As long as I can remember I’ve always wanted to be a scientist. Physics, chemistry, biology, medicine—my focus changed from time to time but my intent was always the same. I’d experiment and theorize and research and observe but unlike my peers in the arts I’d never have to write an essay. What you’re about to read is the product of a very fortunate accident.
When I first started university, in the fall of 2006, I intended to pursue a degree in physics. Astrophysics, to be particular: cosmology, the origin of the universe. Four years, five courses per term, and then straight on to medical school. Fresh out of high school, I was driven and determined. These grand ambitions lasted for a total of three days.
I was 20 minutes into my first computer science course, when I realized that university physics wasn’t for me.
“Repeat after me: one megabyte equals 1024000 bytes.” My teacher led a choir that consisted almost entirely of fat men over 30 through the lingo of the computer world. Immediately I knew I’d made a mistake. My childhood fantasies had consisted of laser beams and centrifuges, not male pattern baldness and ironic t-shirts.
“One exabyte equals 1024000000000000 bytes.”
I dropped the course on my laptop and walked out before we’d reached the second set of slides. The last day to register in courses was the following Friday. I had less than two weeks to make the same life altering decision that had previously taken me 18 years.
I settled on Chemistry. It was still one of the physical sciences, it involved minimal adjustments to my timetable, and it had been my strongest subject in high school. My interest in physics still hadn’t been parched, but it was now reserved for after hours study. I stocked my bookshelf full of the essentials— The Theory of Everything, the Dancing Wu-Li Masters, The Elegants Universe, Blacks Holes and Time Warps—and spent my days as a chemist, my evenings as a physicist. This two-track existence lasted until second year, when I declared my major and realized that I had another dozen electives to fill.
The first writing course I ever took was at the insistence of family and friends. Throughout high school I’d developed a reputation for my creative approach to assignments. When asked to give a safety seminar to my grade 10 french immersion science class, I composed and performed a song entitled Ne Touch Pas Fils Overt —Don’t Touch Exposed Wire—to the tune of Billy Idol’s “Dancing with Myself.” I received bonus points on my chemistry exams for answering questions in the following fashion:
Explain the Difference between an Atom and an Ion (2 points):
But for me creativity was always a means of combating boredom. It was never a discipline worthy of fulltime study, let alone a viable career choice. So, when I signed up for Writing 100, I decided it would be an easy A—nothing more, nothing less. I did quite well and decided to continue on to 200-level creative nonfiction (a genre that up to that point, I didn’t even know existed). But in a competitive program, with only 15 slots available for ‘aspiring writers’, my reception wasn’t as warm as I’d hoped.
My teacher, Lynne, was the first to point out my infidelity to the program, the week after I submitted my first workshop draft, unedited, to class. I had a 30% Organic midterm the same day as my due date, so it was only logical that my 5% draft should take the fall.
But to her, this strategy was rude and inconsiderate: “You’re asking 15 other people to take the time to read your work.”
I groomed my next draft more carefully. The reception was the same.
“Your ideas are good, but syntax seems to be beyond you,” an in-class comment summarized my feedback for the rest of the term. All ambition, no execution. I was under taught, and under read and most of all I was under committed. But, while I had no interest in a career in publishing, I did have an ego to uphold, and so with each B+ I committed myself to more reading, more writing, more editing. Still, for the most part of the term my grades remained stagnant. I voiced my concern with Lynne that December in a closing interview for the course.
“Your problem is that you don’t consider yourself a writer,” she said. “You’re certainly able, but unless you’re going to take this seriously, all you’re going to do is frustrate a lot of people.”
I struggled to find a rebuttal.
“Why do you write?” Lynne asked me.
After a moment of silence I told her that it was because I figured I had something to say.
“Then you’re a writer. Or you will be. You’ll have to learn to edit your work, but eventually things will click into place. You’ll have a moment of realization; I’m going to guess next January. Suddenly this will all make sense.” Lynne gave me a highlighter and a scathing review on my final assignment. She prescribed me a grammar class and I was on my way.
Lynne was off by a couple months. I spent the rest of the school year playing hopscotch between the science and arts buildings before retreating to the deserts of Eastern Turkey to reflect on the most taxing term of my life. I was on the night bus between Capadoccia and the Olympos Valley when that moment of realization happened. The last six months of my life came spouting out of my pen in a single sitting, and the next morning I had the draft of what would become my first A+ essay. People want to read about personal struggle, and my conflict translated perfectly to the page. This is a mantra I learned to live by. I haven’t received a lower mark on an essay assignment since.
While most of my peers prospected their lives for two or three essays per course, four or five courses per term, my writing course count always maxed out at two. I had three or more science courses, two jobs, and four months of travel each year from which to mine the content of the few essays that I’d have to punch out every four months. While I was just as busy as, if not busier than, my peers, I was busy doing other things, and that reflected in my work. I had an advantage and it was this:
I had something to write about.
That September I decided to pursue a full degree in writing. A second degree meant two more years of school; it pushed back my initial four-year, 60 credit, commitment to a 6 year, 90 credit crunch. Medical school was now a foggy image on the horizon. But just as Writing 100 had caught my eye two years earlier, Greek and Roman Mythology, Eastern Religious Studies, and The Philosophy of Medicine were making convincing cases for my extra time. 30 more credits would give me the opportunity to explore all of these options, as well as a second bachelors degree in the end. Plus, now I really wanted to perfect this writing thing. I developed a habit I now call proactive procrastination. Gone were the days of streamlined singletracking, but as long as I was working toward something my time wasn’t being wasted, was it?
These days I’m becoming more and more the writerly type. Last year, I went deaf in the Philippines and found myself more excited than afraid.
“Think of the literary potential guys,” I perplexed worried friends as I lay bedridden in a hostel in Dumaguete. When the antibiotics cleared me up within days, I couldn’t help but feel a small sense of disappointment.
When I was rushed to emergency surgery the following summer after putting a piece coral through my foot off the coast Northern Vietnam, my reaction was almost the same.
Einstein and Hawking still hold their place upon my nightstand, but they’re finding it crowded up there, next to Fitzgerald and Kerouac and Hesse. And while Lynne may have been right about many things, I still don’t dare call myself a writer. Even now, I’m not sure I ever will.
To me, to write is still just a verb, and a complimentary one at that. It’s something that’s done by many, but perfected by few. And it’s always most effective when it’s a side for something else.
The best antiwar novel was written because Vonnegut found himself locked in a meat locker beneath the firestorms of Dresden. Hemmingway wrote my favorite short story between hunting for white rhino and having threesomes with Italian whores. Run a business or travel or solve crimes or drink and smoke and fuck full time for all I care, but don’t just sit back and read and write yourself life away. Literature is the dialogue of human experience. And you’ve got to gather this experience in order to have something to say.
It’s this dialogue that’s got me hooked on this writing thing. How does one make sense of a life on a blank canvas? It’s a conversation that encompasses all walks of life. And for someone who’s spent his last four years compartmentalized between departments, that’s a very welcome change.
I’ve discovered that my attractions to chemistry and writing really aren’t so different. What I’ve been chasing all along are narratives: hypotheses based on empirical facts. Trying to find out where we fits within our universe. You may read a memoir, the story of a man, or you may read a paper, the history of space and time itself. In the end both stories have the same agenda – both are the quest for universal truth. Who are we, where did we come from, where are we going, and why?
I’ve also realized that satisfying two degree requirements has brought me no closer to an endpoint. Here, five months from graduation I’m considering sticking around for another year – maybe to get a business minor, perhaps to set myself up for a law degree as well. I’ve learned that I love to learn, that no man’s interests fall entirely within a single discipline. You can’t know what you’re passionate about until you’ve tried everything along the way. This is something I never would have learned from a single faculty alone.
I tell this to my science friends from first year—the ones that streamlined their way through four-year biology degrees and plowed directly into medical school—and they laugh. To them, success is the opposite; it’s achieving what you set out to do and doing it as efficiently as possible. And I suppose that’s true as well, although I’d argue the validity of the goals they set. If life experience is integral to voicing your opinion, it’s definitely as important for setting goals. At best, you’re leaching off the experience of others. At worst, you’re taking a stab in the dark.
So where does this leave me, the creative chemist—strung out somewhere between the scientific and the surreal. The new Renaissance man, or the ultimate pathological fence sitter? This is the question I’m faced with on a day-to-day basis. Conflicted? Yes. But the conflict is self-imposed. Which isn’t so bad, when you consider that everything I’ve learned so far has sprung from conflict itself. To the scientist, conflict equals evolution, adaption and adherence; to the writer conflict is what causes a character to grow. But since I subscribe to both viewpoints, I’ll summarize the two like this:
Conflict is the center of every great story ever written.