The Yin and Yang of Art and Science
During normal daytime hours, I am immersed in the world of medical science. Everything in this world has hard lines and edges. Everything can and must be defined. Things are supposed to fit perfectly into boxes, preferably square ones that can be stacked one on top of another in neat columns. Something behaving predictably makes us breathe a sigh of relief. It reminds us, happily, that due to our scientific methodology we can predict what will happen the next time. In science, and particularly medicine, we like to be able to make accurate predictions. We like to think we know what will happen next.
During late nights and pre-dawn mornings I am immersed in the world of possibility. In this world the unknown is a familiar beast. I stand on the edge of a written page and gaze into the unknown and then, without any precise plan and mostly in the dark, I write. I discover as I write. I write to discover. And in this process, I create.
This is what I’ve learned: it is impossible to create without embracing uncertainty, diving into it with complete abandon and being willing to make mistakes along the way. A lot of mistakes. And what a thrilling, human, and deeply satisfying experience it is to create.
In clinical medicine there is more looking back than looking forward. (What happened the last time we used this drug on this group of people?) And we hope that previous experiences will provide a blueprint for the future. Mistakes, needless to say, are not a welcome part of the learning process, embedded as they are within it. We must do as our peers do, not stray from the protocol.
In writing, we can and often do apply other people’s experiences to creating a novel. (Did they outline? Use a character diary? Revise along the way or at the end?) However, at some point it becomes clear that the only way forward is our own way and eventually we have to let go of others’ strategies and whatever happened before this moment. We must let go altogether.
It is a strange way to exist, and sometimes, I admit, my two ways of being in the world get mixed up. The scientific approach exists to an extreme in my day job, but really, it permeates everywhere. And I’ve begun to wish we were not quite so enamored of this methodical, mechanical way of organizing our world. Though science has clearly helped us build a safer, better society and live longer, healthier lives, I worry that we are leaving something important behind in our obsessive cordoning off of this and that, and basing all future events on probability, never possibility.
I worry that the beautiful yin-yang is becoming heavily skewed and that the predictable, mechanical, science side of the symbol is taking up almost the whole circle. Science is even muscling in on territory previously reserved for pure creative expression where definitions need not exist.
Take, for example, the differentiation between fiction and non-fiction in writing. There are endless discussions among writers as to how one defines non-fiction and fiction. There have been many a public hanging over books tagged as non-fiction that were found to have one too many creative liberties within them, and many novelists have been accused of portraying a people or place ‘inaccurately’ in their entirely fictional narrative. But where does the scientifically verifiable “truth” end and the haze of creativity begin? The closer I look, the more clear it seems to me that these are lines in the sand that can be smudged out with the wipe of a hand. It’s all narrative. And aren’t we getting a little too hung up on truth when we are, after all, human beings and live in a world where everyone has their own truth? Each point of view should be treasured for the precise reason that it is entirely unique. This, I think, is where we see the influence of science: there is a correct and an incorrect way, nothing in between. However, when you look very closely, there is even narrative (and point of view) in medical literature. A paper in a medical journal that demonstrates a drug’s effectiveness in treating an illness has a beginning, middle and end. A climax and resolution. A story is being told. There are nuances that I would argue sully the clear rational waters. Even here, in the world of science, the author wishes to share a story.
And so here we are, our deference to science now allowing its dominance over those activities that are pure and spontaneous and could do without corralling or ordering, and our long history of creative storytelling shaping our expression of scientific discovery. The need to understand and explain our world and our need to create within it is pushing and pulling us in countless subtle ways. We are striving for balance whether we are aware of it or not.
While I am grateful for the knowledge and experience of my scientific forebears, and all the gifts this has given us in providing the best for my patients, and while I honour the procedures and protocols, the flowcharts and the guidelines, I am also grateful for the fact that the patient before me is, ultimately, a mystery. One that I can guide with experience, but one that I will never solve. I am grateful for the fact that the world can’t be entirely explained.
I, for one, will try to pull that curved line back into the centre of the yin-yang circle. Mystery and creativity will not be segregated to the fringes of normal life. I will let the freedom of the unknown seep into the usual daytime hours of my life. I will try new things and accept that some things will not turn out as planned.
Each day, after all, contains the beauty and possibility of a blank page. I can’t wait to see what will happen next.
© Lucie Wilk September 2013.
Lucie Wilk is a medical doctor and author. Her debut novel The Strength of Bone was released in September 2013 by Biblioasis. Her short fiction has been nominated for the McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize Anthology, long-listed for a CBC Canada Writes literary prize, and appeared in Descant, Prairie Fire and Shortfire Press. She grew up in Toronto, completed her medical training in Vancouver, and now lives with her husband and two children in Devon, UK. www.luciewilk.com