Maunderings on expertise and writing

I watch these movies about people who are so completely involved in their work that they are these marvelous experts. They know everything anybody ever did in their field, they have read or discussed all the current theories and technologies, they are completely informed, up-to-date, and totally in love with what they do.

I’m supposed to be one of them. I am a university professor. I’m supposed to know all about my chosen field and everything that’s been said; I’m supposed to be able to whip out of my head erudite quotes and summations of works . . . Yeah, not so much–though I do love what I do. I’ve got that much going for me.

There are a few reasons for my, oh, let’s call it inexpertise. Probably most importantly, I’m a generalist. I studied a wide range of literature from a wide range of places and times. At my university, I teach a huge variety of courses, from writing fiction to literary theory to composition to 19th and 20th century British literature, women’s lit . . . You get the point. So rather than knowing a lot about a little, I know a little about a lot. And it’s disconcerting. Because I want to be one of those experts.

But then to make matters worse, I know people who read things and listen to things and have terrific recall of those things. They simply don’t forget. So I have generalist friends who know a lot about a lot, rather than a little about a lot. And that is discouraging. I have the memory of a steel sieve. The fact is that when you look at those movies, you know that hey, it was all written down for that person and so really, it’s just show. But then you encounter real people (and the university is populated with them, as is this sfnovelists group) and you realize yep–people like that really do exist. Dammit.

I’m envious. I admit it. Is that the first step toward something? Probably not. Well, possibly toward an ulcer . . .

Seriously though. What happens to me more often than not is that when I’m collected together with such brilliant people as I tend to be (because they know a lot of stuff and they are interesting people) I am a fabulous audience. I love to listen. And on top of that, because my memory is so, er, good, they can repeat the same things relatively often and I’m perfectly delighted with hearing them all over again. I am also easily amused. I think this last is a good thing.

I guess the point if this post, if there is a point, which I sadly doubt, is just this. I may not be one of those experts who has everything available from the top of my head. I am, however, an excellent researcher. So I research and put those things at the top of my head whenever I teach a course, no matter how many times I’ve taught it before. I rarely use old notes. I usually re-read (to refresh–no matter how many times I’ve read a text), I take new notes, I make new connections, and I jump in. By the time I teach, I’m back to being an expert. And that’s really all that counts. And it counts when writing.

The thing is, and here’s the thing that everyone out there working on being a writer really needs to know, writers don’t just write what they know, they write what they can find out. In fact, most of the time they write what they can find out, not what they know. All that really cool information that is in a book that seems to flow so easily and is so accurate–that usually came from painstaking research. How to sword fight. How to sail on a square-rigged ship. What are healing plants? What effect do certain injuries have on the body? How do you tan a hide? And so on infinitely.

So sometimes I walk about feeling a little bit like a fraud–shouldn’t I remember all this stuff? And then I think, duh, that’s what the library is for. It remembers for me.

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  1. 1. Psychedelic Pariah

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this.

    Based on this little tidbit of you that you’ve shared, we’re kindred spirits. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve lamented this fact of myself, about which you’ve written so eloquently.

    I feel so good this morning, knowing that I’m not the complete fraud I’ve believed myself to be. I guess I prefer to think of myself as a temporary expert. And it feels great to discover that I’m not the only one out there.

  2. 2. Cameron Lowe

    I have had friends and teachers specialize in one particular area, and while I admire and greatly respect their enthusiasm for the one subject, I can’t do it. I am as eclectic in knowledge as I am in my love for books, movies, and games. I can’t just read one period or one genre endlessly – I’ve gotta have a sampling of everything and anything.

    I’m getting better at research. I have a horrible memory for specifics, and so I am learning to keep constant notes. Sometimes, the topics that used to bore me to tears (science and geography, for example) are now my biggest side-interests because of my writing. I think that’s half the joy of the work – while some of the research is droll, there’s quite a bit that can be nearly as entertaining as doing the actual writing.

  3. 3. mbrother

    Asimov apparently forgot most of what he wrote about in short order. I guess the lesson is, if you’re that sort of person who can’t retain it all longterm, write it down FAST!

    And also realize that a lot of the memory things are keyed to interest level. Those people who know lots about lots, actually just know everything about what they’re paying attention to, and the sea of knowledge is too vast for anyone to know a large fraction of it. When it comes to astronomy, I know it inside out, and remember the gist of essentially everything I read on the subject. I also remember quite a lot of what I read about writing. And I keep up with pop culture and several other areas. I probably sound like one of those know-it-alls, but its all an illusion maintained as long as we don’t stray into an area of my mental map labeled “Here be Dragons.”

    Actually, that’s not true. I’m down on dragons. It’s the area labeled “Here be automotive repair” where I will break down. Plenty of PhDs out there who think they’re faking it when they’re the real deal. Pretty much they’re all experts in their fields, but acutely aware of what they don’t know more than what they do know.

  4. 4. retterson

    All of us would appear endlessly knowledgeable and erudite if we had a passel of interns to scour the Internet at moment’s notice to pull up that Just So quote we need — yanno, like they do in the movies.

    Until there are brain implants, the only expert experts will the folks who are fronts for a cadre of writers, researchers and interns.

    You’re not a fraud.

  5. 5. Karen Wester Newton

    I think it’s true that you can be too much of an expert–so immersed in the subject that you lose touch with the non-experts.

    Years ago I worked at the National Agricultural Library. One erudite botanist, renowned for the breadth of his knowledge of his subject, was famous for an elevator conversation. A non-scientist asked him, “Is it true a tomato is really a fruit, not a vegetable?”

    The guy gave him the proverbial look of withering scorn and said, “A tomato is a ripened ovary. Everyone knows that.”

    Some times too much information is bad. It sure put me off fruit altogether.

Author Information

Diana Pharaoh Francis

Diana Pharaoh Francis has written the fantasy novel trilogy that includes Path of Fate, Path of Honor and Path of Blood. Path of Fate was nominated for the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award. Recently released was The Turning Tide, third in her Crosspointe Chronicles series (look also for The Cipher and The Black Ship). In October 2009, look for Bitter Night, a contemporary fantasy. Diana teaches in the English Department at the University of Montana Western, and is an avid lover of all things chocolate. Visit site.

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