“The Edge of Extraordinary” in Vela Magazine
Excerpted from Vela Magazine:
I had gone into science for the awe, but I eventually discovered that continuing on that path would mean that most of my life would be made up of statistics, entering numbers into databases, writing papers so dry that they didn’t feel like writing to me. Moments of awe would be rare. Or worse, I would become desensitized. Cold, hard calculation was so distant from the warmth and mystery that had brought me out into the wild in the first place. After a summer studying birds in Wyoming, I remember reading a scientific paper breaking down the songs of sage thrashers. They’d been my favorite birds then, the first to sing in the early morning dark as I began my day of research; they’d be perched atop the tallest sage shrubs, their song floating across the plains in glorious liquid whistles and burbles. Their song will always correlate in my mind with an image of the Wind River Mountains, the frozen rock explosion jutting up, snow-topped and angular, far in the distance across that flat expanse of sage brush prairie—the landform that always kept me oriented in the vast sea of monotonous sage. The thrashers’ songs were complicated and unpredictable, sometimes with clips of other birdsong mixed in—horned lark, vespers sparrows. I read that paper and looked at the song broken down into numbers on a graph. A feeling of anger welled up in me as I thought: You can’t codify this. It felt reductive, all the beauty and complexity lost—my morning prelude diminished to this? I knew that this little graph was important for knowledge, for understanding. But for me, I felt as though I lost something with each number I entered into a database.
But what to do with all that beauty? How would I contain it, remember it, honor it? I felt those experiences dripping through my cupped hands like water. What I found extraordinary was the birdsong, but capturing it turned it ordinary. It became “just data.” My disappointment lay with the encroaching reality that I couldn’t have an experience forever. I can’t live a life awed every moment.
I thought that being a writer might be a way to experience something forever, or at least a more dignified way to honor beauty: I could hold those moments aloft, turn them over in my mind, make sense of them. As a scientist entering numbers into a database I fantasized about the writing life. I dreamt of a broad desk in quiet solitude, of a window with a view of mountains or oceans or gardens full of hollyhocks, of scratching out beautiful, heart-stopping sentences in cursive longhand, the ink bleeding out onto textured paper. I came to really want it: It took me seven years to get here—seven years of digging holes, moving rocks, hauling compost, planting gardens. Years of bartending late-night weddings where the dinner for one guest cost more money than I saw in a week. It was limbo, where my work was neither here nor there, jobs as opposed to a career. But I held a vision aloft, and decided I wouldn’t really stop being “a scientist” until I was “a writer.” I would, eventually, trade entering data and statistics for metaphors and lyrical sentences. At the very least, I would be one or the other, and I held tight to those identities even through the years where my life didn’t really resemble the life of either.
As it turns out, a life spent entering data into a computer isn’t so different from a life spent entering words into a computer. Alvarez quotes Flannery O’Connor: “Every morning between 9 and 12, I go to my room and sit before a piece of paper. Many times, I just sit for three hours with no ideas coming to me. But I know one thing: if an idea does come between 9 and 12, I am there ready for it.” Each comes with its requisite spell of quietude. Unremarkable days go by, unaccounted for, then suddenly a moment flushes up in front of me like a flock of startled birds—a realization, an epiphany, the luck of having figured out what this essay is about.
True, these lives are similar, and yet—yet—the idea of readiness is in some ways antithetical to a scientist’s life: You don’t want to have expectations, you just want to observe and collect, to retain information as objectively as you can. This is how it is with writing, too, except that you can never truly be objective in writing. I must remain open, attentive, but I can mold the details how I wish. In fact, that is my job—to shape the data, to say something about it. It’s my job not just to wait for awe, but to conjure it. I can, if I choose, ignite the outer edges of the extraordinary and walk into the flames I’ve created. Art is not divine, I’ve always believed, but human, there if we choose to tap into it, and tapping in is work. I don’t know if a jaguar will come trotting across my path at any moment. But I do know, if I work hard enough, I can edge up to something important, an idea, a small chunk of wisdom that I take out of my pocket each morning and polish, slowly, until it has become something like glass or a jewel. Until it glows in the dark, if that’s what I want. I don’t wait for things to happen to me; I make them happen. As a writer, there can be glory in the daily grind. …
Read the essay in its entirety here.