How to Synthesize a Chemoir

Forty-two years ago, as a fifth-grade student at Meeker Elementary School, I discovered the mystery and power of mixing two different substances. Following Mrs. Mathre’s instructions, I stuck a measuring spoon into a small cardboard box.The front of the gold-colored box featured a big red circle and a curious drawing—a muscular arm holding a hammer. Carefully scooping out a heaping portion of a white powder, I dumped the powder into a clear plastic glass. Then, I picked up a Dixie cup that my teacher had given me, a cup half-full of a stinky, colorless liquid. The smell reminded me of my kitchen and of pickles.

As I poured the liquid onto the powder, I experienced magic.

Today, I’m still mixing different materials, and I’m still amazed at what can erupt from this simple process. My materials these days are just as dissimilar as the baking soda and vinegar of my youth. Now, however, I like to mix experiences and ideas from two different worlds—chemistry and parenting.

I am a creative nonfiction writer, Ph.D. chemist, and single father of four sons. My training as a chemist and my parenting responsibilities provide me with a living laboratory that’s full of ideas, metaphors, materials, conflicts, chaos, and order. As I write, I explore how concepts and activities from the world of chemistry and science have provided me with new perspectives on parenting and on living a deeply-felt, authentic life. I believe this practice of finding connections and meaning in the “stuff” of our daily lives is a process that’s available to all of us, and through my writing I invite others to do the same in their own lives.

I have been a professional freelance writer for the past fifteen years, pursuing two streams of writing. One stream deals with science and technology, the other with parenting and fatherhood. At first blush, my twin writing interests might seem incompatible, as different as oil and water. In recent years, however, I have started to deliberately mix these two disparate interests. I have been exploring a new writing format that I call the “chemoir.”

A “chemoir” is an essay that uses metaphors, concepts, and images from chemistry to bring new meaning to experiences in everyday life. Many chemical images and metaphors are already being used in everyday language (e.g., “to distill the essence of a story,” “to be a catalyst for change,” and “litmus test”). In many cases, however, the originally rich metaphors have become empty, because most people haven’t experienced the actual physical phenomena that underlie these metaphors. And in some cases, our scientific understanding has changed so significantly that the image is now outdated and obsolete. We’ve lost the ability to experience the world as the alchemists did—to understand that transformations in the physical world can mirror similar transformations in our emotional, intellectual, and spiritual world.

While writing chemoirs, I try to breathe new life into old chemical metaphors and introduce new metaphors from the world of modern science. Metaphors engage all our senses, so these essays deal not only with ideas, but also with sights, sounds, textures, tastes, and smells. And they reach outside the familiar scientific territory of intellect and reason to bring in the emotions, dreams, and fears that are essential elements of the human experiences. By bridging the gap between the worlds of science and everyday life, chemoirs encourage readers to travel back and forth between these two worlds, bringing new meaning and insight from one realm to the other.

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Published in: on December 23, 2008 at 9:55 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I admit, I felt a certain thrill when using baking soda & vinegar in an attempt to unclog a shower drain earlier this year. Fwoom! An exciting moment in household chores.

    Many chemical images and metaphors are already being used in everyday language

    You know, I hadn’t ever really thought about it that way, but you’re right. Most of the time, we rarely consider what metaphors are really referring to.

  2. Last month, my teenage son and his friends decided to clean his very messy bedroom. Fueled by energy drinks, they were ambitious enough to tackle the dirty rug–a major challenge. When the spray can of foaming carpet cleaner ran out, they reached for baking soda and vinegar. I don’t know how well it worked, but I admired their application of basic chemical principles. However, that gallon container of white vinegar is now completely empty…


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