Am I the only one whose mind goes blank when someone asks, “So… what are you good at?” or any variation on this theme?
It’s like writing a curriculum vitae, which is Latin for why you should hire me. (Just kidding, obviously.) And I suck at writing such things. Always have. It’s not because I don’t have any skills or experience or whatever, but rather because I don’t know how to break down what I can do and when I’ve done it into tiny bits and list each item separately. I’m a freelance editor; what I do is copy/line editing; my qualifications for doing it are that I can do it, that I can prove I can do it, and that I have done it.
You can’t say that, though, either online or in person. People want to know what special courses you’ve taken, what universities you’ve attended, and what professional organizations you belong to. They want an itemized list of each and every computer program you know how to use. They even feel it is vitally important to know what city you reside in, because according to conventional “wisdom,” there are certain parts of the United States where Real Writers and Editors(tm) do not live. (‘If you want to write science fiction, you need to move to another part of the country,’ more than one person told my clone and I, way back when, ‘because people can tell from where you live now that you’re not qualified to write sci-fi.’ Yeah… and relocating just to the other side of a damn river would have made us more qualified? *rolls eyes*)
Nearly as difficult is answering a question such as, “What unusual skills do you have?” How the hell am I supposed to now what someone else considers unusual? I often fall back on a bit of mild snark: “I know how to write with correct grammar and punctuation, and that’s an unusual skill.”
According to conventional “wisdom” (yeah, that again), no one can be good at both mathematics and grammar. It’s Not Allowed (except math-heads have to say Its Not Aloud because they’re not supposed to know one homophone from another), because someone, somewhere, had a hypothesis about some kinds of thinking happening only on the right side of the brain and some kinds happening only on the left side… So brilliant physicists can’t spell, and bestselling authors can’t do basic math even with a calculator.
(If you’re interested in such trivia, the nonsense about creativity/emotion belonging to the right side of the brain and math/logic belonging to the left side originated with — get this! — Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Let that sink in for a moment…)
It’s all bullshit. It’s not an either/or dichotomy. Some people can do one but not the other. (Emphasis is needed because some people read one of my recent blog posts and misunderstood everything I said, taking some to mean all.) Some can do neither. Some can do both. And someday people, collectively, are gonna “get the memo” that the right brain/left brain thing is incorrect anyway (but today is not that day, obviously). If you’re a writer who’s not good at math, that’s okay, but do not use “I’m a writer” as the reason you’re not good at math. Being a writer doesn’t make you bad at math. Being into math or science doesn’t make you uncreative or bad with words. Let me say it again: It’s not a dichotomy.
Anyway… Unusual, whatever the hell that means, because it seems to be either a matter of statistics or a matter of personal viewpoint/opinion, and I’m “not allowed” to talk about or even understand anything about statistics because I’m an art person, not a math person. *rolls eyes* (If you want the statistics anyway — a minimally number-crunchy version, because this is a polite blog — I can tell you this much: the middle 67 percent or so, the part that’s within one standard deviation on either side of the exact center of the curve, is “normal.” At the very least, unusual has to be outside that, but it still leaves a third of the population, and how unusual can a skill be if one person in three has it? (Oh, if a full third of the population had excellent skill with grammar and punctuation! I’d be out of a job, probably, but I could then spend all my free time reading novels that were well-written.)
Another difficult-to-answer question, related to the previous, concerns ‘unusual research topics related to writing.’ This was my answer in the comments on a post about it on the blog I Read Encyclopedias for Fun:
The trouble is, I don’t always remember why I researched a given topic, and sometimes the information is just there, absorbed by my brain without any deliberate research-for-a-novel on my part. (I have too much “trivia” in my head. Mind like a steel sieve… It does make me good at fact-checking others’ fiction, though.) Woodworking techniques (thanks to friend Grace for interviewing that Creative Anachronist about his medieval-style lathe and to friend Theo for talking about modern ones), traditional clothing styles of eastern Europe and Russia (but not folklore — I swear that thing with the names is purely coincidence!), whether or not there really is a Mt. Hawthorne and whether it really is a dormant volcano (okay, that one was mostly just curiosity, except a character from one of my stories would want to know these things, so I researched it on his behalf), a good place to hide a secret mad-scientist lair…
A fairly recent topic I know I researched for a specific story: the composition of obsidian. Most obsidian is dark brown to black in color due to the presence of magnesium or iron, but on rare occasion it may be nearly colorless. I looked it up because of something Paul had told me about a modern use for obsidian — small detail for backstory in “that novel” — but the normal iron-pigmented stuff wouldn’t have solved the problem it was intended to deal with.
And I suppose that, technically, watching the movie Armageddon a couple weeks ago was also research (believe it or not, for the same story as the research about obsidian).
The road trip to Andover, Maine back in 1996, was not — at least officially — novel research. (Major character in “that novel” claims to be from near Andover, and I hadn’t been to Maine for a few years… Got to visit Robert Frost’s old farm in Franconia, New Hampshire, too, and took photos of the old, un-mended wall…) The road trip to Anglin, Kentucky in 2012 (?) was research, however. My clone had never been to Anglin, and it’s an important location in some of the stuff we’re writing together.
Y’see, I had to guess. I don’t think any of those topics was unusual, but maybe they all are, to most people. How would I know?