• Ellen Cassedy
  • [TIPS OF THE TRADE] Are You a Scientist or a Writer – or Both?
[TIPS OF THE TRADE] Are You a Scientist or a Writer – or Both?
Written by
Ellen Cassedy
May 2014
Written by
Ellen Cassedy
May 2014

“The greatest scientists are also artists,” Albert Einstein said.

At the AWP conference in Seattle, I attended a fascinating session that got me thinking about what happens if we turn the great physicist’s statement on its head.  

Could it be that artists – writers – are also scientists?

Often, we think of scientist and artist as polar opposites – the one driven by logic and the other by imagination. But the AWP session, called “Writing Nature in a Scientific Age,” showed me that the divide between the two may not be so wide after all.    

Eva Saulitis, author of “Into Great Silence: A Memoir of Discovery and Loss Among Vanishing Orcas” (Beacon Press, 2014), began her career as a marine biologist. Over a period of years, she studied a family of orca whales in Prince William Sound, recording their heart-breaking struggle for survival in the wake of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

When it came time to prepare her conclusions for publication, though, Saulitis felt “dissatisfied with the objective language and rigid methodology of science.” The prohibition on using the pronouns “I” and “we” seemed intolerably constricting, emblematic of a crippling detachment. 

So Saulitis reached out to creative writing, hoping “to develop another language with which to address the natural world.” 

That’s when she discovered something surprising. Her work as a scientist and her work as a writer turned out not to be nearly so disparate as she had expected. 

“The poet collects data like a scientist,” Saulitis said. A sense of awe and a capacity for wonder are vital to scientist and writer alike.  Open-mindedness and curiosity are essential in both fields.

Saulitis found herself building a home in two disciplines at once. And, she decided, she didn’t have to “choose only one way of knowing.”

Whether peering into a microscope or hunched over the draft of a novel, both scientist and artist pay close attention – as close as we possibly can. For both, the goal of our intense observation is to describe the world with accuracy and precision:  

This is what I see. This is what I hear. This is what I smell. And this is what it means. 

Writers and scientists both ask the big questions. Both set out in search of the truth without knowing exactly where we’re going. Both make our way forward through experimentation. We bumble around, trying this and that, uncovering new uncertainties as we go. 

Saulitis became both a scientist and a creative writer. The result, her memoir, communicates significant scientific information in an uncommonly lyrical style. The first page begins with a dream: “a dream for me of blue-white tundra…a dream of emptiness, silence.”  

First-person pronouns and all, Saulitis’s lovely sentences made me think in new ways – about whales, about science, about writing.  

Speaking with Saulitis at the AWP conference were two Pulitzer Prize-winning poets, both renowned for their vivid descriptions of nature. 

Robert Hass, who served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 1995 to 1997, suggested that writers have not only an ability to add to our knowledge of the natural environment in which we live, but an obligation to do so.

“In the US,” he said, “poets are just getting started describing the natural world.” His native state of California has been described in English for only 150 years, he noted – a short time indeed compared to China, where poets have been describing their natural surroundings for millennia. 

To illustrate the relative infancy of California’s literature, Hass pointed out that the region’s poets (like Californians in general) all too often tend to employ a European template to describe the weather, “even though it doesn’t have much to do with our place.” 

Winter, spring, summer, fall – these don’t accurately describe the climate of America’s West Coast, and Hass pushes himself to use his craft to help correct the record. “Every so often,” he said, “I try to write a poem making sense of the weather.”

A case in point is Hass’s well-known poem, “The Problem of Describing Trees,” a lovely lyrical work that may teach you some new things – scientific facts, you might say – about the hows and whys of aspen leaves. The poem comments on just how difficult it can be to capture the natural world in words. “There are limits to saying/ In language, what the tree did,” Hass writes. He ends by insisting on the imperfect: “the aspen doing something in the wind.”

The veteran Beat poet Gary Snyder closed the session. He, too, straddled the scientific and the literary world as he read from “Mountains and Rivers Without End.” The epic poem contains a giant dose of geology. And – it sings!

Join the conversation. Are you a scientist, a writer, or a bit of both?


Ellen Cassedy’s book is We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust (Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2012), which has won four national awards, including the Grub Street National Book Prize, and the Towson Prize for Literature awarded annually to a resident of Maryland.  It has just been shortlisted for the Saroyan Prize.  Ellen’s first post for SheWrites was “Who Cares about Your Family Story? Ten Tips to Ensure Readers Will ...” Her [TIPS OF THE TRADE] series appears monthly.  See all of Ellen's Tips for Writers.

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  • Ellen Cassedy

    What would happen if we systematically worked on bringing scientific powers of observation to our writing?

  • "both scientist and artist pay close attention" I love that comment! I'm also a scientist who turned to writing (and travel) after retirement, and I still thoroughly enjoy paying attention to everything around me.  http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00BH3326S

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Is there such a thing as an absent-minded writer...?

  • RYCJ Revising

    again, Have you ever met a true to-be legend scientist? The fuzziest unapologetics or extrapolators ever. It's the editors who clean things up and dumb their words down for us.

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Karen -- Yes, as I say in my post, Robert Hass, a former Poet Laureate, urges writers to write about their natural region -- and its weather -- with specificity, rather than relying on the mainstream language (spring and fall, etc.) that may not actually apply to where you live.  He also points out that poetry celebrates "amber waves of grain" and other aspects of man-managed, monocultural natural landscapes, and that that, too, could use some updating.   Something to think about.

  • Thank you for presenting this idea, Ellen. In my work with children as a Study Group guide for a home-schooling co-op, I have discovered that the experimentation and discovery involved in both art and science are quite parallel. There are activity books written around it.

    I am very fascinated by the idea of not taking for granted regional language around weather patterns and other natural phenomena encountered in our immediate environment/ecosystem, and of/to those we visit.  Walking our community labyrinth often puts me in touch with nature in a deep way and I often write about my reflections in a journal. Looking forward to reading Eva Saulitis' book about Orcas.

  • Ellen Cassedy

    I agree that those  who can help communicate scientific facts in strong, clear prose will do a great service to all.

  • RYCJ Revising

    I am both. I think it's often what surprises many writers writing his or her first book, and truer for those who've never written a book. Perhaps the word 'creative' and 'scientist' has become a misnomer? Or taking a closer inspection (posed here) at 'how' specific scientists 'creates' and what's comprised of scientific discoveries.

  • Pamela Olson

    One of my heroes, by the way, is Carl Sagan, equally famous for being a scientist and a writer. His amazing writing abilities made science and history accessible even to backwater teens like me living in Stigler, Oklahoma. He showed me a vision of a wider world that changed my life forever. I can never be grateful enough for that.

    Our species integrates new information via stories more than facts. We shouldn't exploit this, of course, in order to bamboozle people. (Plenty of PR firms are already doing that.) But we also shouldn't leave that power with the bamboozlers. Wielding it in an honest and skillful way -- whether about global warming or economic inequality -- can be an incredibly powerful public service. As long as science (and the actual realities of politics for that matter) stays locked away and inaccessible, it can't help nearly as many people as it otherwise could.

  • Eva Silverfine

    Illustration (via drawing, painting, and later, photography) have a long association with the sciences, particularly biology. I recently edited a Smithsonian publication on the Hubble Space Telescope (not yet available) that included a chapter by Elizabeth A. Kessler that explored images as both art and science (from 19th century explorations of the West to the Hubble images). 

    What I find in writing personal narrative/creative nonfiction that relates to my life as a scientist, though, is that even with effort to use a nonspecialized vocabulary, to explain any concepts pertinent to the essay, the perspective seems foreign to a more literary audience.  

  • Karen McKee

    Quite a few scientists have artistic (for example, drawing) skills, which come in handy for scientific illustrations. I often enhanced my field notes with detailed drawings. Now I combine scientific and artistic talents to create graphics, animations, and videos of my research. http://thescientistvideographer.com/wordpress

  • Great discussion!

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Beautifully put, Elizabeth. "I've been straddling the arts and sciences all my life....  I could never choose one over the other."  And what is the impact of gender on all this? 

  • Elizabeth Enslin

    This speaks very deeply to me, Ellen. I feel like I've been straddling the arts and sciences all my life. I compromised by becoming an anthropologist but I'm not sure that was the best approach for me. Literary nonfiction writing is the most satisfying means I've found so far for capturing the resonance between art and science. I also find it interesting how I used to defend the arts to the sciences but have now become a champion of science when so much popular thinking seems to be anti-science. But I could never choose one over the other.

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Juliet, I like your statement that "the arts and sciences have so much to learn from each other."  And Pamela, ditto for your experience that a science background helps you be discriminating.

  • Juliet Wilson

    I'm a biologist by training and a naturalist and artist by inclination. I think the arts and sciences have so much to learn from each other, there are many possibilities for creative collaborations between the two. Good writing and art can make science more accessible and interesting to the layperson and scientists can sometimes find that artistic explorations of scientific topics can help them to see things in new ways

  • Pamela Olson

    I studied physics in college because I was always good at science and math, but writing was my true love, it turned out. After college I traveled and wrote and became a journalist, then (eventually) author. Working on a novel now. I'm glad I studied as much science as I did to demystify that world and make it seem like something friendly and comprehensible. And also to know for sure that being a scientist in the way it's currently done is not for me. But I'm really glad other people are doing it!

    As far as informing my writing... my journalism and my first book were nonfiction and covered a very controversial topic (Israel/Palestine), where a good BS detector was extremely valuable. I think science helps us have that more discriminating view of things. But art, to some extent, requires being deeply subjective. And my right brain is having a lot of fun with this novel!

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Eva -- I agree that a science background can be valuable to a writer, helping us sharpen our powers of observation and description, our ability to create a plot that "works," our ability to follow a trail to wherever it leads, and more.  

    Alonna -- Yes!  Get to work, all ye poets and writers, describing our natural world!

  • Lori Robinson

    yes Dr. Jane is a great example and she has written many books, her latest of which I am about to review. 

  • Eva Silverfine

    I stopped "doing" science after my Master's research because I felt I wasn't creative within science--I knew this because I saw what being a creative scientist looked like. Still, science as a way of looking at the world informs my writing, and years of editing science influences my style (for better or worse). Both pursuits, science and writing, are ultimately about understanding the world around us.

  • Alonna Shaw Writing

    Ellen, nice piece. I agree with Robert Haas "an obligation to do so"--imo, an enjoyable exploration in doing so. #lovescienceminds

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Marta -- Great to hear that your scientific training helped you when it came time to write science fiction. 

    Do any SheWriters feel that UNlearning the scientific mindset is necessary when writing?

  • I so agree and well put. I was research analyst for over twenty years and my major in college included various sciences, all became necessary in writing VIGINS, my fantasy/sci-fi novel.

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Interesting comment, Rosalind.  Close observation, curiosity about the world, going out there with all senses primed to take in what's there -- these could be called scientific skills.  But when it comes to weaving your findings together -- maybe that's the artist's or writer's side of things. 

  • Rosalind Minett

    I think the enjoyment of researching material for a novel is scientific in nature, whereas weaving this into a fictional world is a writer's raison d'etre.