What I Learned from my Weird Dual Degree

Dichotomies are dubious, but so is alliteration

Timothy Chia
May 13 · 7 min read
Africa Studio/Shutterstock.com

“So, your degree is in Computer Engineering and…Creative Writing?” — every recruiter / university-admin / random-person-making-small-talk

I have two very different degrees. I acquired them simultaneously, not entirely intentionally, and I don’t always tell people this fact. More often, I fib by omission and simply choose one. Or the other. Getting to decide whether I’m stereotyped as an Artist or as an Engineer is kind of fun sometimes, but that’s not the reason I fib.

The truth just trips people up too much.

After all, people ask what you studied as a way of getting a conversation going. Thanks to the current ubiquity of a college education (in some countries), asking about your degree has become a modern version of “So how’s the weather over there?” Not too intrusive, but enough to show polite interest. Better, it moves the conversation onto a familiar foundation. Everyone knows how to talk about the weather. It’s sunny or rainy, hot or cold. You like it or you don’t. If one drew a flowchart of a Weather-Chat, the branches would be very limited. This is good; by the end of a properly executed Weather-Chat, both parties will have gained enough information to categorize the other as either an outdoor-person, an indoor-person, or a wannabe-Brit.

Categories are good, because talking to people is hard. Talking to a category is much easier, and I don’t say that in an entirely cynical way. For example — returning to the main topic of degrees — it’s a genuinely functional starting point to know what someone studied.

“Oh, you went to med school? Wow, that’s so cool. Say, do you think life has meaning if everyone eventually dies?”

The problem with telling people I studied both Computer Engineering and Creative Writing, is that it totally throws off the dynamic of a Degree-Chat. People get surprised, then confused, then curious. They look at me like I’m some kind of mutant.

Actually, it’s kind of fun, and not at all rude. On the contrary, it’s a sort of fascination mixed with awe. It feels nice, though a little uncomfortable as well. A degree is expensive. A substantial stack of privilege came together to help me get two, so it tends to feel like I’m being given too much credit. Well, I guess that’s how it is for any achievement. So that’s not a real issue. Furthermore, telling the full truth tends to force the conversation past the surface level. In that sense, the truth really does serve the Degree-Chat. It trips people out of the categorization loop and helps them get to know me.

Well, sort of.

It’s hard to stop thinking in categories, and admitting my dual degree moves the spotlight onto a dubious dichotomy.

Programmers vs. Writers

Scientists vs. Artists

Creative vs. Technical

Left Brain vs. Right Brain

“Wow. I could never write a book.” vs. “Wow. I could never program.”

It’s frankly odd how often people react by boxing themselves in. Engineers tell me they’re not creative. Creators (and P.R. and Communications people) tell me they can’t do technical work. They plant little flags on either side of the Great Divide, without pausing to question if the divide is real.

I do see the distinctions people draw between ‘Analytical Thinking’ and ‘Creative Thinking’. Those are useful words and definitions. I do believe people can be better at one than the other. It’s even true that students display more of the ‘Thinking’ associated with their major. Just a month of bouncing between the English department and the Engineering department was enough to convince me how different were the students, curriculum, professors, thinking, attitudes etc. It’s undeniable that the criteria for a good short story are fuzzier than the solution to a system of linear equations. I understand why people box themselves into one side, or at least emphasize that part of themselves.

I also think it’s self-fulfilling and kind of counterproductive.

“So, I’ve been wondering. How do you change when you write Fiction, compared to when you Engineer?” — A friend, over a year ago, to whom I owe an answer.

I don’t. When I write stories, I use my brain. When I write programs, I use my brain.

I only have one, after all.

I can’t argue with trying to distinguish Analytical-Thinking from Creative-Thinking, but is it really true that Engineers are Analytical, Writers are Creative? I did witness it in my classmates. Yet perhaps my fellow writers had just accepted long ago that writing is Creative, and that they need to put their creative faces on before class. Maybe my professors created curricula and assignments in a way which prioritizes the use of creative thinking.

At this point, you’ve probably thought of some counterexamples. It’s obvious, you might say, that real projects require both. Interdisciplinary work remains hot off the buzzword presses. Engineering a real system requires creativity; there are many approaches and no answer keys. Writing publishable work requires technical skill and analytical revision. Universities aren’t blind, and professors do train their students in the skill sets needed to accomplish real tasks.

Yet the dichotomy is so deeply ingrained in us that such counterexamples exist as exceptions, or maybe bonuses. It’s like Analytical-Thinking is the heart of Engineering, and Creative-Thinking is a cherry on top. I was considered a weirdo for constantly using both, intertwining them into my work process, training them in their respective departments only to export them to the other. This wasn’t, in particular, some clever counter-cultural project I undertook. I just grabbed whatever tools I had available.

And it worked. Extremely well. I took a novel writing class (which was itself an excellent class that would serve as a great counterexample) and was the only person to finish my novel. When people find out I wrote a book, they seem to take it as a marker of overflowing creative talent that just spilled out in the shape of a book. Frankly, the completion itself had more to do with my Engineering training.

Everything about my writing process is shaped by my engineering background. A lot of novelists prefer to jump around in timelines, writing wherever inspiration takes them. I wrote exclusively in order. First, I wrote a skeletal outline of the entire book. Then, I would write the chapters in order.

Honestly, I didn’t have much of a choice. I found it actually impossible to write chapter three without having written chapter two. If I tried, I would just end up staring at a blank screen with a blank mind.

“But what about the magic of writing something you didn’t expect?”

I surprised myself all the time when writing. One girl said something unexpected. A boy sounded oddly jealous. They questioned plot twists I thought logical. Characters are surprisingly rebellious, especially when you don’t quite know them yet. At one point, every time I finished a chapter, I found myself having to write a log of what came out differently than I had planned. The outline would have to be revised to match, its version number updated.

There really is something magical and alive about a novel draft. It’s such a long format. No matter how many outlines and drafts are typed, most of it lives in your head, wandering from Left Brain to Right Brain and generally doing whatever it likes. Writing a novel is deeply creative, deeply technical, exhaustingly compassionate, and impossible to put in a box.

Some writers think structure stifles their creativity. Personally, I found Analytical-Thinking and Creative-Thinking to be deeply symbiotic. After a while, it became incredibly fuzzy which one was contributing more to the writing. The same sort of thing happened in my engineering projects. After a bit more of a while, it all just became Thinking. Which, I’m pretty sure, it always was.

Of course, I’m not the first person to take advantage of both sides of the dichotomy. There’s loads of resources available on the technical aspects of fiction. More, most likely, than the resources available on being a creative engineer. But I’m certainly not pioneering that concept either.

I am, however, hoping to help us break our mental boxes a bit. Everyone is creative. Everyone is technical. It doesn’t matter what type of work you do, there are creative and technical aspects to it for sure. Most of all, there are no guarantees that either is dominant or more essential.

Also, these things definitely can be learned. I’ve no idea to what extent — but it’s not like any of us know how far we can take anything. Some of us have probably spent our entire lives being told we’re not that creative or not that logical. Ignore that. Forget that. Just work the way you work.

Though I suppose we would all do that regardless. It’s not like any of us can turn half a brain off. I just want people to be a bit more confident about all the bits of their brains.

With that all off my chest, there’s a lot I’d like to write about Engineering as a toolbox for Writing. I guess that’s a bit ironic since I just wrote an entire essay about them being the same thing…but to be honest, the different viewpoints can be kind of useful if you don’t let them depress you or limit you. They let you study things more efficiently, hold them apart from other stuff so you can figure out how to fit it all together. For example, I probably would have learned how to analyze my own revision process eventually, but it was easier to learn this by writing patch notes for a program. Or how writing readable code in multiple languages helped me understand how to think about grammar — which, as a theory, is something I kind of looked down on before, because nobody had ever told me the true purpose of grammar.

Also, I just missed writing non-fiction. If I get any other ideas, maybe I’ll write those too. For now, I hope you’ll look forward to some articles about what makes stories tick and the engineering humming beneath their words.

Applied Fiction

Creatively Technically Creative

Timothy Chia

Written by

Novelist. Programmer. Global foreigner. Currently studying Artificial Intelligence and revising a Middle-Grade Fantasy Novel. www.timothychia.com

Applied Fiction

Creatively Technically Creative

Timothy Chia

Written by

Novelist. Programmer. Global foreigner. Currently studying Artificial Intelligence and revising a Middle-Grade Fantasy Novel. www.timothychia.com

Applied Fiction

Creatively Technically Creative

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