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How My Scientific Education Has Made Me A Better (Creative) Writer

Edited By: Tanmaya Ramprasad

It’s no secret that I love to write.

For as long as I can recall, it has been my favourite pastime. Essays have never been a source of stress or angst; no, I’ve relished the opportunity to articulate my thoughts, to manipulate the written word in an innovative fashion. Book reports were always bliss (especially when accompanied by silent reading time in class!). And embarking on creative pursuits — personal essays, blogs, and narratives, especially? That’s when my enthusiasm truly shone.

This passion continues to burn within me: an ever-growing flame, fanned further by every passing day. If you’ve read my author bio, you may have noticed I have a novel in progress: one that I’ve been tweaking and editing as I lose myself in my characters’ fictional world. I’ve also tried my hand at other forms of media: completing a sci-fi pilot script, and filling my Notes app with loglines for feature films.

Why, then, am I pursuing… a science degree? 

If writing’s one of my “true loves,” why aren’t I devoting my life to language — studying Literature and Critical Theory, or applying to film school?

Answer: because I love science, too. I’ve always been intrigued by the human brain, its workings and complexities. Properly translating a strand of mRNA is just as fulfilling as scripting that “perfect” line of dialogue — and nothing compares to my fascination for developmental psychology and music cognition.

My passion for writing may comprise a great deal of my soul — yet my scientific spark is just as compelling.

And so, here I am: filling my academic days with neurons and codons, Watson and Freud… yet spending my nights sequestered in my room, exploring ancient Crete, Revolutionary-era France and contemporary NYC through the stories I’m creating.

It’s the best of both worlds.

And it doesn’t stop there: in fact, my scientific education has actually made me a better writer.

Take, for instance, my Major and my Minor: Neuroscience and Psychology, respectively.

What, exactly, is psychology? Well, according to Merriam-Webster, “psychology” is “the study of mind and behaviour”: what, exactly, drives one’s actions; what, exactly, makes them tick. It’s an exploration of the human mind, a delve into one’s consciousness, one’s actions.

It’s the perfect field of study for those who create characters.

In my psychology courses, I’ve been introduced to the theories of Pavlov and Piaget. I’ve learned how humans, well, learn, via the comprehension of Classical and Operant conditioning. The former, detailing individuals’ acclimation to associate neutral stimuli with particular connotations, has strengthened my characters’ mannerisms, their phobias. The latter, emphasizing punishments’ and reinforcements’ roles in solidifying one’s behaviour, has assisted in both character development and plot: breaking old habits, and forming new ones — be them villainous or heroic.

Delving into the study of memory — how memories are formed, and how they are forgotten — has inspired me to create more realistic character scenarios. Would my modern-day protagonist, an average guy in his mid-to-late-20s, be able to recall the tiniest details of his childhood — and if so, how far back could he remember? What would be an adequate window of forgetting, for my sci-fi adversary to disregard the hero’s plan? 

And learning about social psychology — the study of attachment, of forming interpersonal bonds — has helped me craft effective relationships throughout my tales. I’ve finally understood why dissimilar characters might attract, and why nearly-identical allies might conflict. I’ve carved out backstories and backstabbings, integrating crucial “tentpole” moments for relationship-building into the plot.

My neuropsychological education has helped me comprehend my characters, both inside and out. It has led me to understand their motives, and where they might have developed said behaviours. It has introduced me to the “blank slate” theory of the human mind, and guided me to create antagonists immoral not by birth, but by experience

As such, through my psychological coursework, I’ve learned to create more grounded heroes. I’ve strengthened inter-character relationships, and constructed plausible (and immersive) events and scenarios. 

Once I mastered that, however… it came time to develop the plot.

Now, the first piece of writing advice ever offered to me was to “write the things you know.”

I’m confident that this suggestion was intended to provide direction, to spark the embers of a storyline. Yet, instead, it made me question: what, exactly, do I “know,” that would make an interesting read?

I’m an experienced musician, a classically trained pianist well-versed in the masterpieces of Beethoven and Schubert. Yet might I really be able to write a 400-page novel about a musician learning to play an instrument — and would that really draw an audience?

I’m a student in academia, studying the sciences at U Toronto. However, nothing worthy of a novel has occurred (unless you count the time the TTC shut down, and I had to walk 40 minutes in the snow!).

I doubt that either of these instances would make engaging stories on their own. Of course, I could jazz them up a little — include a plot in the former about a piano competition, with a rival scheming to steal the spotlight. Transform the campus setting into the backdrop of a murder mystery: one where anyone’s a suspect, and nothing’s as it seems.

Yet by doing so, am I not departing from that of which I know? After all, I’ve never been embroiled in a competitive music scandal, nor have I ever experienced animosity from any fellow musicians. And, thankfully, I’ve never been at the centre of a crime — the closest I’ve come to solving a murder mystery is through a game of Clue.

I’ll admit, “writing what you know” is a decent springboard. It’s the perfect place to start, especially for those struggling to come up with an engaging plot. But writing only what you know won’t carry you to all the way to “The End.”

In most creative writing endeavours, you’ll need to do a little research. (In fact, you’ll often have to do a little more than just a little)!

Case in point: throughout my creative pursuits, I’ve had to educate myself about politics in 18th-century France. I’ve enjoyed scrolling through Star Wars and Star Trek fan-pages detailing the mechanisms of an intergalactic cruiser, and traversed through PowerPoints on ancient Greek fashion to gain a better understanding of its trends. I want my stories to be gripping, to be immersive — but to do so, I’ve needed to delve a little deeper, to push past the limiting surface of “just the stuff I know.”

Luckily, my scientific background has provided me with extensive research experience: tips and tricks to navigate sources with speed, accuracy and attention to detail. 

Through conducting literature reviews, I’ve mastered the art of unearthing primary articles: the latest and greatest in scientific (and non-scientific) research. I’ve learned to look for keywords in an abstract, and to peruse the “References” section to find related papers. Not to mention, learning to use the “advanced search” tab in a database has been a lifesaver. Shall I begin by searching for papers that pertain to the “French Revolution AND inventions AND letter-writing”? Easy! With my scientifically-taught academic skills, novel- and screenplay- research conduction has instantly become a breeze.

Without this experience, I don’t know how I could’ve mastered the below-decks workings of an ancient Greek trireme, the proper way to tie a chiton, or the name of the Greek island upon which my manuscript’s protagonist was born. I might still be trying to find sources detailing how, exactly, a motion picture goes from “idea” to “screen” — and the sidecar that one of my supporting characters loves to drink would still be described as “[insert old-fashioned Hollywood drink here]”.

So, has my scientific education helped me with my writing? 

Absolutely

The majors I’ve declared have been perfect for my characters’ design: the neuroscience and psychology courses have provided me a glimpse inside their minds, allowing me to strengthen their relationships, motivations and behaviours.

I’ve been shaped into a better researcher through conducting literature reviews — a skill useful for all written endeavours, especially those that include any lifestyles, talents or historical settings outside of my own expertise.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve said nothing about the physiology courses I’ve taken, and how they’ve assisted in inspiring my characters’ physical abilities — how long they need to sleep, what happens if they sprain an ankle, whether they’re physically capable of crossing a raging sea. I haven’t discussed the ways in which my chemistry knowledge has helped me add nuance to mad-scientist characters, nor how my background in physics has assured me that my fictional worlds remain structurally viable.

I’m incredibly grateful that my two passions have intertwined. I don’t know where my future will take me — yet regardless of where I end up, I’ll maintain one certainty:

Science and creative writing will both be part of me, forevermore—

And one will always influence the other.

For as long as she can recall, Eden has been a natural storyteller. She's a fantasy fanatic, a contemporary connoisseur, and an enthusiast of all things cinematic! She's also intrigued by the complexities of neuroscience and cognition, and how they intertwine with creativity. Eden has written bylines for The Strand and The Varsity, and has contributed numerous pieces to both scientific and literary blogs. When she's not writing for HerCampus, you can find her putting the finishing touches on her first novel, watching the latest Marvel movie, or jamming out to Broadway tunes.
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