I’m sitting in a middle school gymnasium wondering how I could have forgotten the deafening, high-pitched squeal produced by over one hundred 13-year-olds. My daughter, a research biologist, coaches a science Olympiad team on invasive species and my husband and I have come to cheer them on.
Bob the Bubble Man entertains the students waiting for their final scores and medals to be handed out. He repeats over and over that science is all about asking questions. If we want to make this bubble bounce on our hand, what’s the best way? Should we use a dry hand, a wet hand, or maybe a gloved hand?
Writing fiction is all about asking questions. How would our protagonist react to this situation? What is the more dramatic choice in this scene? Would telling the story from a different point of view reveal more character?
My daughter’s team scores two big victories and over a celebratory dinner, I chat with the head coach, a Ph.D. entomologist, about projects she and my daughter are developing in their day jobs for the same scientific company, and I update her on the progress I’ve made on my novel. She’s a big reader and curious about the writing process.
I share the stops and starts, how detours down one path have led me to revelations about changing the point of view, even the tense I’m using to tell my chosen story. How I’ve narrowed down—finally and after three full drafts—what my story is actually about. How I feel like I have the tenuous grasp of a spine that I’m building on and how all the “mistakes” have gotten me to this point.
She nods knowingly and shares how she must coax the junior scientists on her team into making mistakes on purpose. She encourages them to pursue unusual avenues in the hopes of uncovering something new.
Sometimes, she’s frustrated with the younger scientists who, having mastered one testing method, become comfortable and want to stick with it. She has to nudge and push them out of their comfort zone.
Writers have comfort zones, too. We identify as pantsers or outliners. Like scientists, we can benefit from trying different methods or inventing new methods.
The doc reminds me of a development project she worked on and how the genesis of the idea came to her in the shower. She asked “what if” questions and hit on a unique solution that continues to pay off.
She leads a team of researchers and is responsible for encouraging them to move past their fear, to encourage them to look at what would they try “if they weren’t afraid of being wrong,” of wasting time or resources. She teaches them to expect dead ends and detours. It means they’re exploring possibilities.
Back to Bob the Bubble guy. He asks the kids to predict how best to bounce a bubble on their hands. He recruits three volunteers and they try all three options. Turns out the dry hand pops the bubble, the wet hand causes the bubble to stick and on the third try, on the gloved hand, the bubble bounces over and over, glistening under the gym lights.
What would you try if you weren’t afraid of being wrong, of wasting time? What would you create?