A Writers’Other Jobs post by Phill English
At the various magazine launches, readings, or writing festival events that I’ve attended, there always comes the dreaded question: So what do you do?
I’m never fully sure how to answer. Statistically speaking, I’m not your average writing scene participant. I’m not a journalist, essayist or freelance writer; I don’t earn my wage by editing the words of others; my ‘B.’ isn’t followed by an ‘A.’, but rather an ‘Sc.’ I’m a scientist, supposedly learned in the ways of cool logic and the scientific method. And even though I’ve been both a scientist and an active writer for nearly a decade, I’m still not entirely sure how to rationalise the two.
I fight to keep them on separate shifts, and it’s a losing battle. I’ll be doing some standard work on an X-ray diffractometer* and suddenly the resolution of a short story I’ve been working on will appear like magic in my mind’s eye. People say that the habit of exercise or getting a good night’s sleep are ways of ordering your thoughts so that these eureka moments come faster. I’d contend that opening and adjusting 50 Excel spread sheets worth of particle counting data can approximate the necessary zen state.
The scientific process isn’t as far away from the creative process as you might think. Scientists and writers alike worship at the altar of ‘What If?’. What if all humans woke up at four in the morning, startled by the same message from some other-worldy creature? What if I added some water to this beaker of acid**? What if two pre-teens stole a car and went on a road-trip through the bush? What if we could use plant cellulose to build materials as strong as carbon fibre? Innovative solutions to problems in the real and imagined space require the same kind of willingness to follow up those threads. In my writing group alone I’ve read stories with the kind of lateral thinking that convinces me that the author would have made a really great scientist.
On the flipside, communicating science to the public—something I consider to be one of the most important aspects of science, and which is often overlooked by researchers—requires a certain element of creativity to make sure the message gets across without patronising the reader***.
There can of course be disadvantages to my day job. Thanks to countless exhaustive laboratory reports, my story drafts often have the most over-enthusiastically descriptive narrator you’ve ever read. I want to explain everything to the reader to make sure they get it. And don’t get me started on the passive voice, good grief. At the same time, I’m in an enviable position when I dip into writing science fiction, and the exercise of world-building is just like a really interesting thought experiment. Also, holy crap, can I ever plan out a plot (although following through on it is, as ever, an issue).
Despite all the similarities between my day job and my night hobby, I still feel as though the overwhelming perception of the public is that there is a definite divide between the creative arts and the sciences. Maybe it’s a remnant from high school, where we were told to choose between List 1 ‘humanities’ and List-2 ‘quantities’ subjects. Or perhaps there really does exist an impenetrable barrier between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. But I can’t help but think that the two complement, rather than inhibit, each other.
Now if only science would invent a machine that could motivate me to sit down and actually write.
*A machine that can tell you what kind of minerals are present in dirt or clay or rocks or crystals.
**I know the answer to that one and the answer is Very Bad Things.
***As a side note, while I’m listing things that we share, you might not be aware that scientists are as much a slave to the publishing industry as writers are. There’s a saying amongst scientists: “Publish or perish”. Scientific journal articles are the lifeblood of academic careers, and you’d better be prepared to be vampiric if you’re pursuing that path. I got out of that world as soon as I finished my Ph.D., thank goodness.
This post is part of a series titled “Writers Other Jobs” in which writers outline some of the stranger and more interesting things they’ve done to further their career. If you’ve had a crazy ‘Other Job’ that you’d like to share, get in touch with us on email@example.com/wpblog