A Certain Confusion

Thoughts of a writer of sorts

Month: September, 2012


Definition of 'I' in my dictionary

I is for…?

When I was a genuine (occasional) playwright (when plays were wrought in my atelier at a rate of more than one a decade), people, upon learning that I wrote plays, would ask, invariably, ‘What sort of plays do you write?’, to which my answer was, inevitably, a shambles. This was partly because a general lack of awareness of theatre history means I am unsure of precisely what terms like ‘naturalism’, ‘realism’ and ‘surrealism’ mean in this context; partly (I have perhaps retrospectively decided) it is not for artists to define their own work (and if they do, they risk limiting themselves within a particular definition); and partly because I just plain didn’t know.

Often my struggling answers would include the word’ intellectual’, with all the hesitant apologia that I have attempted to articulate here recently as well. But I think the word I really wanted was ‘abstract’ – not abstract in the sense of having nothing much to do with the real world, but abstract in the sense of having been abstracted from the real world in order to create a theatrical artifice. So while some playwrights will use a cast of four or five to enact a realistic family scenario, I often used four or five actors to present a town (ie a society), but there was no pretence at any characters existing beyond those visible on stage. I don’t know if that is either big or clever, but I found it interesting.

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Private intellectual

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

I tend to think of myself as an intellectual. This is not to say I think I am cleverer than anyone else, or even clever at all, but more that I experience life mostly ‘in my head’, through my thoughts. Often we make a  distinction between the head and the heart, the intellect and the emotion; add to this the gut, or the instinct, and there you have my shorthand triad for dissecting personality. So I dwell in my head at the expense of my heart and my gut. While it means – in theory, at least – that I think my way through problems, applying rational arguments, in fact it often manifests itself as a pathological tendency to over-think problems, to worry about every minor decision (sometimes at the expense of major ones) and to distrust emotional and instinctive responses.

(Writing this – and, of course, thinking about it too much – I wonder whether it is really true that my personality is weighted so far toward intellect. I suspect my emotions and instinct have much more of a role than I acknowledge, but I channel their contributions through my head so it feels as though it is intellectual thought, which I am more comfortable with.)

If it helps make the point that I don’t intend ‘intellectual’ to be a judgmental term (ie a boast about my mental capabilities), I know that I am in no way ‘academic’. The signs were there in my undergraduate degree, which I characterise these days as a struggle with the practicalities of scientific life though the struggle was as much with the library as the lab. The signs were there, too, during my various postgraduate studies (I’ve done a lot of studying for a nonacademic): at drama school, I flourished on a course that met (barely) its academic requirements but emphasised more the practice of theatre; then, while doing a science communication masters, I rediscovered my antipathy to organised research methods. I love reading around a subject but I have no interest in documenting my research by noting sources and banking references. I prefer to trip aimlessly through reading matter, decide what I agree with (or what agrees with me) and incorporate it into my own world-view rather than maintaining an academic distance in order to marshal those resources and play out arguments at a later date.

I finished my masters almost exactly seven years ago. This month, my course celebrated its 21st anniversary by inviting alumni back for a day of discussion and reflection about science communication. The session I found most interesting was on the role of public intellectuals, hence my starting this post the way I did and my continuing it thus. Read the rest of this entry »