Thermodynamics found a home in my imagination while I was an engineering student. Why wouldn’t it? This science is as powerful as alchemy, with secrets that reveal hidden treasures. Its magic moves locomotives, cools cities in the hottest deserts, lets clouds float above the earth and man float above the clouds.
In school, I poured over the symbols of thermodynamics, trying to unlock their mystery. I studied formulae too complex to understand and made them familiar through rote. Then I bludgeoned class assignments into coarse solutions that yielded little satisfaction.
Later, as a newly employed engineer, I survived because of self discipline learned while studying thermodynamics, even though I hadn’t learned the science itself. Still, I held onto hope of mastering its magic and I pursued this knowledge into the nights and through weekends.
The revelation occurred about six months into my career. The symbols and equations I struggled to understand began appearing in my mind’s eye as images of molecules and energy. They would gracefully interact in search of balance, then arrange themselves into elegant solutions.
After that, I had great success in separating methane from ethane, extracting work from steam and exposing value where previously none seemed to exist. I was summoned by the privileged and powerful to Asia, Africa, South America, to reveal answers to their questions and provide means to their ends. But eventually, the questions began to seem incomplete and my answers came, once again, without satisfaction. The perfect solutions of thermodynamics lost much of their elegance in their service to man.
I no longer wish to separate methane from ethane. Now, I want to separate truth from speciousness, prudence from parsimony. This is a different science. Instead of memorizing symbols, I am learning words. Instead of employing equations to describe our physical world, I am seeking sentences to describe man.
The dilemma of my youth has returned. I strive for power I don’t yet understand. Only this time, there are no indisputable laws of physics for me to follow. Now I have nuanced rules of grammar. And I have guidance from Capote, who said of Kerouac “That’s not writing, that’s typing,” and Hemingway who demanded of Faulkner “Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”
So I study the works of authors who have found imperfect ways to reveal human complexity. I study, I practice, I dismay – and I persevere, just like when I was a student. Because for all the differences between thermodynamics and writing, I believe commitment is the key to success in these, or any other, endeavors.
I look for small achievements that indicate my progress as a writer and I wait for the revelation that my experience tells me will come. When word combinations will appear in my mind’s eye as explanations of motive, emotion, uncontained rage and the like. When that happens, I will be able to tell you the rhyme and reason for people’s actions. But till then, I can only tell what happened, not why.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.