A blog advocating autism through my own personal experiences and insights.

Posts tagged ‘Fiction writing’

Why I’m Making the Choices I Am Part 2

In my last post I explained the biggest transition that happened in my life: how over the course of a year my passions changed from math to fiction writing. I would now like to continue on with what I said in that post. As I explained, my passions changed at least in part because of how love searching for and obtaining truth. Mathematics in its pure form was an interest since early childhood because of this. The truth of math was readily apparent and I didn’t need to have great mathematical maturity in order to appreciate it and its beauty. Fiction writing, on the other hand, only became a great passion thus taking over math in only the last year and a half because appreciation its truth requires one (at least in my case) to have experience of the world around them.

So right after fiction writing took over, I really had to wonder what do about it all. The pursuit of fiction writing is different from the pursuit of academia. You go at it alone. And at the end of it all, the chances of making a living out of it are slim at best. So from a practical perspective at least, it seemed like no decision really had to be made. I’d continue on with academia and continue with fiction writing as something I do on the side and hope for the best. And in a way, while I have chosen to continue on with academia (at least for the time being), the reasons why have less to do with the practical perspective and more to do what I’m interested in writing.

And what am I interested in writing? Well, before fiction writing took over the math, I wanted to write mystery novels. But when fiction writing took over math that changed. It’s not as if I was thinking “I love to write fiction. I absolutely dislike academia now.” I wouldn’t have chosen to go to graduate school if I had thought like that. In truth I still liked academia. It’s just that I decided that I liked fiction writing more. Yet I wanted to keep math and philosophy in my life. (Of course, the practical perspective is rolling its eyes now and saying, “What’s your problem? That’s your day job as a writer. Almost every writer has one of those.”). So how did I want to do this? Well, when I became interested in philosophy, I thought about combining math and philosophy and going into the philosophy of math. Combining math and philosophy with fiction writing? Write novels about math and philosophy! Write science fiction novels that involve deep pure mathematics and deep ideas in philosophy. And since I also like mystery I could throw in a mystery in each novel to boot.

But here’s the catch: if I wanted to write novels about these kinds of things, I wanted to know a lot about math and philosophy in order to write them. Well, that’s easy enough, I thought. Two PhDs, one in math and one in philosophy, should do the trick.

And this is the number one reason I’m in graduate school. So I can do this kind of thing.

Now, I have both the passion and practical sides shouting how absurd this plan is. Passion: Do you really want to pursue all these years of school and then have to climb up to tenure to take over so much time in your life when you could be writing? Practical: You’ve just made your chances of success even worse. Math-phobia is pretty much widespread and to attempt to explain deep math in a novel that a reader is supposed to enjoy and at least somewhat understand in his spare time and that which a publisher is supposed to find engaging as he goes through his slush pile of manuscripts is pure insanity. Not to mention you may be overdoing your resume when you apply for a “day job” as an academic.

Both of these positions have certainly swayed me. For example, last term was a nightmare and as a result really made me question my plans. Maybe it would just be better to read about math in my spare time. Although now that everything is better academically, I’ve still decided to stick with this plan. Besides engaging with actual professors and other students is probably the best way since I will then get a lot of guidance toward learning math and engaging in research. As well, I haven’t found very many mathematical novels. I haven’t read a lot of science fiction, but in looking at blurbs on websites and bookstores, I can really tell that it’s a very uncommon genre.

So why do I choose to stick with this plan? Because of the huge passion it generates within me. I’ve found my dream and have chosen to go along with it. That might sound a bit too simple and a bit corny and cliché, but it is true. A heavy cost with little chance of success comes with it, but so what? At least given how highly strange this path is I have the comfort of knowing how strong I am in not letting the pressures from society tempt me otherwise.

And I think that’s a skill a writer should acquire anyway.

I can choose between two attitudes. The first is to complain how I have totally unmarketable ideas and how my dream will be laughed at not only by publishers, but society at large. Or I can take the attitude the uniqueness of my ideas is what makes them special and how I’m so lucky to have such wonderful ideas. Who knows? Maybe I’ll explode the genre of mathematical fiction and increase the public’s understanding and appreciation of math.

But it’s scary. I really have no idea what the future holds in store for me. And one can only speculate so much about it. I also have fears if I fail. I worry about how much fiction writing passion will drive me and how much of other aspects of my life I will end up sacrificing for it. This is probably my biggest fear. But while I can speculate on my success until the cows come home, any aspiring writer should just sit down and write the damn book.

A post on another blog that portrays my feelings exactly is the following: Starving For More. It’s by another aspiring writer and how she describes how it’s her dream of becoming a writer and how her fate is so uncertain and if she’ll end up joining all of the starving writers and artists out there who are dying penniless. I especially love the last line.

“And maybe I’ll never be awarded my own turn, but that’s OK. As long as I’m starving, at least I know I’m hungry for something more.”

I know what I’m hungry for. The truth. And like her and every other aspiring fiction writer out there, I await my fate.

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Why I’m Making the Choices I Am Part 1

As I go through life I surprise myself. I’ve surprised myself a lot, which shouldn’t come to a surprise to you if you’ve been reading this blog. But the thing about myself that I’ve been most surprised with is how radical my passions have changed in my lifetime. It was only two and a half years ago that I had a different dream than the one I had today. I was 20 going on 21 and just starting my third year of my undergrad at Acadia. From October 2009 to August 2010 was probably the biggest change that I’ve ever experienced. In September 2009, I wanted to be a mathematician. By August 2009, I wanted to be a fiction writer (regardless of how impractical this path was). And in between these two passions was a sort of ‘bridging passion’, a passion for philosophy. Philosophy, like math, is still in the realm of academia, while, like fiction writing, it is an art.

But I sometimes think about what made this take place, whether there was any possibility that could’ve happened sooner or if it could’ve happened at all. I must admit that the reasons why I started writing fiction at 16 aren’t the same as they are today. It is possible to enjoy fiction writing as a hobby, while having a job as a professor, and my reasons for choosing to write fiction back then was compatible with that plan back then. Now, however, I want fiction writing to be something more. Why did this occur?

I think first and foremost you have to go through the reasons why I chose to pursue math. The study of mathematics was a passion rooted deep in childhood. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love math. I have a few vague memories of wanting to be a policeman when I was like four, but I’m not counting that. And even though it wasn’t until I was ten that I heard that such people as mathematicians existed for that was when I wanted to pursue a career in mathematics, I did have a passion for it throughout elementary school. Getting excited when learning about the rules of arithematic, for example, of subtraction and multiplication. Actually getting a babysitter I had to show me how to do long division (one that I like to laugh at even today).

I loved math as a child for several reasons. These were the predictability of it, the patterns that arose from it, and how it sheltered me from the highly unpredictable world. Even the most simplistic of mathematical facts such as that the cube root of 8 is 2 I found beauty in. And even though my childhood had other interests surrounding the math such as drama, playing the trumpet and piano, and writing fiction, math always remained a priority over these things to me. I even took an interest in philosophy and took a course on theory of knowledge in high school where we talked about random controversial issues.

So why the change from October 2009 to August 2010? What I find most interesting is that the nine months right before this period, my passion for math was as strong as it ever was. In the winter of 2009, was my second semester of second year and I can certainly remember how fed up I was over that school term because the math that was being taught to me at that time, I had no interest in. I had to take a differential equations course as well as a statistics course. I wasn’t really a fan of the differential equations course and downright hated the statistics course. It wasn’t the type of math that I was interested in. Where was the pure math?

My turn to philosophy in the fall 2009, however, while unpredictable, my life did give subtle hints that the subject would really start competing with my passion for math. In my first two years I had taken philosophy as an elective every turn. And in fall 2008 I had decided to turn it into a huge minor before declaring my double major a year later.

Then the passion for fiction writing deepened, which begs the question. Why? How could someone who loved math, always thinking of it as a number one priority, from when he was practically 5 to 21, suddenly switch lanes so swiftly? As I pointed out earlier, my interest in philosophy deepened, which probably encouraged it, as philosophy and fiction writing are more linked in a lot of ways than math and fiction writing are, but even so it was a huge transition.

I won’t pretend to have a complete answer (since when is there ever one in life?). Sometimes thinks happen just because they happen or there are just so many reason and so many influences that it’s impossible to analyze the situation fully. But I do have some idea as to why this happened. I think it happened because I love looking for and studying truth. By truth I don’t mean truth in any specific context. I’m just talking about truth as simply the way things are in this world as well as in any other worlds out there.

This is why I fell in love with math at an early age. In mathematics there are patterns and it is these patterns that express the truth of math. You don’t have to study a lot of math in order to see its beauty. Just Google the term ‘fractal’ and you’ll see what I mean with what comes up. When I first saw prime numbers as a child and how chaotic they were I instantly wanted to know the truth behind their randomness. And unless I knew what all the prime numbers were, it would be impossible for me to know their pattern unless there was a pattern in their randomness. This is what attracted me to math. Its system of categorisation and patterns made its truth so precise and clear.

It is also why it took some time for my love of fiction writing to develop (of the 23 years I’ve lived, it has only surpassed my interest in math in the last year and a half). You don’t really need any experience of the empirical world to love and appreciate the truth of math. But you do (at least for me anyway) need experience to appreciate fiction I think and the kind of truth that fiction presents. I could easily grasp what pursuing the truth of the prime numbers meant when I was ten, but it would be much harder for me to at least somewhat appreciate the themes of gender and sexuality in The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood at that age. Truth in fiction writing I think comes more slowly because we require experience of the world to appreciate its truth. Mind you, to understand math at a deep level requires great maturity with the subject, but having such a deep level is not required to appreciate the beauty and truth of the subject. For fiction writing, an appreciation of the truth involved there does require a deep level of understanding, which is why I believe my passion for writing didn’t develop until I was far older even though the potential for it was always there.

Math may have been my shelter from the wider messy world as a child, but as I grow the more I find my needs and desires requires more interaction from the external world (for example, wanting a greater social life). And thus the fiction writing passion began.

The Dark Side of My Passions

About a year ago when I was doing research toward my honours thesis in math, I was having lunch with a professor in the lounge in the math department at the university. We were discussing the academic life and the kind of lives that professors lead. More specifically, the number of hours that professors, especially mathematicians, work. The professor looked at me and said that there were professors out there who get so obsessed with the pursuit of their subjects that they literally make it their life.

“This is your life,” he said.

Now in saying this I understood that he wasn’t stating a fact about me, but just an attitude that a large number of professors have about their work, especially at the larger universities such as MIT and Oxford. The truth is that there are a lot of professors who become completely obsessed about their work, trying come up with cutting-edge original research. And isn’t just because of reputation (although reputation, like in any workforce, can and does play quite a role). Professors who make it their life to pursue the great unsolved problems in research do so also because they enjoy it to a great extent. Nothing else gives them pleasure that even comes close to the pleasure they get from their work.

And in saying they make it their life to pursue such questions and research, I’m not just talking about eighty hour work weeks. Plain and simple the only time they aren’t doing work is when they’re asleep. Yes, they do have to feed themselves and make sure their house doesn’t cave in, but even if they’re shopping at the grocery store, their minds are focusing on their research problems. When I first heard the professor I was having lunch with talk about such a lifestyle, I was almost horrified. Professors who make it their life to pursue their work cast everything else to the side. They may go through multiple marriages simply because their spouses get fed up with them since they do not spend any “quality time” with them. The thing is, however, is that these kinds of professors are the ones who gain the best reputation in the academic circle, the ones who are most admired, and the ones that make the most significant contributions to research.

I sometimes wonder just how much I could contribute if I decided to go by this kind of lifestyle.

Forget my fiction writing hobby. Forget any successful marriage. Forget about trying to make friends, despite being autistic. Forget my family. Forget everything. I know what it feels like too. The pleasure that comes from trying to work out mathematical problems, regardless if they’re for school or leisure. I’ve felt the itch to climb the academic scale. For example, when I was in first year university, I studies 75-80 hours/week, which included 15-20 hours/week of class times. I know I have the potential.

Yet I know that I will never follow through with it. I choose to live more moderately. My own research will probably never reach the level that these professors who make it their ‘life’ to pursue these problems. I’m sure I’ll have fun when I do pursue research, but I wouldn’t count on discovering something that would give me a lot of academic fame.

This isn’t a lack of self-esteem. I’m just stating the facts and being realistic. And besides, I have so many other interests that I’d hate to give them up simply to become some famous professor. Life has too many good things to offer. And at the end of the day, just as long as I can have fun with my passions and can pay all my bills, that’s all that’s important to me.

My passion for writing fiction, which increased a lot about a year ago, could pull me in the other direction. Only it would end up getting me into a situation that’s even worse because the chances of making it as a full-time fiction writer are pretty low! I can just picture myself as some homeless guy (or someone running off on welfare and unemployment cheques) with nothing more than a stack of papers and a ball-point pen in my hand. While I wasn’t tempted this far, I actually did consider abandoning academia and getting some low-paying 35 hour/week job to make more time for writing. While I’ve decided to continue with an academic career, my passion for fiction writing remains at least equally as strong and I plan to keep it as a hobby. And if I do have a stroke of luck say 12 years down the line and actually start turning out bestsellers, then I may decide to become a full-time writer, while doing a little bit of math and/or philosophy on the side.

No matter how my academic and writing goals sort themselves out in the future, however, I have to realise that both, especially writing, are very solitary activities and if you’ve been reading my blog you know that having a social life is important to me. It can be a struggle trying to balance these rather contradictory activities in my life, but I think I’m improving at it. Sometimes I feel like I’m making no progress on my social life and that I actually would be happier in just making some pure combination of academia and fiction writing ‘my life’. After all, I could much easier get the attention I sometimes crave if I did put in more hours of academia. I would get more attention in academia. It’s a much easier way to gain attention.

But the easiest solution isn’t always the right one. I no longer rely on the method of gaining attention by trying to impress others with my talents (I’ve tried this several times in the past. It doesn’t work.). If I persevere with trying to find the perfect balance, I think eventually things will have to calm down. I will get a better social life. And regardless of how successful I am with my writing, I should be able to fit that in too. And as for academia, it is something I’ll have fun at and will pay my bills. These are all stuff I do. They are not ‘my life’. Professor Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets said that it’s our choices that determine who we are and not our abilities.

What choices have you made?