On Chemistry and Creative Writing

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I came to writing by way of chemistry. How’s that for a perfectly typical career trajectory?

It’s something I come back to when considering the state of liberal arts education these days – a massive debate that I haven't yet worked up the nerve to engage with fully. Instead, I'll offer my own anecdotal evidence and add that the liberal arts have always done well by me.

Growing up, I was one of those students who couldn’t decide which class was their favorite. Two disparate disciplines captivated me, and for opposite reasons: the sciences, with their black-and-white reality, and the humanities, which are often open to interpretation. Like they do with so many other students these days, my college applications encouraged me to pick one at the ripe old age of 17.

I went with chemistry for a few (seemingly) compelling reasons: 1) My personality trends toward the analytical, and I’m prone to obsession over minute details in a search for an objectively right answer. In chemistry, to paraphrase a certain formative television show, these truths are out there. 2) Chemistry majors are eminently employable. Chemistry degree in hand, I planned to transition into medical research, an area where I felt I could make a positive – maybe even significant – impact. 3) An exhilarating thermite reaction conducted during my AP chemistry class caught my eye and ignited my curiosity (puns always intended). If you’ve never seen one before, check it out.

Our experiment looked like the one in the first few seconds of this video; the Mythbusters' later test offers some impressive pyrotechnics. For obvious reasons, neither version is legal in Massachusetts schools anymore. 

And so I enrolled in college as a chemistry major. However, delving deeper into the underpinnings of chemical reactions and interactions in my courses, I quickly learned just how far medical research is from the beauty and fury of thermite. On top of that, the unyielding delineation of right and wrong began to feel less like an advantage and more like a straitjacket – there’s little room for creativity when everything must be experimentally verified and only a few specific combinations are allowed. (Of course, scientists achieve immensely creative breakthroughs all the time, but the way they get to them is totally different from what I desired and enjoyed.) There’s a world of difference between knowing theoretically how much time and effort goes into the research, and actually sitting in the lab for several hours only to have the experiment fail. Welcome to a whole new level of frustration – this was not something I wanted to do no matter how easy it would be to get a job.

Simultaneous to this minor existential crisis, I was also taking a course in creative writing. The dichotomy couldn’t have been more extreme: Organic Chemistry II, where the rules reflect the fundamental laws of the natural world, versus Fiction I, where the code is more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules. Having more lenient restrictions didn’t stop me from becoming engrossed in the details of writing (I’m a proud grammar nerd), but it did give me the leeway to turn a blind eye to the rules when the piece required it. Truman Capote describes the phenomenon more eloquently than I could hope to.

As writing took center stage and I became more and more invested in the craft, it became increasingly clear that chemistry had never been the right fit. Much to the chagrin of my mother, medical school was out of the picture by the time graduation came around.

Over my educational journey, I strayed far from my initial chemistry aspirations – in fact, I wound up in a different field altogether – but I needed to walk down that first path to realize I belonged on a different one. I still read up on my fair share of obscure and involved science concepts (some of which you’ll hear about here on the blog) but I’ve learned where my limits lie when it comes to the truly complex. On a scale from simpleton to scientist, I’m more of an armchair physicist than a chemist.

But that’s fine, because this unexpected process proved that I was always meant to be something else: a writer. And aren't these moments of insight and self-realization what education is all about?

File under Chemistry, Liberal Arts, History, Thermite, Science

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