~from English Department Communications Intern Kara Nosal
When my classmate Davis Webster mentioned that he had switched his major from Mechanical Engineering to English, I immediately thought to myself, “Why?” Then, instead of thinking to myself, I decided to interview him to get the full story. Here are Davis’ responses. He’s convinced me that the difference between an integral and a poem isn’t as drastic as I had originally thought.
What is your major and concentration? What year are you at CSU?
I am majoring in English with a concentration in creative writing and with a minor in math. This is my fourth year in college and my third year at CSU, but I’m not graduating so I guess I’d say I’m an approximate senior.
What was your previous major?
Up until last semester I was double majoring in mechanical engineering and English. (I also had a brief stint as an engineering science major at UC San Diego, but it’s best to pretend that just didn’t happen.)
What inspired this shift?
I had spent seven semesters studying engineering and five semesters studying English when I finally made the switch and I had spent most of that time thinking about switching, so there is a really long list of things that precipitated it. But, the moment I finally made up my mind I was prompted by EJ Levy’s nonfiction class. We were discussing Eula Bliss’s “The Pain Scale,” which is this beautiful essay about her experiences with chronic pain and the arbitrary nature of the ways we try to quantify things. I remember sitting there in class and not saying anything because I was so angry. Though, my not talking in class isn’t exactly unusual; I’m an unfortunately quiet person. But, I had a lot of things I wanted to say that day that I couldn’t because I knew it would just come out as a long string of profanity. It just felt like she was pointing out everything about engineering that had frustrated me for so long. I could spend two hours grinding out a really gnarly integral to solve an engineering problem, but at the end of the day it was just an approximation of a model invented to simulate the real world, but only in theory. Reading that essay gave me a way to explain how dumb and pretentious numbers are, and I figured it was probably in everyone’s best interest if there wasn’t an engineer out there who hated the concept of numbers.
I walked home from school that day and when I was about halfway home, I just decided I was done with engineering. I literally stopped walking, took out my earbuds, and said “I quit” out loud. I’d wanted to be an engineer since sixth grade. I had a whole plan about how I was going to get my degree, get a job at Imagineering then transition that into starting a company that built special effects for amusement parks and haunted houses. But as soon as soon as I said it, I felt like I could breathe for the first time in years.
So I guess the answer to your question is that it’s all Eula Bliss’s fault. If anyone has her contact information, please pass it along so my parents can call her and ask what I’m going to do when I graduate.
Since you’ve seen both sides, what is one idiosyncrasy of “The English Major?” What is one idiosyncrasy of “The Engineer?” (Any interesting commonalities between the two groups?)
The English Major has convinced herself that her major doesn’t matter as much as it does. The Engineering Student (you have to have five years of field experience and pass the Principles of Engineering exam before you can call yourself an engineer in Colorado) has convinced herself that it matters much more than it does. That’s the most idiosyncratic thing about them.
I actually think engineering students and English students are actually extremely similar. At least, the successful ones are. Engineering (and really, all science fields) and English are just constructs we’ve created to help us better understand and improve upon the world around us. Whether you do that with a poem or turbine or a lesson plan or a water reclamation system is entirely arbitrary. To be successful in either field you have to be passionate about it (either despite the lack of or in spite of the job opportunities it affords you) and you have to be creative. You can’t be an engineer if you can’t be creative.
I know I just said some mean things about integrals, but really do love them and I think there’s absolutely no difference between an integral and a poem. I get the exact same feeling from reading through a mathematical proof that I do from reading William Carlos Williams. That might just be me being weird, but I’ve had almost identical conversations in study groups for my engineering classes and in writing groups. The way engineering students talk about the viscosity of fluids and the way English majors talk about their favorite works are eerily similar. I’m pretty sure engineering students and English students are just different sides of the same coin.
Also, they’re both hard-drinking crowds. I think we could really all be good friends.
What is the most electrifying thing you have read this semester so far, assigned for class or otherwise?
I’ve read the chapbook a hungry feelin’ by Good Ghost Bill (aka Bill Moran) about a hundred times this semester. He’s a poet I found randomly on YouTube one night over winter break and I just can’t get enough of his work. Every time I listen to or read one of his poems, I feel like I have to sit completely still for a few minutes and figure out how my body fits now because Bill has just stretched my soul beyond the limits of my skin. I feel like my body physically takes up more space than it did before. Go look for Paw by Bill Moran on YouTube; it’s on the Button Poetry channel. I promise your heart will never beat the same way again. And if it does, don’t talk to me. I don’t want to be friends with you anymore.
Also, I have to give a shout out to Pimp by Iceberg Slim. It’s a semi-autobiographical novel about pimping during the Great Depression through the post-WWII era and is easily the most terrifying thing I have ever read. I read it over break, so I don’t know if it counts, but I still can’t stop thinking about it. It was written over fifty years ago about events that occurred seventy years ago and still reflects so many of the current problems plaguing our country. I think it should be required reading for every American citizen, especially if you’ve turned on the news in the past year and wondered how the hell we got here.
How do you prepare your mind to write/how do you find your muse/what rituals do you perform before you put pen to paper?
I really don’t have any rituals or anything. I sort of hate the idea that you have to be inspired to write or have a muse or something. I think it just perpetuates the idea of the tortured artist that has resulted in a lot of really terrible writing. I just write. I make sure I write every single day and I’m constantly writing in my head. When I’m working on something, I’m constantly revising it in my head and when I’m in between projects, I’m constantly trying out new ideas in my head. When one of them sticks, I write it out whenever and wherever I am. Sometimes it’s half a sentence; sometimes it’s twenty pages. Sometimes it’s good; most of the time it’s terrible. I’ve even gotten back homework assignments that had scenes written on the back of them. Some of the best workshop comments I’ve ever gotten have come from TAs in the engineering department.
I understand you have a unique tattoo honoring David Foster Wallace (DFW). First of all, if you would be so kind, please describe the tattoo to our readers. Secondly, how has his writing informed your own? Do you have any other literary idols?
It’s actually a two-part tattoo. On my collarbone, I have an ellipsis followed by a superscripted 17. Then on my foot I have a tattoo that reads “17. w/r/t DFW” When people see the tattoo on my collarbone, they say they don’t get it and then I say that it’s an ellipsis with a footnote and they’ve got to find the footnote that explains it, and when they realize the footnote is actually on my foot we all laugh and have a wonderful time. (The 17 doesn’t signify anything. I just think it’s a pretty number.)
I don’t think his writing has informed my own in terms of style (or at least, I hope it hasn’t) because only DFW can write like DFW and it’s really obvious when someone’s attempting and failing (as they inevitably will) to imitate him. What I really love about his writing is that you can tell he has so much fun with it. I was discussing Infinite Jest with a friend recently and she said when she read it, she couldn’t get over how pretentious it was. I don’t disagree with her. There’s no way to write an 1100 page novel with 300 pages of endnotes and not be pretentious, but you can also tell he’s just having so much damn fun while he’s doing it. He wrote an essay called “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley” and it’s all about tennis and math and tornadoes. And I can’t stand tennis and I have a phobia of tornadoes (which sounds a lot more rational than it actually is) and even though I love math, I can barely understand the math in the essay. But I know he loved math even more than I do and tennis was the one of the most important things in his life and when I read it I can tell he loved writing it. Yeah, it’s pretentious, but it’s also really beautiful. So that’s really what I take away from him. Just have fun. Write for yourself.
I honestly don’t really have any literary idols. I don’t think I’d even put DFW in the idol category. He’s not even my favorite novelist. There are a lot of writers I love, but I grew up on music, not literature, so my idols are all songwriters. I used to want to be a folksinger, but I quickly realized that I can’t sing, play guitar, or write music, so I sort of had to give up on that dream. People like Tracy Chapman, James McMurtry, Danny Brown, Jeff Rosenstock, Danielle Anderson, Todd Snider, Marilyn Manson, Serena Ryder and Jason Isbell are who I really take my inspiration from. I’m pretty sure that the song “Elephant” by Jason Isbell is the greatest short story ever written. If I can just successfully plagiarize that song, I will die happy.
Oh and Maurice Sendak. Maurice Sendak is my one literary idol.
What is one of your deepest, darkest secrets that you would like to share with our readers?
My torso is super weird. Like, it’s dumb as hell.