The Admission: A Rogue Academic on Fiction

AuthorThe secret is decidedly “out.” I write fiction. I even get it published. And it’s not literary fiction, either; I write young adult novels about a 16 year old boy suffering from a blood disorder (that may or may not be vampirism). But I am a scholar, too. I work in a museum. I teach a class on the history of science. I edit a medical anthropology journal. The cocktail party query “So what do you do?” is never easily answered, but I find that more often than not, I tell people I am some stripe of academic.

Let me tell you why that’s ironic. For one thing, I am an alternative academic, or “altac.” I have a PhD, but I left a tenure track job (on purpose) to pursue something else in a new field. I work as a research associate and guest curator now, in the Dittrick Medical History Center. I do public engagement, lectures, exhibit work, etc. A cursory glance at my twitter feed will tell you that I’m besotted–I love this job like none I’ve ever had before. But as my chief curator will tell you, museum staff aren’t always highly regarded by other types of historian academics. We are on the fringes, roaming, free-range mavericks. That is partly why I like it. So why–after leaving Academe proper–do I still use that as my moniker? Why not say, for instance, “I am an academic AND a fiction writer”?

I think there is a point in each child’s life when he or she wanted to be an artist. A little older, and maybe half of them would have traded artist for famous writer, just like the ones they read at bedtime… and even after bedtime, with the flashlight. Why do most people give up on that? Well, there’s the whole issue of talent, obviously. But I don’t really think that’s it. I think it’s the years of being told that you’ll starve to death. Or worse, the years of faintly patronizing refrains of “how nice.” We are encouraged to be practical and wage-earning. Pursue what will be taken seriously by others. Chase after careers with easily recognizable tags: Lawyer, doctor, accountant, investor, architect. We are not told to pursue art historian, philosopher, grocer, herbalist, writer, artist, or even home-maker. And we are completely discouraged from pursuing those careers without names, those collections of positions strung together with grant money and hope (ahem, that includes many a museum professional, by the way). So I got into the habit of hiding the fact that I wrote fiction. And this habit continued right into my academic career.

By the time I arrived in my tenure track position, I had learned that fictive output wasn’t terribly well respected even among those getting English degrees. As a matter of fact, I had a graduate colleague who claimed never to read popular fiction; what did the masses know about quality anyway? Even literary fiction is no guarantee of respect. I have a tenured colleague who, three novels later, still struggles to be taken seriously in her department. How is it that academic writers never feel safe admitting that they write? Surely we are helping to create this problem by downplaying the hours of work we’ve poured into something–oh, it’s nothing, it’s only fiction. One answer is that so many people claim to be writers, and we don’t want to get caught up in that. But isn’t that a bit like deciding not to read what’s popular just because it is popular?

So. Where do we find the proud writers? They are the ones with no inhibitions. Sometimes their work may not even be all that fabulous–but they are proud of it. Proud that they put pen to paper. We should be like them. That voice that whispers in your ear (and has since your dissertation) with derision and scorn must be gagged. This is fiction. These are the wide and welcoming plains. Sprint. Cartwheel. Stop the mincing stride that carried you through the minefields and dash with child-like abandon. We won’t always be brilliant. Our novels–my novels–aren’t going to end world hunger, but hey, my monograph isn’t going to do that either. Take the plunge. Broadcast the admission: I am a writer.

Are you?

HIGH STAKES Book I of the Jacob Maresbeth Chronicles is out now. Book II, VILLAGERS releasing soon. See the Goodreads page or find them on Amazon.

Rogue Scholar Salon: alternative academics and independent thinkers

Wax_finaledge_rogueSThe Rogue Scholar:

(Or–why I write/research Gothic fiction and the history of medicine)

_________________________

I have a relatively useful bio or rap-sheet that I use when introducing myself. It’s short and to the point, and it says a bit about my choice to be an independent scholar and alternative academic:

A medical humanist alt-ac (alternative academic), Brandy Schillace spends her time in the mist-shrouded alleyways between the literary humanities and medical history. Taking a cue from Edward Gorey and John Bellairs, Dr. Schillace writes and illustrates teen Gothic with a medical twist. She is also the author of the Fiction Reboot and Literary Medicine’s Daily Dose blogs, bschillace.wordpress.com. The Reboot provides useful tips and information for writers, weekly fiction features and interviews with authors of fiction and poetry. The mission of the Dose is to honor, support, and share perspectives about medicine and humanities across cultures and disciplines. Dr. Schillace’s research and writing span these twin interests; in addition to multiple published articles, she is completing a research book titled A Subject Dark and Intricate about 18th century medicine and Gothic narrative. She is also working on two YA series, a mystery series, and a novel of rogue scholarship and nefarious goats. Dr. Schillace manages a journal, does consulting and free-lance work, and spends a lot of time in museums. She has taught Gothic literature, history of psychology, YA fiction and creative writing at Winona State University and Case Western Reserve University… and in Paris. Let’s not forget Paris.

It certainly gets the job done. But of course, it is only part of the story. We all have much more to tell, and I am inaugurating a new subsection of the blog called the Rogue Scholar Salon. These days, salon brings to mind hair-dryers, but I mean it in terms of the intellectual community of independent scholars popular in 18th century France and England. There was once a time when intelligence required no niche. In this series, I will be hosting my friends and colleagues (many of whom will be cross-listed with the Dose) who have stepped away from traditional academic careers or who have otherwise engaged the life of the mind without the usual trappings. Perhaps, in the progress of our intellectual development, the niche idea of scholarship is once more a dying beast. Inter-disciplinarity is the way of the future, even though individual scholars are making the change much quicker than the lumbering systems of which we are part. In general, these intrepid folk have stories to tell… stories about the way life, interests, aptitude and luck brought them to their chosen paths.

This is my story.

I grew up in abandoned coal lands where I lived underground, next to a graveyard. That’s usually a good place to begin—though it isn’t the beginning. Coming from a family of near-gypsies, the house on the hill (which features in my series The Witchwood at Nob’s End) is the closest thing to a childhood home I have. I lived there from the age of 10 to 18 with my father, mother, brother, sixteen dogs plus Frank (who was a dog, but only sort of), a field mouse named Herbie, and a large female blacksnake we called… blacksnake. I had a pet raccoon named Spazz, I climbed trees barefoot, and I heard voices in the nearby woods. Yes, really. It was a strange place to live—between the whispering woods, the dogs and the wildlife, our quietest neighbors were the dead folk in the cemetery up the road.  So, that would be a short answer to one of the usual questions: where did you get the idea for your Gothic fiction?

To answer the second, what drives your interest in the history of medicine and psychology? I must explain my continued fascination with what is—and what is not—considered “science.” For instance, to Victorians, animal magnetism, mesmerism, mediums, paramnesia, proamnesia and displaced memory were all more or less soundly scientific. Further into our history we find alchemists, and long before that, Greek philosophers experimenting with elements supposedly ruled by planets and by the gods. How much of what we believe today will be cast out in the future? And might not some of that past knowledge be resurrected? An oncologist friend of mine recently pointed out that humoural theory has begun to have a certain valence once again—“progress” is rarely linear, after all. Add to this my fascination with death and disease (I was reading the history of the Black Death when most of my classmates were thumbing through the Babysitter’s Club), and you have the perfect platform for exploration. And then there is that other ingredient: long experience with medicine and with the unexplained.

I mentioned before that we heard “voices” in the wood near my home. I don’t mean that in an airy-fairy sort of way. On separate occasions, each of my family members separately had the experience. No Druids. No singing. Just a kind of muffled calling of your own name. And there were odd sightings, too. My brother, when he was about eight, disturbed a strange black shape in the forest—the kind of black shape that should not be there, and that certainly should not have flaming red eyes. All of this can, of course, be dismissed as misjudging senses and coincidence, predisposition, environment, expectation and tricks of the light. I don’t deny it; I’ve an analytical mind as minds go—rather Sherlockish, even. But let’s use Sherlock as an example: “When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains–however improbable–must be the truth.” Arthur Conan Doyle was himself a believer in paranormal psychology and an avid attendee at séances (also believed in fairies). I’m not suggesting that monsters or demons lived in the wood; rather, I’m suggesting that whatever we saw was, to our eyes, monstrous. The first time mankind saw a lion, a shark, or a bear, it was not merely a carnivore of the mammal species with this or that designation. It was a monster of God. And, if you believe in a God as I do (or in many gods or spirits), it’s not difficult to supposed some things exist outside our ability to explain them. My point: scientific truth is somewhat relative to context and experience. This is why I enjoy my work as managing editor of Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry (a medical anthropology journal). Seeing the relevance of other cultures’ beliefs and practices is valuable to remembering that the truth we cling to is largely a product of our cultural underpinnings. Does coining work? Ask the Cambodians before you say no. It’s working for them. What works for you?

I mentioned that the house on the hilltop wasn’t the beginning. My earliest recollections are of my time in Arizona. I was only eight months old, but I could walk and talk, and talking makes memory cognition and recall much easier. I was in love with a horse—my first complete memory is of his great black muzzle, hovering before me, along with two front hooves. Love for animals never went away (see previous list of odd creatures in my house). Love of other humans was a bit longer in coming… I once bit another child through the fence in our back yard. That’ll teach you.

Actually, I do have the unusual honor of having been kicked out of preschool–though it wasn’t for biting. I decided it was not the place for me, and after sorting the front door lock, I escaped and ran through the parking lot to the freeway. Given the liability of housing a pint-sized Houdini, they were quite emphatic that I not return (which was my principle design). Despite this (or perhaps because of it) I do have one quite vivid memory of the place, however; I experienced my first aura on the playground. I realize that most people associate auras with hazy halos of light, but actually there are several of these phenomena. I catalog them in my paper on epilepsy: (a) auras with motor signs, (b) auras with sensory symptoms, (c) auras with “psychic” symptoms and (d) auras with “autonomic” symptoms.[i] Other theorists, like Weinand, Labiner and Ahern, reclassify the symptoms in two categories: (a) experiential, emotional, dysphoric and (b) sensory illusion/hallucination.[ii]  I had b and c, which involved déjà vu, and a feeling I like to call “who moved the sofa.” I have been variously diagnosed, most recently with temporal migraine affective disorder, but essentially, the experience creates odd and off-putting visual disturbance and a loop of memory. That bizarre experience naturally frustrated me as a three-year old; I could not articulate what was happening. The feeling of precognition got me in trouble at school years later, when I insisted that the new janitor had arrived weeks before. I fought with the teacher, I was so certain. And its hard to explain that sort of “sent to the office” to your parents. I still have an unusual way of processing things, but have learned to handle it without medication (acupuncture for the migraines, an open mind and a sense of humor for the rest). To recap—I have a near-photographic memory that extends into my infancy, but also a psychic disorder that affects memory, almost creating the experience of displaced memory or paramnesia that interested the Victorians.

Seeing a pattern?

Seeing a pattern?

(Déjà vu joke; couldn’t help it). In my fiction, but also in my research and my teaching, I have attempted to explore (rather than shore up) these gaps in our understanding of the mind–but also of the supernatural, and of the disruptions caused by dissolving identity boundaries. My monograph deals specifically with this, as does the previously mentioned article, “’Temporary Failure of Mind’: Déjà vu, Epilepsy and The Mysteries of Udolpho.” Eighteenth Century Studies, [ECS 42.2, pp 273-287] (Winter 2009). My condition is still a mystery and still debated by neurologists (apparently, my case history is the stuff of at least one MD’s book, though my name is not mentioned). It just proves how little we still know about the brain and its discontents–and why I feel that literature is such an excellent lens through which to view it.

These are the things that move me, and I am fortunate in my friends and colleagues who work in a fascinating array of disciplines (history of medicine, history of science, literature, library archives, art, media and even mortuary work). We are rogue scholars, branching out beyond the discipline specific and into the wide and welcoming plains of inter-disciplinarity. Fiction and literature, science and history, anthropology and religion: the world is more interesting at the intersection.

Join us.


[i] Weinand, Martin E. M. D., David M. Labiner M.D., and Geoffrey L. Ahern M.D. Ph. D. “Integration of Perceptual and Mnemonic Dysfunction: Sensory Auras are Associated with Left Hemispheric Memory Impairment.” Epilepsy and Behavior. 2 (2001) 423-432,

[ii] Weinand et al., 424.