In his book The Structure of Scientific Revolution, Thomas Kuhn introduced the notion of paradigms and demonstrated in a variety of ways how the scientific community adopts not just a set of theories that are current for the day, but a broader sort of world view that has the ability to essentially make invisible information that challenges that world view. The contradictory information is “invisible” because it is discarded as anomalous or faulty and therefore not even considered. One example of the power of paradigms is found in the story of Tycho Brahe, a sixteenth century astronomer, who dedicated his life to collecting data on the movement of the planets so that he might understand and accurately describe that movement. He couldn’t make his data “work,” however, because he was caught by the notion that planets were heavenly bodies and therefore must move in a circular pattern as that was considered a perfect geometric shape. His assistant, Johannes Kepler, who inherited Brahe’s data after Brahe’s death, was not trapped in the paradigm of heavenly bodies and perfect shapes and so he recognized in the data that planetary movement around the sun was elliptical. This might seem a small shift to us but it was profound in its impact on astronomy as a whole, and accomplished what Kuhn dubbed a “paradigm shift.” Kuhn’s book and subsequent articles written on this topic are filled with examples of a kind of not seeing as a result of current paradigms that got in the way. It frequently took an innovative and unusual mind, sometimes a mind cross-trained in other disciplines, to help people see what was in fact already in front of them, and in front of us all.
This notion leaves me worried. What are the things I am staring at and yet not seeing because my world view prevents me from doing so? In particular, how do I prevent internal unconscious paradigms from establishing the limits of who I am and what I do as a writer?
In response to this fear I try to surround myself, at least surround my mind, with examples of women who, by their very existence, help me push beyond myself. Sometimes I see myself in them, but more likely what I’m looking for in their stories or writing is an acknowledgment of possibility—a reaching beyond the limitations that I set for myself, that perhaps culture sets for me, my family sets for me, media sets for me. The limitations may come from outside but in the end, I am the one who accepts those parameters, and thus I feel the need to fill my mind with examples of women who so obviously said hell no, these limits do not apply to me.
And so I think of women like Beryl Markham whose memoir, West With the Night, details her experience as the first person to complete a solo flight across the Atlantic from East to West. I think of Gertrude Ederle who was the first woman to swim across the English Channel and the first person to cross using the freestyle stroke. She shattered the previous fastest time by two hours. I also think about women like Wilma Rudolph who was working against both social constraint as a black athlete in the 1950′s and 60′s and physical constraint having had polio with accompanying paralysis as a child. Rudolph wore a leg brace until she was 12, by 16 had made the US Olympic track team, and at 20 won three gold medals at the Summer Olympics in Rome (1960).
For me, the lives of these women don’t merely offer examples of bravery and skill, they offer examples of striving for goals that would have seemed unreasonable, even ridiculous, at the time. These women did not allow accepted norms to determine their personal limits. Just knowing their histories and the context in which they lived helps me expand my self-concept.
But I need more.
I think of people writing today, such as Dorothea Lasky who, with the biting strength of her language and the exuberance of her public persona, demands respect for the uniqueness of who she is. We are currently surrounded by writers who are gifted in language and are uncompromising in the art they are producing. So I read work by Annie Dillard, Amelia Gray, Metta Sáma, Roxane Gay, Claudia Rankine, Tanya Olson, Carolyn Forche and others. And I read from writers who have passed but whose words surround us still and from whom we can draw strength—strength enough to find a kind of personal freedom beyond conscious and unconscious self-imposed limitations. Writers such as Lucille Clifton, Anne Sexton, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Kate Chopin, Lillian Hellman, Zora Neale Hurston, and Flannery O’Connor.
I feel the need to keep company with these minds, these hearts. I hope that doing so will give me the confidence and courage to cut my own way and to see what must be seen that might be contrary to what feels like expectations, limitations, or even truths. Exposing myself to the histories of women like Wilma Rudolph, the poetry of Claudia Rankine, and the prose of Virginia Woolf helps support my writing. It helps me make space for my writing in my daily life—in terms of actually scheduling time (something I am constantly working on improving)—and helps make space for the content that I must explore. As I a writer I need to give myself permission to move through topics that may reveal material contrary to cultural expectations, cultural norms, personal ideals, even personal standards. Externally and internally developed parameters and unconsciously accepted paradigms must be stripped away in order for my writing to emerge in the way that it needs to emerge. Thank you Lasky and Hurston, Rudolph and Markham, Hellman and Dillard, for helping me attempt to do so.
K.M.A Sullivan‘s poetry has been published or is forthcoming in Forklift, Ohio, Anti-, Gertrude, Cream City Review, Gargoyle, H_NGM_N, diode, and elsewhere. She has been awarded residencies at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in creative non-fiction and from Vermont Studio Center in poetry. She is the editor of Vinyl Poetry and the owner/publisher of YesYes Books.