Thursday, July 15

This is was the first line of the first real poem I wrote when I was 14 or 15 and depressed and confused. Now after several bouts of happiness in recent years, I've come full circle and am asking the same question again. I'm having an identity crisis about what I'm trying to do with my life, what kind of person I'm trying to be in the world, how I want to touch people, etc. and so on.

As a science writer, am I trying to be an educator? That's the way I looked at it a year or two ago, when I planned to go into science writing and when I started my grad program. But the director of my program told us we should aim to be entertainers--at least, we should if we want to be successful writing at the national level for a general audience. He told us science journalist Natalie Angier of the New York Times says she sees her stories as the funny pages of the paper. (The NYT has no comics.) He said similar things a few times, but it took a while to sink in.

Meanwhile I've been paring down my possessions, getting ready for a nomadic life as an intern for the next year plus. I've ditched a trunkload of books, literally. As hard as is it to part with books, these are all books I bought thinking they sounded important, but then never read. Books on philosophy, history, religion, politics--I wanted to know the information in them, but wasn't dying to read them. Some of them I'd carried around for four or five years but never opened the cover. Of the philosophy, etc. that I did read, I remember very little.

So what was the point? It shaped how I think, I guess. The director of my program keeps saying my strongest skills are clear explanations and logical flow. But he also says that my writing often falls flat, and I'm sure reading a lot of academic books shaped that. I am what I've read.

But there's a bigger issue, beyond how my reading has helped or hurt my writing. Do I want to have fun or be an expert? Do I want to entertain or be wise? These two aren't totally at odds. But usually they don't go together. My usual way is to try to become an expert on everything, instead of accepting that I'm bumbling my way through life like everyone else, and it's OK to write from that perspective.

So I'm trying to follow my gut, read what entertains and moves me, read what inspires me. I'm listening to CDs of comedians, reading more novels. But just the fact that I say I'm trying to follow my gut shows I'm only somewhat successful. I still get captured by my ideas of what's important and want to buy all these boring books. I pick them up, carry them around the bookstore... then think: besides the fact that I already have too many books, is this a book I'm dying to read? Am I going to crack it open right when I get home? No. I like the idea of reading it, of knowing what's inside, way more than I like actually reading it, and more even than knowing the information.

Who knew books could be so problematic. But between work & fun, I'm treading in a sea of words. I feel like my head's just above water now. I have to choose wisely my words to keep from sinking.

Yesterday I mentioned some of this stuff to my friend Megan who just finished the science writing program with me. She feels much the same way. I do not suffer alone. I think that many beginning writers go through this. I wonder when I'll be through with this.


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