In an important sense, writing is just another thing I do–and with that perspective has come a returned sense of play, of the kind of wonder and discovery I’m accustomed to from science. And so much less angst!

Alongside that–I work with artists at my job now. It’s easy to see that a lot of young artists just don’t take themselves seriously as artists and professionals: they won’t show up, or they won’t be professional in their communication or how they manage things. But I’m also close with a lot of artists who are consummate professionals now, and I’ve heard how the “what you been up to?” conversation goes–the most common answer? “You know, just working.” Most of us who want to be artists (including writers) are doing just that–working a lot, producing a lot, trying to find ways to make it work. No great wisdom about anything. Just muddling through.

Speaking of getting involved in writing communities, I’m going to start putting up more related blog links and things I’m reading–I do see this blog shifting more towards a discussion of the ground between arts/writing and sciences, and I’m happy with that shift, so I’m going to run with it.

Here’s a fascinating blog I’ve spent the morning reading the backlog from: http://celebrating-science.blogspot.com/. It’s from a writer with a residency at Durham among scientists. Lots interesting there about how writing and science are both driven by the process of asking questions, for a future discussion.

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