Venus on Mars

Explorer to Expert – a Good Move?

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on October 18, 2011

She's so hot she emits sun flares!

In Jeff Herman‘s oft-touted and comprehensive guidebook for writers, he laments, “I transitioned from being an explorer into being an expert.”

Yes, I said he laments. You might think being an expert in one’s field is the end-all, be-all, have-it-all situation. You’re arrived, people admire your accomplishments, you get invited to speak or consult and you might even make money doing all this. Meanwhile your resume expands to outlandish proportions.

Being an expert is a fairly modern phenomenon. Past civilizations lived more generic lives out of necessity, growing their food, educating their children, building, maintaining and defending their homes. Now we shop for heirloom tomatoes, send our kids off to preschool, call a plumber when the faucet leaks, speed-dial 911 when danger arises. If there weren’t experts, we couldn’t do any of this.

We are encouraged from an early age to specialize, the first step on our way to becoming experts – we  join the math club, take tap-dancing lessons, go out for a sports team, declare a major, pursue a profession.

I didn’t do any of those things – in college, my major chose me, and my professional goals seemed indistinct and forever pliable. I explored the arts; mostly cool things seemed to happen to me and I rarely questioned my good fortune. A teaching job, for me? A grant, how nice! An award, a sabbatical – why, thank you! Before I knew it I’d become an expert – a professor of cinema with a Ph.D. and a load of accomplishments.

I’m thinking about all this after completing my new web site, which collects, organizes, maybe even boasts about what all I’ve done, and adds a few new bells and whistles to boot. At the conclusion of this arduous task I was so pleased with myself that I almost glowed like the old-fashioned bathing beauty on my home page, the one I scanned from a vintage postcard, the one whose head emits sun flares I created with Photoshop – expertly, I might add. Even if I never accomplish another thing, I thought smugly to myself, I’ve already done so much, and have done it all so well.

This is where the lamenting part comes in. Why lament over one’s laudable successes? Let’s ask Jeff Herman.

“Experts stand still and cultivate their crops,” Herman writes. “Explorers keep moving, looking, touching, consuming and discovering.”

An expert’s professional life, Herman explains, generates a momentum that has a way of self-perpetuating itself – doing one’s job, perhaps with mounting responsibilities, making decisions, meeting deadlines, responding to professional requests, and yes, polishing one’s image, perhaps with a fancy new web site.

Explorers’ lives are messier. Without a plan, without sometimes even a clue, they are able to navigate beyond the day-to-day obligations most of us take for granted. Perhaps, as non-experts, less is expected of them, providing them with more flex-time to decide what to do next, or to accept the bounty of whatever opportunity presents itself. (I’m not talking hippie-fied free-spirit here, but more a balanced approach in which one keeps the explorer self forever alert and responsive.)

My characters Lulu and Dr. P illustrate the difference between expert and explorer. He’s an astronomer committed to his work, first documenting those canals on Mars, later in life conducting the elusive search for “Planet X,” while she, the non-expert, pursues her ideas in a decidedly unconventional way:

“I begin each morning without a coherent theory, but always with a vague and fragmented idea that seems to have crept into my head as I’ve slept. By the end of the day, I try to either coalesce my notion, or else dismiss it and wait for another to announce itself. I realize, of course, this is not scientific protocol, but I am a secretary, not a scientist, and it is the method that works best for me.”

If I have taught myself anything while writing this novel and the previous one, it is the need to free myself up enough to explore, along with my characters, whatever lies ahead. Laika the space dog does this literally, going where no dog or human has gone before, while Lulu achieves some sort of cosmic self-awareness that seems to serve her well:

“As I lift my skirt and step cautiously across the rock-strewn desert, I am inventing my future: views never seen in a territory not yet charted, an ever-expanding route through a complex universe that future beings will calculate all the way to infinity.”

In his transition from explorer to expert, Jeff Herman says, “the more visceral messages from my heart and gut lost their traditional primacy in the constitution of my life.” His conclusion that our society needs both does not diminish the need for individuals to think carefully – and often – about which defines best their life and work, and if something seems out of whack, to keep in mind that transitions can come at any time.

I may have become an expert, but now, thankfully, I find myself transitioning from expert back to explorer.

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