Finding Your Voice in Writing

Amanda Gefter’s book, Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, mostly focuses on physics and the complex state of how our leading physicists were thinking about the universe in 2014. The book also, however, focuses on Gefter’s journey into science journalism, about her life and experiences, about our quest for knowledge, and about the ways in which we try to express and share what it is we know and learn. A little over halfway through the book, Gefter writes about her first attempt at writing a book, and endeavor she undertook with her father.

 

Gefter struggled to write a book with her father that would be more than a repository for the knowledge that she and her father had gained over the years as they delved ever deeper into the complex physics of spacetime, relativity, and quantum mechanics. She describes her efforts to write a book and how her publisher described her final product as lacking her true voice. All her life, writing for a bridal magazine, writing academic papers, and trying to break into science journalism, Gefter had felt that she needed to write with a voice that was distinctly not her own. She had adopted the voice of a stuffy, old, British man for the academic papers she wrote in college, mimicking the style she saw in the academic papers around her, and her bridal magazine days early in her career seemed to lack any voice at all. To be able to write successfully, Gefter was challenged to find her true voice, and to use her voice to describe the science she loved and wanted so passionately to understand and be a part of.

 

She wrote about the feedback that her first editor, Katinka Matson, gave her regarding her first attempt at a book, “Matson felt it was the co-authorship that had muted my voice. Maybe she was right. Maybe it was Safe and Screwed, like their confusing co-authorship structure. You violate the laws of physics when you try to speak from two observer’s points of view simultaneously. Maybe you violate the laws of publishing, too. Maybe our book had been an impossible object from the start. Maybe it didn’t make sense to try to write a book using both our voices, since it would add up to no voice at all.” In trying to fit her voice in with her father’s voice, Gefter left something out of her writing. She felt that she could not write as herself, and as a result she adopted a different persona for her writing, a persona that lacked her energy and spark and that failed to authentically convey her own excitement and interest in the puzzling and sometimes paradoxical science of the universe.

 

The answer for Gefter was not necessarily to give up the idea of publishing a book with her father, her copilot on her journey though physics. The challenge and answer for Gefter was to figure out what she needed to do to write as herself, and early on in her writing career this meant developing her writing voice independently, and then learning to incorporate others people and elements.

 

In the passage above, Safe and Screwed are two characters that she introduces in Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn when talking about black holes and the experiences that two people would have if one crossed the event horizon of a black hole and the other did not. Safe would be outside the even horizon, alive and presumably happily floating along in space. Screwed, on the other hand, would be burned apart by Hawking radiation and the part of him not devoured by quantum particles would be pulled and stretched by the gravitational force of the black hole. Screwed and Safe are how Gefter came to understand what our experience of black holes would be like, and sharing their stories and perspectives was the type of innovative science writing that Gefter needed to cultivate to express her own voice. Throughout the book, Gefter references Screwed and Safe, and she brings in other characters to help us see what is taking place at the edges of our understanding of the universe. This was the voice that Gefter needed to develop. She needed to step beyond the safeness of stuffy academic writing and passionless editorial writing to be an authentic, yet possibly screwed, science writer.

 

In our own lives and activities we must do the same. We cannot simply write, think, or do the things that we have seen before us. We cannot adopt styles and personalities because we think that is what other people expect. To be authentic to ourselves, to be innovative, and to make an impact and a difference, we must be ourselves, cultivate our own voice, and we must not be afraid to show who we are. We are not all stuffy old British men, so we should not write, speak, or behave as if we are, simply because most people in our jobs act that way or because that is the model of success we have seen before. I don’t think we literally all act like stuffy old British men, but in our lives we adopt certain personalities not because those personalities express who we are, but rather what we think we want to be, and because those personalities signal to others that we are part of a tribe (or at list think we are/want to be) and that we can use the same words and hold the same virtues as others in the tribe. Moving forward, for society to grow, become more inclusive, and develop new innovations, we must find ways to be ourselves and be more creative in the way we interact with and relate to the world. Otherwise we will never be able to communicate our excitement about the corner of the universe that fascinates us, and we will never create the meaningful societal connections that form the cornerstone of society.
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A Single Best Way

I was recently listening to an episode of Smart People Podcast where host Chris Stemp interviewed Jennifer Mueller to discuss creativity. One of the ideas that Mueller shared was that there is never truly a best way to do something, and that we can be creative to look beyond what has been tried in the past and find new ideas, approaches, and solutions. Her views align with thoughts from Colin Wright’s book, Come Back Frayed where he writes, “There’s no simple answer to the questions of bests, or even betters. Each and ever stand taken on this subject is loaded with context and subtext and pretext. If a firm position is taken there is also pretense, because deciding that one’s own point of view trumps anyone else’s is, well, pretentious.”

 

Wright focuses on the ways we adopt and become set in our perspectives of the world around us. When we decide that our vantage point is the only correct perspective for interpreting the world, we limit ourselves and what we see as possible. From our point of view something may be clear, but we may miss very important aspects of what is truly taking place. Our perspective will always be influenced by our experiences of both big and small life events. Anything as small as a smile from a stranger to events as large as promotions or marriage shape the background understanding we have of the world, influencing the perspectives we take. Recognizing that our experiences are unique allows us to understand ways in which others think of the world differently, and may see different realities and possibilities. The key is to avoid bunkering down in our own point of view and surrounding ourselves with people with similar views.

 

When we do make an effort to expand beyond our own point of view we allow ourselves to be creative in new ways. We expand our perspective and create new connections when we recognize that our best way may not be another person’s best way to approach a given situation. From our vantage point something may be clear, but taking a step beyond ourselves  to view the world from new perspectives will help us see that our best way is just one option. The more this skill is cultivated the more we can develop creativity in our lives to find not just the single best way to live, to work, or to eat, and we can find interesting ways in which our reality interacts with others based on each choice that we make.

What it Takes to Overcome Obstacles

There are three parts to overcoming our obstacles that Ryan Holiday lays out in his book The Obstacle is the Way. In a single short quote he gives us a quick roadmap for developing ourselves and facing our challenges.

 

“Overcoming obstacles is a discipline of three critical steps.
     It begins with how we look at our specific problems, our attitude or approach; then the energy and creativity with which we actively break them down and turn them into opportunities; finally, the cultivation and maintenance of an inner will that allows us to handle defeat and difficulty.
     It’s three interdependent, interconnected, and fluidly contingent disciplines: Perception, Action, and the Will.”

 

His approach breaks down the barriers that we face and looks at each part of an obstacle to help us see how we can take small steps to face what limits us. It also builds a framework for looking at our problems that can become a committed part of who we are, and a habit that we adopt for thinking about the world.  The process is not intended to be a tool that we pull out when needed for a specific job, but rather a mental scaffolding built around our decision making and thought processes.

 

I think it is very fitting that Holiday calls this process a discipline. It requires self-awareness and self-control to stand back and methodically pick through our obstacles to find creative solutions to bridge the gap between where we are and the success we desire.  Even once we have imagined a creative solution we must put forth great effort for that solution to manifest in the real world. Holiday is honest in the quote about about the challenges of applying this discipline. Each of his three steps require taking action that runs counter to the easy path away from our obstacles. Facing and using our obstacles to build new opportunity requires not just determination and strong will-power on our end, but the ability to overcome the negative voices in our head which tell us to turn away from our challenges in search of an easier rout. It requires that we change the way we think about that which limits us, and demands that we find new solutions to the problems we face.

 

Our new perceptions and novel solutions don’t just help us overcome any single obstacle, but they literally change who we are. The growth we find on our path results from our new ways of looking at the world, and from the practice of building greater will-power to reach our goals. The solutions we develop become a playbook for facing obstacles, and serve as proof of our accomplishments.

Creativity and Goals

In his book The Obstacle is the Way, author Ryan Holiday writes about the struggles we face in reaching our goals, and what is required of us when we face obstacles along the path to success. “All great victories, be they in politics, business, art, or seduction, involved resolving vexing problems with a potent cocktail of creativity, focus, and daring. When you have a goal, obstacles are actually teaching you how to get where you want to go — Carving you a path. ‘The things which hurt,’ Benjamin Franklin wrote, ‘instruct.’” Holiday wrote this message to show that facing our obstacles requires that we act deliberately and build creative processes into our lives. If we lack focus, do not develop interesting ways to view the world, and are afraid to push the boundaries of what we believe is possible, then we will never live up to fulfill the vision of success and creativity that Holiday describes.

 

In the first part of his book Holiday explains the ways in which we must change our perspective and our lifestyle if we want to be able to adapt to the obstacles and challenges we face. Simply living the same as everyone and looking for the easiest path will not help us reach a place were we feel truly successful and fulfilled. We may see others achieve tremendous results, and we may see others build new opportunities for themselves, but if we do not begin to look for creative ways to face our obstacles, we will not see opportunities to apply smart risks and novel solutions to new challenges.

 

Focusing on our challenges and building practices in our lives that help us think more creatively and become more considerate will allow us to absorb more from the world around us. We can become more thoughtful individuals, viewing the world and thinking about more perspectives than just our own, and we will see new paths forward. Learning from others and watching those around us overcome obstacles will help us see more possibilities in our own lives. Without building these skills through daily habits we won’t develop the creativity needed to adjust as we move through life, and we miss the opportunity to turn our challenges into forces which propel us.

Saving the Country

In Joel Achenbach’s book, A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher, we are presented with a reality that is very concerning about the designed, engineered, and increasingly complex world that we live in. Our systems today are so well connected and include so many different moving parts that it can be nearly impossible for any single individual to fully understand how everything functions together.  When one, or multiple, parts of a system fail it can have catastrophic and unpredictable results that challenge even those who built the system. Achenbach however, does not look at our world with fear because it is not just our systems that are increasingly interconnected, but also our smart people. Toward the beginning of his book he writes, “You never know when someone’s fantastically esoteric expertise may be called upon to help save the country.”

 

As our problems have become more complex we have developed higher education and research opportunities for individuals  to specialize in increasingly narrow fields. A common refrain heard on college campuses is that as one advances through multiple degrees they know more and more about less and less. Their focus shifts from a broad knowledge base to an increasingly narrow, specific, and complete understanding of a single subject. What this means is that we have many experts in single areas who understand the problems and science related to their field in truly profound ways.

 

When disasters arise and systems fail, which Achenbach believes may happen with increasing frequency in the future, we don’t simply need to rely on the on the ground and local experts, designers, and engineers who built the system that is failing.  Those who may be able to help save our system could be spread across the world and their fields may seem to distinct and far apart to be useful, but Achenbach believes that everyone can combine their individual expertise in novel ways to solve the most complex problems that arise.  As our research grows so do our social networks and our opportunities to combine research in new ways. We may not think that any single piece of research is too critical for our planet, but each scientific view that can be combined increases our perspective of a problem and increase the creativity which can be brought toward our solution.  In his book Achenbach shows the way that scientists from different fields were able to pool their knowledge and perspective to find a solution to a problem that threatened the entire Gulf of Mexico.

Reaching Out to Others

In his book Considerations, Colin Wright discusses the importance of opening up to others when pursuing your ideas, goals, and aspirations.  He argues that it is more important to share your thoughts and plans with others (especially ideas for new creative ventures) rather than locking them in. In the book he writes about adopting a mindset of abundance, and looking at ideas as just one of many potential opportunities in a life time.  This helps us see that we can put our idea out into the world without fear of failure because future opportunities will follow.

 

Wright writes, “This concept of abundance doesn’t just apply to ideas. With any kind of creative work, if you hold back and hoard your projects, not only will you be denying others a glimpse of what you have to offer, you’ll be denying yourself the potentially direction-changing feedback they might provide.” In this quote Wright hits on the importance of sharing our creative ideas to add more value to the world and put ourselves in places where we can be fulfilled by our work. His quote also shows ways in which others can assist with our creative work by engaging and shaping the direction we take to reach our goals.

 

When you are afraid to approach others about your idea because you fear that they will steal what you have already worked on you build a negative mental image of the world.  Afraid that others will hurt instead of help you, your idea becomes limited and boxed in due to selfish constraints. When your creative venture focuses on adding more value to the world, then you are open to others stepping in and providing advice and assistance.  The success of the idea becomes more important than your own success, and you focus on improving something for others as opposed to improving your bank account. Those who are in positions to help you will recognize this positive tilt on your part, and be more willing to help you provide value to the world. When you view others in a negative light and hide your ideas from them out of fear, your selfishness will be noticed, and your idea will not have the same support or traction.

The Trouble With Group Brainstorming

Richard Wiseman in his book 59 Seconds continues to explain the results of experiments on group behavior by explaining ways in which group discussions can lead to individuals dominating group discussions and stifle others.  “When strong-willed people lead group discussions they can pressure others into conforming, can encourage self-censorship, and can create an illusion of unanimity.” This quote very accurately explains many of the groups that I was a part of for school projects in high school and college.  A single individual can drive the group in the direction they see best while shutting out the ideas of others in the group.  This can make the group feel hostile, and can actually reduce creativity.

 

Being in a group with a strong-willed individual can be uncomfortable for everyone involved.  If the group does not lead in the exact direction desired by the strong-willed person, then they will feel betrayed and angry, and the quality of their work and participation will dwindle.  I have been part of groups where one person pushes the group in a certain direction, only to have the rest of the group eventually go in another direction and leave them as an outcast.

 

In terms of creativity, group brainstorming can be one of the least effective ways to come up with creative ideas, and Wiseman’s quote shows why.  Self censorship during brainstorming is the opposite of what is desired, but it is often what occurs when a group of individuals get to gather.  The strong-willed individual may push people to think in ways that are more aligned with their ideas, and not necessarily the most creative.  Those who are more shy may be reluctant to share good ideas in a group because they know that the leaders or their colleagues may not be open to the ideas that they have.  Strong-willed individuals can shut them down with as little as a shake of the head or a brief smirk at the mention of an idea that does not align with their thoughts.