90,000 Miles to Me

30,313 Miles • On Being a Writer

Okay, here’s the deal. I’ve spent a lot of time, therapy sessions, and friends’ patience complaining about not having a long-term career in a single field. That complaint eventually got refined to ‘not having gone into the sciences,’ which then turned into ‘having too many interests to pursue just one of them so what am I going to do with my life?’

All of these laments have essentially been driven by a part of me that does not want to accept that I am a Renaissance woman with many interests and skills, and wants me to be the kind of person who dives deeply into a single subject for a lifetime to master that one thing to the exclusion of everything else.

Several of my heroes growing up were these kinds of people, often scientists, and when I meet anyone who has truly mastered a narrow discipline over a long time, say woodworking, astronomy, art, or whatever, I feel a sense of great admiration and respect for that and a tinge of regret that I have not done that.

There is also an element of genuine appeal in that approach, as I tend to be obsessive about topics when I get interested in them, and keep thinking that I have found the one that will carry me through the rest of my life. While some obsessions have persisted for enough years that I know the subject quite thoroughly, they aren’t traditionally career aspirational-type-subjects. Star Trek, tatted lacemaking, and German grammar spring to mind.

Yes, I taught German for a few years, and burned out, and then translated for a year, but was still too burned out to pursue it rigorously. Perhaps I could pursue this path again, possibly without burning out this time. Maybe.

For the most part, I know a reasonable amount about a very lot of things, enough that I can make connections and see the big picture and how things fit into each other, and I enjoy that. Most of me likes this state of affairs, because I am interested in so very many things that I could never possibly explore the extreme depths of all of them, and don’t really want to.

But there is that nagging part of me that idolizes experts in their fields. Who has internalized the messaging of “those who can, do, those who can’t, teach,” and “Jack of all trades and master of none,” and similar disparaging sentiments. Who gazes at the sciences longingly from a distance, with their heavy emphasis on deep learning in a narrow field, making it difficult to move between fields, and impossible to move as often as my interest would. This part of myself has labeled me as “flighty” and other derogatory terms because I don’t meet its particular standards for success.

Even though I have shed the shame that I carried around for so long about not going into physics, and although I feel like I could maybe go back to school again, I have a horror of having to pick a field to specialize in. I’ve obsessed serially over pretty much every -ology at some point in my life and still find them all fascinating in different ways and would love to learn more about most of them. Having to pick just one feels like closing off a huge part of myself.

Also, the prospect of actually doing the science itself doesn’t excite me the way it did when I was a kid. I no longer feel like I have a personal need to be the one doing the research.

Instead, I’ve been thinking for the last several months about pursuing a career in science journalism, because then I could interview the scientists doing the work and geek out with them for a while, asking questions to my heart’s content and then go away and write about it and be able to share that with others, which I think I would be really good at and would enjoy. 

But this wounded part of me feels like she would not respect myself for “just” being the journalist. Like I wouldn’t have membership in the club; that because I am not a scientist myself, I would not belong, not be good enough, not be accepted, that I would not be a colleague to the scientists I would be interviewing, just a lay person who is playing around with things she doesn’t understand. A wannabe who couldn’t cut it in the real profession.

Then two things happened. First, while parked in Maine near the Canadian border (pictured above—the places that do, and don’t, get cell reception sometime surprise me) to revisit this existential crisis brought up by the 50th Moon landing anniversary event, a friend asked me if there were science writers whom I respect, and yes, I can think of three by name whom I respect and admire even though they aren’t scientists themselves. David Perlman, one of the most distinguished science writers in the field with a more than 50 year career behind him, David Attenborough, who narrated so many nature documentaries, and Alan Alda, who hosted Scientific American Frontiers. They weren’t ridiculed because they weren’t scientists, rather they were praised for what they did do.

Second, I had the thought, what if there were something I were good at, had in-depth knowledge of and many years of experience practicing. What if it were not the science but the writing? “What if writing were my mastery?”

I have read good writers ravenously my entire life, and have been intentionally crafting my writing skills at least since the sixth grade when I was introduced to the concept of the essay and fell in love.

Although I have a talent for writing, I have worked hard at improving my knowledge and skills for a very long time. Hence, I get a lot of compliments about my writing (and awards, grants, scholarships, and jobs).

Yet I have always brushed off such praise because I didn’t value my writing as a marketable skill, despite using writing to market my other skills. Precisely because it came easily to me, and because I enjoyed the work I put into it, it didn’t seem like legitimate work.

In those moments when I did think and dream about becoming a professional writer, it felt as pie in the sky as declaring “I want to be a movie star.” Hordes of talented hopefuls move to Hollywood every year and end up waitressing, resentful, or teaching acting on the side of their disappointing, plan B careers that pay the bills. How many talented people set out to write the Great American Novel and end up twenty years later bitterly lamenting the books they intended to write or that never sold? I didn’t want the thing I loved to turn into that.

Deep breath.

I don’t have to write the Great American Novel to qualify as a writer. Fiction isn’t my strong point, anyway. In school, essays were, and as an adult I came to love narrative nonfiction and creative nonfiction. If composing the Great American Novel is my standard for success, I might as well continue fretting about which one job I can hold down until I become bitter and resentful and burn out again.

But that doesn’t have to be my standard for success. Or my definition of what a writer is. I can be a journalist or an essayist or make educational materials about whatever interests me at the time…or something else entirely that I haven’t thought of yet.

As soon as I started thinking about writing this way, my mind opened up and creativity and joy started flowing with numerous ideas of freelance projects I would love to do and that would give me opportunities, not restrictions; open doors, not lock me in a cubicle.

This isn’t tricking myself into feeling better about my inadequacies. It is a paradigm-altering shift in reality.

It is the difference between being a wannabe scientist who is settling for writing about it, and being a master of the craft of writing and freely choosing to write about science (or whatever else). 

Writing is something that I can legitimately say that I have a certain amount of mastery of, although I would not call myself a master at the craft of writing yet. Far from it, as I am all too aware of my weaknesses and limitations and am continually working to improve those. (As do all masters in all fields.)

It’s not just that I’m good at it; I need to do it. When I don’t write enough, it starts spilling out of me in strange ways and I compose emails in florid prose and make rhyming couplets about my dinner. Even as I solemnly swore not to do any projects on this Journey, I allowed myself this blog because I don’t fully process what is happening to me until I can first express it in language, and so much had been happening that I had to either write it or go crazy.

Does that sound like the makings of a fulfilling career to you? Perhaps a passion? Maybe even, dare I say it, a vocation?

What if I started valuing this skill and turned it toward conveying complex scientific concepts for the general public, or making math fun for adults who hated it as kids, or simply making another calendar next year with more fun nature facts, or whatever else I chose to write about?

Stay tuned. This adventure is just beginning.

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7 thoughts on “30,313 Miles • On Being a Writer

  1. I think it’s time to dust off that old pen name. Wow, H! When I started reading this one, it felt like I was hearing my own thoughts. I expressed something nearly identical to Janine just a few weeks ago. What an amazing parallel we have lived. I’m really happy that you’ve made this discovery about yourself. I’m still not entirely settled with my path, for the time being, but I’ll send you an email about what I’m thinking of devoting myself to for the foreseeable future. Keep on vanning.

  2. This sounds wonderful, Martha. Go for it! You are a solid writer with important things to say. What projects are you considering?

  3. well, I think you know how I feel about it. I hAVE ENJOYED READING YOUR writing ever since you started, which goes back to the books you and your dad sent so many years ago. this blog ,I believe should convince you that wwriting is certainly one of the skills you have persued over the years. Please continue ….. anything that you write about is interesting and informative and worth the effort. I continue to be a #1 fan of you…. lovingly, aunt georgetta

  4. I, too, think you should go for it! You have tremendous talent in writing and do so with stunning grammar, syntax and passion for to topics you’ve approached in this blog. If you can combine your passions for writing, science, travel, etc., and make a living (people do!), the I say again—GO FOR IT!

    A very smart and eloquent girlfriend and colleague from 20 years ago, quit her job at our company and built her own job/income. With her passions, talents and gifts, she had several small jobs for income (newsletter editor and treasurer for a local club, singer at church services, contractor/editor for non-profits) while building her own jewelry brand, her passion, to make up the rest of her requires income. She thought it through, lined things up, then quit and has never been happier with her non-traditional career choice. She was able to be home for her young daughter (now in college), flexible days to self-schedule her work priority and friend priorities, and was/is 100% happy with her choice (and less stressed!!!) and doesn’t let anyone poo-poo it. (They/I wouldn’t be able to do all of that!

    I think you’re on to something and encourage you to look into it more. And please try not to think of it as “less than” a scientist (insert any other profession name here). Instead, think of it as being a teacher or brain-stimulator or bridge, maybe, for all of us who *want to read about science, etc., but get bogged down by scientific writing and would love to have someone break it down for us! National Geographic writers, for example, do this all the time!

    Keep us posted!

    Love and hugs, cuz 🙂

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