Saturday, 6 June 2015

Reconciling Creative Writing and Science

People talk about "the sciences" and "the arts" like they're two entirely dissimilar entities, as different as the sun and the moon. But the moon only reflects the sunlight hidden in night's shadow; the sun is 40 times as large and exactly 40 times as far as the moon.

Poetry aside—as you all know, I'm passionate about both science and creative writing, and I've spent quite a few years trying to reconcile these monsters in the same brain.
Reconciling creative writing and science: not as impossible as it seems.

What's the real difference, anyhow?


Science can be as fanciful as creative writing. When we're brainstorming science project ideas, the best ideas are those that come out of nowhere. Several of my less boring experiments are mixing together random things, waiting a couple hours, and praying that it works. Sort of like how I write a first draft and look back at it. And repeating experiments is just like revisions: over and over again until it works. Sometimes it doesn't, and you try something new.

The more boring experiments? We do something standard from a textbook, true, but we have to write up lab reports and analyses, and the point is to put your own spin on it. Almost like writing prompts, just to get your mind working and give your muse some practice.

Theories and equations and all that boring stuff? No matter how unconventional you are, you still need to your grammar and vocabulary pat down, and learn about protagonists and antagonists and foils and plot structures and whatnot.

You'd expect I write sci-fi. I don't.


I don't even read much sci-fi. Not that I haven't had plot ideas based on my scientific knowledge, but I've often heard that technical experts don't write well in their field. (Not that I'm claiming to be an expert, ahem.) And it's true; while the best sci-fi I've read do a lot of handwaving and random techy terms, I tend to overthink the mechanisms even when just thinking out an idea. Imagine if I wrote an entire book and tried to explain how my bioweapon worked. I bet you'd put down the book in two minutes.

Except you world dominators out there who want to steal my science gizmo, of course.

(By the way, on writing scientists, I highly recommend this article from The Imitation Game screenwriter.)

What I'm saying here is, yes, it's perfectly possible for these two disciplines to overlap. But more than that, at their core, they are the same.

The common ideology is what matters:


The pursuit of the unknown.

Yeah, maybe creative writing and science require very different skills, but isn't what we seek the same? When we bemoan the dreaded blank page, marvel at the space between stars — are we not looking for answers? And aren't the greatest scientists and writers the ones who raise the questions no one else can think of?

After observing a phenomenon, a scientist's hypothesis is a novel not yet consummated. After dreaming a world of magic, a writer's novel is a hypothesis not yet proven. What's so fun about both writing and science is that you can never predict the results.

Takeout: the arts and the sciences are legitimate and interrelated disciplines. Stop treating them otherwise — or judging people based on them.


Do you agree that science and creative writing are similar? How do you reconcile alien concepts in your life?


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28 comments:

  1. This is an awesome post (also very deep). I don't expect sci-fi authors to get science right, really. It's just fiction, you know? But I guess you could argue that all fiction is based on the grounds of real life. Anyway, loved this comparison, nicely done. :)

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    1. I don't actually write deep posts a lot, so I'm glad you liked it. And yes, SF is mostly best when the details are handwaved instead of explained in excruciating detail befitting a physics thesis paper XD Mmm, yes, that's true too. Thanks for dropping by!

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  2. I love this post. :)

    I've been looking to transfer to a different college and so I've been going to different university websites and stuff. Often times when I go to the "Schools and Departments" section, the sciences and the arts are lumped together in one "school."

    At first I kind of wondered why, but then I was like. "Duh, Ashley! They're all people of inquiry." They all ask the question "What if. . ." "Can we make this a reality?" They're all imaginative people who love to test the perceived limits of the physical world. They're inventors and creators. They're committed to the pursuit of learning, testing the standards, seeing if there's more than what first impressions allow. They're explorers.

    This is such an awesome post!

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    1. Aww, thank you!

      Hmm, I haven't noticed that before! In Hong Kong at least, they're kept fairly separate -- to the point that until a handful of years ago, you could either ONLY take humanities/arts subjects OR science subjects in high school. Which makes no sense, really, because like you say, we're all explorers.

      Kirk: Space, the final frontier ... :P

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  3. Ooh, this is interesting. I've never been a very sciency person, but I've always thought that the 'sciences' and the 'arts' are different in ways, yes, but also similar in other ways, like most things. This is an interesting take on it. :D

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    1. Yeah, I used to think I was a humanities person, because I was a sucker for all things English, and then slowly I realised I enjoyed science a lot too. Reconciling the two became a necessary mindset for me :D

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  4. I have always done equally well at the sciences and english subjects at school. Because from a young age we are taught they are very different things, I never thought I was good at anything in particular. But there are defiantly places in life where English and Science cross over- and neither is more important than the other :)

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    1. Being good at all the things is better than being good at anything in particular, though XD But it's really sad how people try to separate the arts and sciences so much!

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  5. I'm going to be that person who goes all Dead Poets Society and says this: science is one of those noble pursuits, but it's the art that makes life worth living.

    I think there's a lot of art in science that we don't stop to appreciate. When you sell a science degree it's about the money you'll make and the amount of work you have and how we have SO MANY JOBS for people who like science and technology, now. Those aren't bad points, but it's the art that makes it valuable. Part of it is doing the science—you have a technique to making an experiment, do you not? A style as you discover the wonders of the cosmos. There's art in science, and it's a lovely thing. And, when I think about it like that, there's very little difference between the idea behind science and the idea behind fiction, either.

    I like science well enough, and I like thinking about science and learning about science and doing science. LIKE DINOSAURS LET'S LEARN ABOUT DINOSAURS EVERY DAY. Or evolution! Evolution fascinates me, especially depending how far back we take it. We love to talk about how we're related to chimpanzees and cows but then other times you have to take a step back and be like, "Woah, I have like, 50% of the same genetic material as this banana. Boom."

    In a way, I love science and writing because there's a mutual passion for ideas. Sometimes the ideas are not always good ones and can result in unfruitful ventures—and there are those evil scientists who are creepy and secretly want to kill us all—but ultimately, it's that tangibility of something intangible about our world and ourselves that is beautiful and amazing.

    I love that you love science and writing at the same time. I think more people should! And I think that it's really sad when people getting their degrees aren't forced to read literature or write a poem once in a while—it's like... in a way, when you focus solely on the factual, profitable part of science you're sucking the marrow out of life. There's no discovery or mystery or imagination to the lesson. It just is, and that is boring.

    What I enjoy about my many pursuits, and what I imagine you agree with, and those who share passions across disciplines, is that learning a lot shows you that there is a lot, and that you can be a lot, and that you can live for a lot. There are amazing things out there, and science is the study of finding out all about those amazing things. In a way, science puts the magic in life. We writers? We just put that magic into words.

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    1. I would disagree on the science degree --> money part. I mean, yeah, it's way easier for us to get a job, but we are in it because we love science mostly. But yeah, the arts need better representation in the labour market.

      Science trivia is really fun. But then art trivia is fun too, and I have unlimited love for those art picture edits on Tumblr. But it's the ideas that matter. The ideas and the evil.

      Well, that was a bit of gratuitous repetition of "a lot", But yes, that is true. Life is all about the magic. (And the madness, and the murder. XD)

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    2. Hm, maybe it's a variation on where we live? I mean, I know you're a little younger than me so maybe colleges aren't hitting you as hard yet, but at least when they were trying to hook me, the money was almost the only factor they wanted to talk about. It isn't fair, of course, and I don't agree with it—you're right in that scientists should be scientists because they love science. However, as far as the marketing goes in my area... That is what it's like. Blah.

      Always the evil. And the "a lot"s. You will notice I am into gratuitous repetition, usually always. But that is just me. (And no, we cannot forget the madness or the murder!)

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    3. Hmm, true -- or simply that if you're looking for money, you become a doctor/lawyer/accountant/architect/other professional jobs. I mean, scientific majors are often a bit easier, but they're still viewed as less lucrative compared to medicine.

      I suggest gratuitous repetition of madness and murder. Except such repetition could not be called gratuitous.

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  6. In high schools here students aren't separated until their second year of high school. They have three groups to choose from -- one of which is "the humanities" , the other two are "the sciences", the difference between the two science groups is that one has to study biology (aka aspiring doctors :P) and the other doesn't. And the "creatives"? There's art school for them. I think sometimes people think these as entirely different entities, like science=precision and accuracy and crazy scientists, humanity=social justice warriors and creativity=romantics and whatnot. Perhaps it's just easier to perceive and categorise people? It's also easier for people our age to identify themselves and find somewhere they belong to. But like you said, there are a lot that are actually overlapping, not just black and white. I was so confused because I love science and creating and languages equally but there seems to be few in-between people like me (hiya, glad I found one here :D) (AHA DIVERGENT). Still figuring it out and making time for my different passions and trying to keep them from fighting...I'm sounding like a marriage counsellor now. But honestly, I thought you were writing a post telling people how to make time for both. Instead I got something way better XD.
    As for science fiction--yes! Me too! I find it hard to believe things, so I often end up thinking and reading it as fantasy if it doesn't offer some reasonable explanations, aha.
    Love this post, love from another aspiring scientist, and bonus for astronomy references!

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    1. Ah, yes, I believe Hong Kong did that at some point to. And OMG, your classification cracked me up because it's so accurate and inaccurate at the same time. But categories are just sad, because we're not pigeons to be stuffed in pigeon-holes, we should be allowed to fly wherever we like.

      *snorts* Marriage counsellor indeed! And I'm glad you noticed the astronomy references ;P

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  7. this was really interesting. Like you, I like both creative writing and science. But I lean towards humanities a bit more. So I do tend to overanalyse books like 5 to 1, which didn't really make sense from a geographers point of view. In the best sci fi books, the science doesn't distract you with inconsistencies and stuff, it just works smoothly in the background and pulls you into the story. There are a lot of inconsistencies with with humanites and maths and books, but like someone put it"Magic (and creative writing) are two sides of the same coin, but the distance between them can seem impossibly vast" totally misquoting someone- maybe madeline l'engle? right there
    -Shanti @ http://weavingwaveswords.wordpress.com

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    1. I'm glad you found this post relatable! And yes, I totally get what you mean about overanalysing books. I do that all the time for science too, but like you say, it doesn't necessarily matter! Ooh, nice quote :)

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  8. I saw your post about The Age of Ultron and followed your name to your blog - it's always fun to find people who love both science & the arts! Sometimes I feel like such people are way too rare, so I very much appreciate this post. :)

    There are people who are definitely /science/ (my dad could explain light to you so that you'll never look at color in the same way again, but he cannot tell a kid a bedtime story from his imagination to save his life) and people who are definitely /art/ (my brother, who can make pictures and music and stories all day, but science...no...), and I wonder if that's where the disconnect comes in...because the universe is clearly both, and I always find the two to be very connected. I mean, my medical school application was all about how stories changed my life and how I wanted to go into medicine to hear and know and be a part of other peoples' stories. :D (Although, medicine, of all scientific disciplines, has kept the divide to a minimum...my histology teacher sold photographs of stained cells that were just gorgeous, which I think is a pretty awesome blending of science and art. XD)

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    1. Ooh, yay! I loved writing that Avengers post :)

      Oh, physics. I really cannot do enough math to be good at it. And yes, there are examples of people who really cannot do both, but there are people who can! And there are also people who love science but cannot math, or love English but cannot econ (both of these are me, actually).

      That's an amazing application! :D :D And ooh, stained cells would definitely be wondrous.

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  9. Oh my gosh. There is SO MUCH YES in this post. While I myself struggle in STEM fields, I think that it's always great to promote the interdisciplinary mentality that you've brought up here, because many areas are very much related and we all have a lot to learn from each other regardless of our chosen field of expertise. It honestly frustrates me that society has pitted the arts and sciences against each other when they intersect so naturally, and I'm so glad that you've decided to address that.

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    1. Interdisciplinary is like the BEST. I always ask people at college fairs about interdisciplinary, and they say, "Why yes, our physics dpt gets on SO WELL with our biology dpt" and I'm silently like, "I sorta meant your English department, but sure." But there are amazing unis that let you pick your own intersections, and that's just the best :)

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  10. Awesome post! Totally agree that art and science are not the polar opposites they're often made out to be. Artists and scientists tend to avoid each other or look down on each other, but I think more mingling between the two could only lead to fantastic things.

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    1. Thanks, Lydia! Yeah, the chasm in society is what really makes it saddest because they have SO MUCH potential together. Because they're just different ways of dreaming.

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  11. Wow your post suddenly got me thinking Alyssa! I never thought that doing science is like creative writing as well. I mean, when you think about it, the scientific method can somehow resemble the writing/research process o_o MIND = BLOWN. You literally made the thought appear when I never even knew that the two could resemble so much like the other! THANKS. :D

    Jillian @ Jillian's Books

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    1. I'm glad it did, that's why this post exists after all! I mean, they're not exactly the same, but in principle? We are explorers, we are dreamers. We just use different methods to get to our dreams.

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  12. I still see differences between the two, but I agree that there are similarities too. I think that good scientists need to be creative and good artists need to know their stuff. It's certainly an interesting question!

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    1. Right, yes, I mean, for one there's a lot less math in writing XD The important thing is acknowledging they're not mutually exclusive, that we should stop stigmatising one or the other. :D

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  13. Okay, so I'm going to be the black sheep of the commenters and say: I'm not sure if I 100% agree with this post. (Aside from the lovely poetry, which I always agree with. But I digress. ;))

    I believe you're right in saying that science and writing are not at all mutually exclusive and that they can indeed be interrelated, but I can't say I see where you're coming from in saying that at their core, they're the same.

    To the contrary, I'd say they're drastically different - but (and yes, somewhat paradoxically) that is what makes them complementary. Science is grounded in using what we know to find out what we don't, the arts in using what we don't know to explain what we do. There's a reason why they're controlled by two different regions of the brain - they require different skills, different mindsets, different techniques, and so forth.

    However, to your point: the fact that they are different shouldn't at all mean that they're separate. Science grounds the dreamers; the arts teach the the thinkers how to fly. It's a delicate balance, but one that's real and important.

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    1. Be the black sheep. Black sheep are awesome. Sheep, in fact, are generally awesome. (And ahaha, I'm glad my poetry won you over slightly.)

      You definitely have a point about different skills. And sometimes they do complement each other in wonderful ways, like how in terms of science fairy rings are basically tree graves and how more artsy people will associate fairy rings with magic and forbidden bounds.

      But I've never found that science grounds me much -- maybe it's because I have the most fanciful ideas even in science class, but I can't help but feel that we all walk around with our heads in clouds. Different clouds, but clouds nonetheless.

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