The Book of the Damned

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No Right Path: Arriving at Writing from Outside the Humanities

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Before I ever wanted to be a writer, I wanted to be a ufologist. My final research paper for AP US History II was titled “The United States Government Cover-Up of Information Pertaining to Unidentified Flying Objects.” Improperly formatted but ambitious, it was fifteen pages over the suggested limit. I was seventeen, and sometime between basketball practices and basement parties, I built a cross-cited catalog of thousands of UFO reports stored on a sleeve of floppy discs. My interlibrary loan requests included dissertations on propulsion systems from the University of Texas at Austin, primers on Russian folklore, and Charles Fort’s The Book of the Damned. I combed Project Blue Book’s list of unidentified sightings and critiqued the University of Colorado’s skeptical and skewed Condon Report. I replayed a 1950 recording of white lights floating over Centene Stadium in Great Falls, Montana. The longer I stared, the more those lights maneuvered like guided discs. I wanted to believe.

I learned that a former official from the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena lived in my town. Like Nicodemus, I contacted him in secret, hoping that he could guide my unconventional career path. He told me to study archeology; specifically, Egyptology. But he also said coursework in astronomy would be invaluable. I had always watched the skies. I would recline along a beach chair on our deck and stare until the dark above became a deep blue. Other than J. Allen Hynek, most astronomers would balk at my pseudoscientific interests, but a study of the stars felt like a legitimate way to reach toward the mysterious heavens. Astronomy was the marriage of science, mathematics, and theology. It was the study of worlds and objects I could never touch. It required faith.

I attended Susquehanna University, where astronomy was not a major but tucked into the physics department. I fell in love with writing fiction. I thrived in workshop classes led by generous instructors, and pored over Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon. I traded cataloging UFO reports from Hobbs, New Mexico to Allagash, Maine for the aerial phenomena in White Noise. I was predisposed to appreciate how Officer Walker’s encounter led to “sightings all over the area. An energizing mental current, a shaky glow, seemed to pass from town to town. It didn’t matter whether you believed in these things or not. They were an excitement, a wave, a tremor. Some voice or noise would crack across the sky and we would be lifted out of death.”

Fear and wonder pulled me toward both astronomy and writing. If the world does not create awe in us, we will neuter the beautiful and complex. The profound becomes prosaic. Although I have drifted toward the science of syntax, I think about the positives of studying content that is not literary. My concern here is not whether creative writing can be taught; a decade in the classroom has proven to me that young writers can evolve from good to excellent with guidance. Yet it would be inconsistent with the Humanities, a tradition suffused with inquiry and self-reflection, to demand that the workshop model is the only plausible method. Anis Shivani’s examinations (pdf) of the guild model as a precedent for the contemporary workshop are necessary; whether or not one agrees with all of his points, he has helped the conversation move forward. How can we expect our students to produce original work if we do not critique our own forms and functions?

There are many paths toward becoming a writer, including ones that do not pass through a creative writing classroom. But I am particularly interested in writers who continued on the route I began, but ultimately diverted from: an undergraduate course of study outside of the Humanities. Consider such writers collected within a post at Zola Books: Jonathan Franzen (studied physics before shifting to German), Rebecca Skloot (biology), Robert Ludlum (theater), Sue Monk Kidd (nursing), Michael Crichton (biological anthropology), John Grisham (accounting), Barbara Kingsolver (biology), and Norman Mailer (aeronautical engineering). This unconventional tradition continues: I spoke with several writers about their own paths to the page.

Joe Wilkins, author of the memoir The Mountain and the Fathers: Growing up on the Big Dry (Counterpoint)

B.S. Computer Engineering, Gonzaga University

Although he had a great calculus teacher in high school, the real reason Wilkins chose his major had to do with family: “I wanted to do something that would be stable and profitable. After my father died, my mother’s part-time schoolteacher salary barely made ends meet. I didn’t want that.” Engineering helped Wilkins think more systematically about writing: “I’m a relentless reviser, questioning every syllable, and I know some of that came from the time and attention I once had to pay to writing machine code.”

Andrea Kneeland, author of forthcoming story collection Birds & the Beasts (The Lit Pub)

B.A. Anthropology, San Francisco State University

Kneeland had practical considerations for studying anthropology: she was “broke,” and “saw that it would take the least amount of money and time” to complete. She also “initially found ethnographies fascinating,” and thought “studying cultural anthropology was a great complement to writing.” The result was curious: “I used to say that fiction was a way of taking stories that never happened and making them seem real, and the discipline of cultural anthropology was dedicated to taking things that happened and making them seem not real.” Although Kneeland took several creative writing courses as an undergraduate, they “seemed like a lot of navel-gazing and review of really basic craft elements. At that stage, I feel like you can learn different craft forms just from reading, and that navel-gazing is not necessarily the best source of material. How are you supposed to write something that can be meaningful to other people if you never look outward? And it probably would have taken me a lot longer to discover Foucault if I was mostly taking creative writing classes.”

Amber Sparks, author of the story collection May We Shed These Human Bodies (Curbside Splendor)

B.A. Theatre, University of Minnesota (Twin Cities)

Sparks originally planned on a psychology major, but was “cast in a play and said, the hell with it, I want to be an actor.” She finds acting and writing very similar: “You have to understand your character, and their relationships to all the other characters, but you don’t need to know everything. You need to know enough to give the illusion of there being an everything. Acting, and reading so many plays gave me, I think, a good grounding in how to write non-floating characters – characters with business and purpose and agency. It also helped a lot with understanding dialogue. It also turned me into a short story writer. I was a poet before I became an actor.” She did not read traditional workshop fare like Raymond Carver, Lorrie Moore, and Flannery O’Connor; rather, she was finding her voice while reading Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Harold Pinter, and “of course, a ton of Shakespeare.”

Sarah Blake, author of forthcoming book of poems, Mr. West (Wesleyan University Press)

B.S. Mathematics, The College of New Jersey

Blake minored in creative writing, and thanks “the amazing Cathy Day and Catie Rosemurgy” for their guidance, but chose math as a major because it was practical, and would lead to employment. Her first poem accepted for publication was steeped in math: “infinities, knot theory, topology!” Since then, math has appeared less directly in her poems, but she can still feel the influence: “I often find myself thinking about my work in terms of logic. I see a lot of other poets repeating the same sentiment in a poem, but with different words, because they value the second set of words as much as the first. That sort of repetition is very difficult for me. If the poem has said it, then I want the poem to push forward like it’s following points in a very strange proof. (An example — I was writing a poem where I had A=B and B=C, and I followed with A=C. But then I debated whether I should have A=C because it’s obvious, and it was already in the poem, and I want to trust the reader implicitly. Ultimately it stayed because it was more like B≈C, so saying A=C was interesting, a little bold. And while I was considering all this, I definitely thought, Am I the only poet who does this? I know the answer is, Probably not, but I’d like to meet the others!”

Michael J. Seidlinger, author of the novel The Laughter of Strangers (Lazy Fascist Press)

B.A. Sociology, University of Central Florida

Seidlinger writes: “As a failed musician without any options, I didn’t want to be in college and I didn’t know what major to pick. During the first semester, I started out undeclared. I took a handful of classes including one on deviant behavior. It was the least obnoxious of the bunch and maybe a little bit interesting. Turns out it was linked to a sociology program so I went with that.” He found sociology to be revelatory, and “helped a ton with coming up with ideas for stories.” Having never been in a workshop environment, “the lack of formal training both helped and hindered my writing. I am what I’ve become, and I just hope what I’ve become isn’t beyond repair.”

Edward Nudelman, Nudelman’s second full-length collection of poems is forthcoming from Harbor Mountain Press.

B.S. Biology, B.S. Biochemistry; University of Washington

Nudelman was a “pre-med major [who] was accepted and attended a Medical School in Iowa on a military scholarship, but attended for only one month.” He returned to “a research lab position, which allowed me to pursue my dream in basic cancer research.” He published “over 70 papers in top-tier, peer-reviewed cancer journals.” His research career “has greatly impacted the way I see the world and given me a kind of voice in my poetry I don’t think I ever would have had without that kind of rigorous scientific training, both in the classroom and in the laboratory. My dual career in scientific research and poetry has been a welcomed exercise in cognitional balance.  My training in basic research has taught my mind to reasonably doubt almost any conjecture, to put it up to testing, and to withhold conclusion until the data is preponderant enough to demand a viable conclusion. In my writing, however, I strive to say something outside of linear thought. It has been a challenge, but fortunately it has proved to be a great outlet, and as a result, I think a kind of poetic counterpoint has resulted, melding both physical and metaphysical worlds.” In addition to publishing books of poetry and art bibliographies, Nudelman has also owned and operated a rare bookshop since 1980.

Stuart Rojstaczer, author of the forthcoming novel, The Mathematician’s Shiva (Penguin)

B. S. Geology, University of Wisconsin

Rojstaczer earned an M.S. in Geology from the University of Illinois, and a Ph.D. in Applied Earth Sciences. He taught geophysics as a tenured professor at Duke University. The reasons for his major were simple: “I love the outdoors and I love math. Geophysics was a way of combining that.” Rojstaczer took literature courses as an undergraduate, “but mostly learned about fiction and poetry by hanging out in the stacks of the library and being an autodidact.” The Mathematician’s Shiva “is about a group of mathematicians mourning the loss of one of their own and at the same time trying to solve a math problem, and would not have been possible to write without knowing some high level math and without understanding how nerd (and I’m a proud nerd) culture works. It also helps me understand how math and science types emote.”

Image via Kenneth Lu/Flickr

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