Scientists can be just as imaginative and intuitive as poets, and expressive writing allows both to unlock valuable insights, says David Morley.
Creative reading is the open secret of creative writing. A double helix of reading and writing makes you more alert to your potential as a reader and writer of yourself, of other people and of other writers.
My undergraduates take a three-year honours degree in creative writing, balancing the study of literature with its practice. In their second and third years, students specialise in one genre, reading and writing closely within it. Specialisation is a necessary prison, given the structures of an academy, but a falsification of how writers work. Poets might write novels to buy time to write poems; short story writers may try writing poems for economy and precision, borrowing the finer chisels of language.
To help them understand the pressures and pleasures of specialisation, I encourage my students to take or audit courses outside the humanities, in psychology, physics, biology and chemistry. Obviously, they need to have some interest and experience of these subjects, an A level say. What they are doing, however, is panning a tributary of a subject's flow for their own discoveries. These finds take the form of ideas and material they might shape into something for their own writing.
But the main prize is language: the terminology of science is gravid with metaphor, is constantly inventing new usages and, in the case of new physics, subverting how we see the world in words.
There is a two-way flow. Some students come to my creative writing courses from science. They parachute into my courses, steal ideas and head out.
Just like writers. They borrow the concision and play of poetic technique to understand and communicate the concision and play of the languages of their own subjects. They use narrative fiction to tell the narratives of science, even to understand better the process of knowledge-formation through its own stories and characters. Are these latter "practitioners"
writers? Some of these science students become part-time writers while carrying out research in their disciplines. Most go on to become teachers.
They use creative writing games as pedagogical tools for the serious play of learning. In the same way that many of our best creative writers have also been among the more insightful critics, many of our best scientists are its clearest communicators and critics. Popular science is, at best, the art of creative nonfiction; it melts many of the falsehoods that have iced between the written arts and sciences, not least the idea that scientists cannot write. We accept that Margaret Boden, Steven Rose and Richard Dawkins are in their ways creative writers. They learnt technique, energy of expression and style. They show how the same processes underlie some of the ways in which science proceeds, for as Max Perutz observed:
"Imagination comes first in both artistic and scientific creations."
That sounds good, but in the same way that many writing students do not become serious writers so not all students who sign up for science degrees become professional scientists. But many could become clearer and more energetic communicators of their disciplines: as teachers, journalists or as mediators between the public and scientific endeavour. At Warwick University, creative writers and their students now work directly with undergraduate students and postgraduate researchers in science departments.
Their presence is predicated partly on the need to help new scientists write more clearly and engagingly. However, one underlying principle agreed with departmental heads beforehand is to help these students begin to think more laterally in language - even more wildly - and to conceive of ideas and paradigms via the unusual route of writing games and thought experiments based on the creation of poems and fictions.
What is striking is that, although some initial scepticism about these experiments in teaching and learning came from the scientists, they quickly realised that students were doing better in their writing, were communicating their findings more clearly and were benefiting from human contact and creative play as researchers. Any scepticism was more likely to reside within students and faculty in the humanities. It is arguable that, in science, creative writing began finding some new, unusual, maybe historical, rooms of its own.
However, although the uses of creative writing and creative reading are important for exploring these new open spaces, sometimes we reach a space where language runs out. I offer only two examples from personal experience as an environmental scientist working on freshwater insects in the Lake District. My research focused on a family of lake midges whose species number in their thousands, and new subspecies and variants evolve regularly like minute but dynamic elements of a lake's language. You identify these species by a carapace deposited on a lake surface from which winged adults emerge; and use a "key" that explores and relates what you see under a powerful microscope to what has been seen by others in your field. This key represents current knowledge. Occasionally, you reach a zone where the current knowledge simply tapers to nothing, for the variant is completely new. You stare at it, or part of it, not seen before by the human eye, and not described or drawn by the human mind. With the key, you reach the point where its lake runs dry. When scientists reach this point, this moving edge of knowledge, they surf forwards by a combination of previous knowledge, guesswork and intuition.
With a species, you describe and classify it according to its likeness to something already described: you use simile to compare it and you use metaphor to name it. The Latin names of insects are a spectrum of metaphoric and descriptive acuity. They are little related images that represent an entire life form, a species, however temporary its moment of evolved presence. Its unseen worlds are metaphorised into recognition; its invisibility released by simile. I always regarded science at this level as a form of creative and collaborative writing close to poetry: a type of serious game with form and language. The physicist Niels Bohr observed:
"When it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry. The poet, too, is not nearly so concerned with describing facts as with creating images."
My second example of a creative recognition: the concentration of attention required for identifying species is heightened even further when the numerical presence of these species is factored alongside other data, such as oxygen level, acidity and 30 or more other physico-chemical variants, all of which make up the natural but (to us) invisible world of that species. The final piece of data would be time itself, the measure of a season, say. To make any kind of testable judgment about these creatures required these data to be crunched by powerful multivariate statistical programs. Depictions of correlation would unfold; thousands of permutations of relatable factors would be played against each other; and the significance of any connectivity (for example, the surface area of a lake and the diversity of species) might feed out. You begin to see that the world is wider than you thought. The creative magic of numbers, not words, is the language of the natural world.
When such data are swung across time, they seem to swarm like bees in a moving rope of migration. You hypothesise that there must be a common purpose somewhere, but you would have to be a bee to understand the language of the movement, in this case the dance, noise and destination of the data. What you have to do is think yourself inside a natural ballroom of numbers, its walls and ceilings made up of moving and sliding microelements. Perutz names imagination as the first element of scientific creation. In understanding the multivariate nature of an invisible world, an intuition, strongly informed by practice, played a part that sometimes seemed as strong as the role given to statistical significance. I have never felt closer to that balance of perception and imagination than when I am writing creatively or watching students in a creative writing class making discoveries for themselves among the swarm, noise and dance of language. As the immunologist and poet Miroslav Holub wrote: "The emotional, aesthetic and existential value is the same... when looking into a microscope... and when looking into the nascent organism of the poem."
Reading that quotation, you can see that scientists can play the scientiste just as much as artists can play the artiste. I would say that if what you do requires you at best to write clearly, then we are all in our ways creative writers. The Two Cultures, the division of knowledge systems into arts and science, was at its best a splintering of the processes by which knowledge and language move and grow. At its worst, it looked more like a class war between disciplines, their teachers and their students. Maybe creative writing is one way to provide better guides across that smoking battlefield.
David Morley is a natural scientist by background. His poetry has won many major writing awards and he writes essays, criticism and reviews for The Guardian and Poetry Review . He directs the Warwick Writing Programme at Warwick University, where he is associate professor and winner of a National Teaching Fellowship. He is the author of The Cambridge Introduction to Creative Writing (CUP, 2007).