How to do everything

An uneasy guide

I’ve been wanting for a while now to write about being scattered. No — I don’t mean scattered exactly, but the feeling of wanting to do and learn lots of things, always just a bit more than seems reasonable. This was something I was comfortable with twenty years ago, but then again, the institutional structures I was in promoted it. I did not have to choose between history and math and philosophy and literature, I had the space to do them all. But the longer I live, the more I am haunted by the suspicion that I’m doing something wrong by not focusing my efforts in one area of my life.

There are positive words for someone with wide interests - a Renaissance man, a polymath. But there are more negative ones: dabbler, tinkerer, amateur, a dilettante. Also, the Renaissance was a long time ago, and these days it’s awfully difficult to become a genuine polymath. Besides, I don’t actually want to be brilliant in a lot of areas, or to make new discoveries in fields not my own. My hunger is primarily for experience, not achievement. That can be hard to square with my ambitions — though I don’t at all need to excel in everything I try, I would like to do very well in one or two pursuits. And I often wonder if I’m getting in my own way.

An anecdote: in 2002, when I was applying to graduate schools, a friend gave me a sample application letter to look at, from someone who had gotten into very good programs. It was an amazing text: the applicant described precisely the project she wanted to do and why she wanted to do it at that particular university. She seemed — how to put this? — already fully formed. All I really knew at that point was that I didn’t want to narrow down my interests just yet. I was fascinated by medieval literature, but I also loved Milton and military history and cultural history and and and… So I wrote an application about wanting to study epic, how into Beowulf and the Chanson de Roland and El Cid and Paradise Lost I was, which, looking back, I’m genuinely amazed got me in, that is how “unprofessional” it was.

Flash forward to my first week of graduate school. There is a reception for new PhD students, and we are to go around the room introducing ourselves and our fields. The other students are terrifyingly polished. Most come from Ivy League universities (or their peers), and they introduce themselves with the phrase, “I work on…” I see that it was about to be my turn, and just cannot think of a one-sentence summary of my interests. Finally, on the spot, I say, “My name is Irina Dumitrescu, I’m from the University of Toronto, and I’m interested in big burly men fighting each other.”

Later, during white-wine small talk, I wind up chatting with an assistant prof and begin to introduce myself. He stops me: “I know you, you’re the one who wants to work on the WWF.”

Anyway, grad school did its thing, and I did specialize — though, since I had chosen the PhD program that would let me stay a generalist as long as possible (something seen as a negative quality by many), it was not too bad. I think my desire for breadth, both in my job and in my spare time, became more difficult to manage when I was on the tenure track. I got the sense that if I were seen to have any interests outside of my job, they would be counted proof of lack of seriousness on my part when evaluation time came around.

I don’t think that assumption was true about most of my colleagues, but it was true sometimes. I distinctly remember telling a tenured colleague with a disproportionate amount of influence that I was taking a Saturday morning course to refresh my French, in anticipation of a conference I was planning on attending in Poitiers the next year. To say that her reaction was negative is mild: she warned me vigorously against doing anything but working on my research. The fact that my goal was to participate more fully in a specialized field conference that would expand my knowledge and network (the concepts of “weekend” and “free time” were not in my vocabulary back then) seemed like no excuse.

I think a lot about that conversation.

Naturally, when I began writing things that were not research, I kept it mostly on the down-low at first. (It was another colleague who published my first essay and helped me place the next two, so clearly not everyone was narrow-minded about branching out.) Creative writing became my escape from professionalism and its discontents. It was the space where I could delve into the history of Currywurst and the role of sausage in German culture just to write a personal essay about my life in Berlin. Writing gave me the excuse I didn’t really need to read a bunch of ballet memoirs and talk to dance teachers about what it’s like teaching amateurs. Writing let me articulate my own reason for studying and teaching the humanities, which has more to do with 20th century Romanian history than it does with the Middle Ages.

All along, I suspected that I might not be a very good scholar, or not as good as I could be, because of my lack of focus. And it did take me a while to finish my first book. On the other hand, I found that writing creatively tended to help me through academic blocks. Much the same was true for my other obsessions — with cooking, with Middle Eastern dance, with crochet and, later, knitting. They helped me make new things in the way I could at any given moment.

I also looked for resources to help me make sense of my personality. One important discovery for me was Margaret Lobenstein’s The Renaissance Soul: How to Make Your Passions Your Life. That book, despite its cheesy title, was an eye-opener for me. Reading it I realised for the first time that my personality might be a type, rather than an aberration, and that there were strategies to incorporate many interests into one life. It’s a book I have returned to several times over the years when I’m feeling frustrated. Another book that gave me hope was David Epstein’s Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. Of course, this kind of business-oriented ideas book tends to focus on the most successful individuals on the planet. In real life as I know it, having many interests can also lead to a lack of focus. The challenge seems to be having the discipline to stick with the large undertakings while carving out space for all the side passions.

My best strategy for dealing with the inevitable distractions my curiosity throws in my path is, still, writing. It gives me a chance to make something coherent out of my reading and my dabbling in various hobbies (my essay on Masterclass being a case in point). It’s the point where they all meet. Writing lets me integrate my life. And yet, as writing has come to be an area in which I’m ambitious too (instead of a way to “cheat” on my career), I find myself wondering again if I wouldn’t be further along if I didn’t try to write about everything that interests me.

Maybe there is no way to change this without a mental shift, away from competition and towards appetite. But I would also like to live in a world that was better at understanding the value of range, of temporary obsessions, and of forays into the unknown. Even more, I would like to see universities move in that direction. It may be that research in the natural sciences needs increasingly high levels of specialization, but I think the humanities could do with more of a balance between the people who know more than anyone else about one thing and the people who see connections between vastly disparate things.

Thank you, again, for reading as far as you did. I’d love to know if you are more of a specialist or a generalist — or a stealth generalist pretending to be a specialist! Let me know in the comments, or hit reply.


Some updates:

  • At the Times Literary Supplement, I have a brief review of a gorgeous collection of short stories by Paul McQuade called Between Tongues. The publisher sent me this book and it was uncanny how many of my fascinations, especially broken tongues, appear in this volume.

  • At Public Books, I have the first essay in a new series on rereading favourite works of scholarship. My piece, “Rereading the Revolt,” considers what scholars miss when they idealise past revolutions.

  • My dear friend Andrew Crabtree has a chapbook of poetry, Ungarden, out from espresso books.

  • The third episode of my London Review of Books podcast with Mary Wellesley is out. Encounters with Medieval Women: Storyteller is about the Wife of Bath, and I think it was my favourite to record. The next episode, on Margery Kempe, will be released on November 9. Also quite thrilling is that CBC Ideas picked up our first episode, on Mary of Egypt. Part of me wishes I could go back to the grad student struggling to write a dissertation chapter on the Old English Life of Mary of Egypt and tell her that one day, all of Canada would hear about this compelling saint.