The Writer Twin

by Judith Kirscht

April 2014

I should envy those who wrote voraciously from the time they were six and always knew they would become writers. For me the writer was a hidden twin who emerged in blips over the years and didn’t become fully visible until I was in my forties. But the process has reaped its own rewards, leaving me amazed at the mystery of the imagination and fascinated by the human psyche. It has also allowed me to see the potential of fruitful interaction of our left and right brains.

I was born in the University of Chicago hospital and raised in the shadow of its towers. My father was a professor of medicine, my mother a housewife, and for the four of us children, that campus was playground, neighborhood, education and future. My brothers were to aspire to its halls, my sister and I were educated there—a heavily philosophical/logical education—in order to marry professors and live, as our mother did, in service to their academic careers.

Our parents engrained us with a love of learning, independent thinking, and with values that have endured well, despite our materialist culture. But it is their hidden twins—rarely mentioned—that fascinate me. My father, the scientist, had the gift of language. In fact, I heard him confess (once) that as a young man he aspired to be a novelist. His talents lay in diagnosis—intuition, the art of medicine—not in empirical research—a misfit that made his life a perpetual struggle and eventually, I think, led to depression.

My mother, no passive housewife, believed in the selflessness of women and trained her daughters to that standard. She invented tools to perform household tasks and intuited solutions to children’s problems. My husband, in admiration and wonder, said, “She treats family as a profession.” I was in my teens before I learned she had defied her pastor father and gone to college, then further defied the expectations of her day and left the prairies of South Dakota for graduate school in biochemistry at Northwestern. Is this the same woman?

Both had talents at odds with gender expectations and submerged in a culture that sees science and art as incompatible. My own story is no exception. The writer-twin emerged in strange spurts as a child. My mother says I wrote lovely stories, but have only a vague memory of this, remembered moments of surprise that had nothing to do with what I was to become—a professor’s wife honed by an exacting philosophical, Aristotelian education.

But the embryonic writer burst forth unintended in odd moments. I remember holding my two-year-old and telling her stories in a hushed, secret voice I hardly recognized. “Talk it to me again,” she begged, though she can’t have understood a word. Not until a therapist suggested I ask myself what I wanted to do besides be a wife and mother did that hidden self speak up. Write. “Of course,” my husband answered. “You always said you wanted to write.” I did? I had no memory of it or any intention to do it that I was aware of.

But to my amazement, the writer emerged full-blown. I marched to the university (a different one) and made an appointment with the professor in charge of the creative writers’ room. Presumptuous? Outrageous, since I hadn’t written a word—which didn’t occur to me until I got home. I was appalled at myself. Why I didn’t cancel, I’ll never know. But I didn’t. I pulled out a yellow pad and began to write. The next day I handed Professor Haugh a five page memoir that had flowed from my pen.

“You’re a writer,” he pronounced as soon as he put it down. “Absolutely.” And I became one. He took me on as a student and that five page memoir later earned a Hopwood Award (a literary award for graduate students), and a novel won another. How that writer developed I have no idea. I’m not one with ideas spinning around in my head. That twin doesn’t appear unless I sit down to write. But she’s reliable—not a fickle muse—she shows up ready to work.

I don’t believe it was the left-brain education that kept the writer submerged so much as our habit of excluding one domain from the other. Years later, when I taught academic writing and critical thinking, that grounding in philosophy gave me the ability to understand the paradigms of different disciplines, but it was the imagination that gave me the flexibility to move between them. I became fascinated with the interaction of the imagination and science—a study that gave the imagination stature and respect. I wish my father had lived in a time, still to come, that celebrates the art as well as the science of medicine. And I wish the culture of today, which has discovered my mother, the scientist, would rediscover the intuitive challenge of creating better people.

Now I’m retired from teaching—free to write, and the creative act inflates the spirit. But I still find value in homemaking, and I still love ideas. I have little patience with those who treat logic and creativity as enemies and feel the need to disparage one to develop the other. Creativity releases words to the page, but craft is analytical and an inner logic drives our characters. The finished product is a fusion of the two.

Perhaps if we learned to view marketing as a creative act, we’d stop resisting it as “that other thing” and bring our creative force to the endeavor. I haven’t yet found a saleswoman triplet waiting to emerge, but that five-page essay has been published and, thirty-five years later, that award-winning novel, now titled Nowhere Else To Go, is in print. Perhaps the twins together will overcome that deeply ingrained command to selflessness one day.

Judith Kirscht, author, Home Fires, The Inheritors, Nowhere Else To Go.

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