Remind me that I'm cotton wool
Writing for The New Yorker, Parul Sehgal warns us about stories: how they seduce and betray us by papering over complexity, how their power has found them claimed and coopted by the brand management industry and the attention economy.
I’m reminded of countless sessions with research advisors helping me prepare my papers and talks. “You need to get your story straight,” they tell me sometimes, or else “Is that point really central to the story you’re telling?” I see what they mean, and I do care a lot about clear and accessible scientific communication. But sometimes I worry that we see our talks more as start-up pitch decks than as contributions to the scientific record. When the desire for attention competes with the delicate nuances of truth, I suspect attention dominates. And I think this is exacerbated by shortening talk slots at conferences (sometimes as low as a couple of minutes!), and the Twitter-thread mode of research discourse marked by splashy graphics, emojis, and sentence summaries. Science is messy, muggy business; I am suspicious of stories too easily told.
But what only concerns me about presenting my research, devastates me about presenting my self. I’m advised also to make my CV tell a story, the story of my professional life, and almost by extension the story of my research vision. A CV demands clean pin-prick clarity — with a message that is prominent, enduring, and unsoiled by what Sehgal refers to as the “unstoried self,” or what Virginia Woolf calls the “cotton wool” and “non-being” of life.
What if I instead want to ground my identity in exactly that interstitial “uncombed experience”? Graduate school is for me punctuated equilibrium: dense forest-months of restless, unstructured thought, followed by sparse desert-days of intensely goal-directed action. If I were choosing a colleague, advisee, or employee, I would wish to know more about how they orient around the dense than the sparse—and yet, on paper, we ask each other to reduce ourselves to the sharp, narrative-compatible fragments of our lives.
I sit back in my bed and breathe in and out deep. Anxiety-calm-anxiety, a mockery of the narrative arc. And why not? Living is not storytelling; my choices are not made for a biographer’s convenience. It’s okay, I think, to be unstoried: uncombed, unplottable, a bundle-bouquet of contradictions.