Saturday, 29 October 2011

A House Divided

(Lynne Hardy)

As discussed by Tom and Linda elsewhere on this blog, writing, like science, is about observation. And so is art. Yet so often, these are treated as completely separate disciplines with little or nothing in common. Kate Hudson discussed in her recent post the struggle to reconcile art and science; it’s one I know well, because I’ve had to work through it.

I trained as a scientist because I was fascinated by how the world around me worked. I wanted to understand how our fleshy little sacks stumble about and create, in the words of Howard Carter, such “wonderful things”. I was drawn to the study of how life functioned at the tiniest of scales, first through biochemistry, then molecular and cell biology.

I think it would have been a more difficult decision to go into science if I hadn’t failed my Art O-level. Let’s just say that I suffered two years of creative differences with my art teacher, which left me with the impression that art was intractable and out of bounds for anyone with an interest in science. Science satisfied my curiosity and had measurable, quantifiable things in it; it had nothing to do with someone’s personal beliefs, be they right or wrong. Of course, now I’m older and wiser, I know that’s a very naïve view but to someone deciding on their future career path, it was fairly fundamental.

Children, as Emma-Kate discusses in her first post, see no specialisation or separation between creativity, science and art; that separation comes later, both for us as individuals and in the history of our subjects. In fact, once upon a time, back when the word scientist didn’t exist, the people who studied the world around them were called natural philosophers or natural historians, both of which sound so much softer and all-encompassing. And they studied the world through observation, thinking, writing and art, all as one big, accommodating discipline. It was only as we grew to know more collectively than one person could ever hope to learn for themselves that they began to fragment and drift apart.

During the last of my post-doctoral positions, I decided I didn’t particularly love science anymore, which came as something of a shock. Somehow I’d gone from someone who had believed science to be wonderfully creative (after all, how do you get from a handful of apparently random measurements to a theory that explains them?) to someone who viewed it as restrictive and stifling. I’d always written and worked with textiles, but the longer I spent as a post-doc, the less engaged I became with what felt like, at the time, these much more creative activities.

And so I took the drastic decision to drop science and retrain as an embroiderer, with a view to teaching it. I took my City & Guilds qualifications, but struggled constantly with the feeling that somehow I didn’t belong, that I was pretending to be something I wasn’t. Because I couldn’t get enough teaching hours to get my PGCE as a community craft lecturer due to funding cuts, I was pushed into teaching A-level Biology as well and I frequently felt like I was at war with myself. I was having a terrible time trying to be both a scientist and an artist, such utterly alien fields, until something slowly and painfully dawned on me: the underlying processes for both science and art are essentially the same.

Look at it this way: scientific research is like solving a mystery. First you identify your problem, then you start asking questions. Once you know what questions to ask, you set about finding answers through experimentation and observation. If that doesn’t work, you go back to the drawing board and design new experiments until you can answer them.

And how is that different to creating a piece of art? It isn’t. Each new project is also a mystery, posing a unique set of questions of its own. So you start to experiment with sketches, word lists, pencils, chalks, paints, ink, fabrics, whatever, to see if you can answer those questions. And if those experiments don’t work, you go back to the bench and carry out new research until you can answer them. Just like science.

By stepping back and realising this, I regained not only my passion for science but a greater understanding of how I work and how these two great fields don’t need to be mutually exclusive. Creativity should not be defined by the discipline you are working in; it should be free to cross boundaries and break down stereotypes for the enrichment of all.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Lynne, and I found it really resonated with me. I gave up Art and Sciences after O-level. I hankered after studying Art at A-level but my staid grammar school regarded Art as a non-academic subject. It wasn't until I trained as a primary teacher and asked if I could specialise in Art that I realised what I'd been missing for so many years.

    The experimental process you describe, finding answers to questions, is exactly how I approach novel writing. A big question (or more usually a cluster of them) forms in my mind and the only way I can think to answer these Qs is to write a novel. And it is a genuine experimental process. I don't know the answers when I start and I'm often quite unprepared for the answers I get.

    I believe to be a good writer it's important not to judge your characters or their behaviour. One observes and records, occasionally explains. Judging is for the reader, not the writer. In that respect, I feel my writing process is similar to that of a naturalist who observes & records animal behaviour from a hide. S/he is - and needs to be - invisible.