The path to finding what you want to do is never straightforward. I think that is why from a young age, you are reminded of that trick, to reach for the moon and then to miss so that you can land amongst the stars. A good saying. Except to actually land amongst the stars would be horrific. You would die in three seconds.
Writers tend to exaggerate. As do scientists. A similarity we share there.
So how long does it really take to die in space? Google says 15 seconds, to lose consciousness and then a few minutes later you die. The vacuum of space would swell your body up to twice its normal size but you wouldn’t explode because your skin is quite stretchy. That’s a comfort at least.
The year after college, I was lost. To find myself, I took every graduate-level standardized test out there. I found the GMAT to be the most challenging because once you answered a question (everything now computerized), you couldn’t go back. I did not find myself this way, but I did find a tutoring job afterwards that paid incredibly well. It has paid for several vacations and a lot of Blue Buffalo dog food.
I used to be ashamed of this, that I could do well on tests, in school, that I could do math, read a graph, talk "science." This feeling of shame arose because growing up, I was teased so often for it. What a cliché. There goes that Asian girl with the books. There goes that Asian girl who feels shame. In high school, I was the head of both Science Olympiad and Robotics. I participated in math competitions like AMC 10 and 12. But I never won those competitions so I wasn’t that
good at math.
Is knowledge power? Not always, but knowledge is useful.
My father used to say that the best way to become less lost is to go back to school. Though his exact phrasing was, go back to school now, okay? And I did, I went back to grad school for biostatistics because I didn’t know what else to do, and I finished because I didn’t want to have to justify to others why I quit. As a girl, I also wanted to finish grad school in a science so that no one would ever doubt that I could. But to get myself through the six years, I wrote a novel about a girl quitting grad school, which was therapeutic.
I think first novels are usually like that — therapeutic.
Did I always want to be a writer? No. I never saw myself as a writer. But during a med school interview, I was asked a potpourri kind of question by a doctor-man with a tiny goatee and diamond cuff links: which two people would I take to colonize the moon, my choices being a doctor, a Special Olympic athlete, a construction worker, a dog walker, a teacher, or a writer. I had 10 seconds to answer. Out of panic, I picked the Special Olympic athlete and the writer. I didn’t get into that med school.
A reader once mentioned that he found my writing precise. I thought that was interesting. It is interesting what other people see in your writing that you don’t always see. I had always thought my own writing was incredibly lame. But precise? No. Then a few more people said it. I am not sure where this precision came from. Maybe my science background? Growing up, I read more textbooks than novels, and textbooks are remarkably clear.
Now I read more novels. But still, whenever I pick up a novel, I wish to learn something.
In college and grad school, I was told that a scientist must first and foremost be clear. This is also the first rule of writing.
For instance, a writer would never write a sentence like this: “In the case of S. aureus
, population genetic analyses have clearly shown the existence of host-specific clonal lineages, implying that its adaptive evolution has led to host restriction due to ecological differences among different hosts MRSA ST398 derived from animals appears to be a case of mechanism 1 and uncertainty still remains about its origin and its implications in public health.”
That’s from a paper a few colleagues and I had written while I was in grad school. To this day, I am not entirely sure what we were trying to say. (If my colleagues are reading this, I’m trying to make a joke. The rest of the paper is fairly clear, I think, citation below.)
At the same med school interview, another doctor-man asked me to open a window. This was asked in a room where the window was glued shut. The point of the question was to see how I performed under stress. Would I ask for help or stupidly try to open a window that would never open?
But what was the other lesson here? Don’t save lives that can’t be saved? When God closes a door he might not open a window?
I did not ask for help and pulled both bicep muscles trying to open that window.
Thank goodness the window didn’t open, otherwise I might not have gone to biostats grad school and then decided to be a writer.
One of my MFA professors gave us two pieces of advice for novel writing: Have around 30 events. Be long-winded. I think this is good advice overall, but I think on both fronts I wasn’t entirely successful. Although I did have his advice in my head while I was writing.
Also, I didn’t even know I was writing a novel until I was midway through. It was a pleasant surprise.
In science, precision is when your results cluster together. Accuracy is when your results are correct. So you could be completely inaccurate but precise. In science, it is not good to be inaccurate and precise, but sometimes this works in fiction. Interestingly, telling exactly what happened in real life can make for a boring story, whereas making something up can make the story seem more real.
So I am getting this question a lot: How autobiographical is your novel? It is a little. But a lot of it I made up.
Evol Appl. 2015 Mar;8(3):240-7. doi: 10.1111/eva.12185. Epub 2014 Aug 2.
Antibiotics in agriculture and the risk to human health: how worried should we be?
Chang Q1, Wang W1, Regev-Yochay G2, Lipsitch M1, Hanage WP1.
÷ ÷ ÷
is a graduate of Harvard University, where she earned her undergraduate degree in chemistry and her doctorate in public health. She received her MFA from Boston University. Her fiction has been published in or is forthcoming from Alaska Quarterly Review
, Glimmer Train
, The Journal
, and SmokeLong Quarterly
is her first book.