Polymathy Confuses People Just As Much As, If Not More Than, Polyamory

Leonardo da Vinci's self-portrait
Image by MAMJODH / CC BY

I’ve Been Poly My Whole Life — Polymathic

I’m different than a lot of other polyamorous educators because I haven’t been polyamorous my whole life. In fact, polyamory wasn’t even something I seriously considered until I was in my late 20s. Before then, I hadn’t even heard of the word. And I couldn’t fathom how non-monogamous relationships could be conducted in a way that was respectful and mutually beneficial for everyone involved. I thought monogamy was the only game in town — or at the very least, the only game worth playing.

But what I have been my whole life is polymathic.

What’s a polymath, you ask? A polymath is “a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas—such a person is known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.” A learn-ed generalist. Sometimes commonly known in more gendered language as a “Renaissance man.”

A Love Triangle with Music and Writing

I had a hard time figuring out what to do when I grew up for a very simple reason: I was good at multiple things. The two frontrunners were music and writing. I was playing with adults in bars at 11. Supported myself in junior high and high school with gig money. Traveled across the country in award-winning bands. I used to play parties at Maine coastal mansions with a guy who played in Earth, Wind, and Fire. I studied under Yusef Lateef.

I loved music, to be sure, but I also loved to write. I started winning essay contests at seven. In sixth grade, there was an actual investigation into whether my first place entry “What the American Flag Means to Me” (hey, I won a stereo and a large savings bond, don’t laugh) was actually written by me or by an adult in my life, after the parents of other entrants complained that there was “no way that a kid could have written that.”

Thankfully, my English teacher at the time, Mr. Maxim, testified on my behalf that he had personally witnessed me writing it on the class computer. The savings bond and boom box remained in my possession.

As I hit puberty, my writing interests turned more salacious.  I was a model student as a child until then.The first time my parents were ever called into school for a discipline issue was because of something I wrote:

My parents first know there is something wrong with me when my mom is called in for a teacher’s conference. I am 12 and know I will surely be killed. Mrs. H has confiscated my greatest achievement of my life so far, a real work of literary ingenuity, “Beneath the Rocks of Castaway Cove,” a dramatic piece that is a bizarre mixture of murder mystery, erotica, and sci fi carefully scribed into 2 full manuscript notebooks and distributed among the entire sixth grade population and most of seventh as a wildly successful single-copy 2-volume edition.

I have become popular as a result and then unfortunately subsequently vulnerable to the administration.

My mom recoils at the terrible news: I’m subversive and dishonest, but worst of all — I’m curious about sex.

They decide that writing is a potentially unhealthy outlet for me and forbid me from writing about awful, offensive, or obscene subjects. I nod and go about my business.

Later my deception is discovered when my mother comes upon a cache of poems I had written questioning the existence of God. When confronting me, she calls me “devil spawn” and grounds me for 2 weeks.

This is the point I start writing in cipher. My mom, seeing my room festooned with sheets of numbers, is pleased that I’ve taken a renewed interest in my math homework.

The Smut Peddler

The secret love affair continued. After tensions at home reached their boiling point a few months later and I was sent to live with my older sister, my grandmother, and other friends, I took things to another level. I bought a copy of the Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market and started to submit my erotica to literary zines. They were small publications with circulations of 150, 200, at most — and likely most of those issues were unsold or sent to other contributors as payment. But I learned about cover letters, and after a few rejections, I actually started to get things accepted. By the time I turned 13, I had a few smut stories under my belt published under what I thought was a sophisticated-sounding pen name.

It was far less lucrative than winning essay contests (which I continued to do whenever I saw them at school). But it gave me quite a thrill sneaking around this way and knowing that somewhere out there people were reading my work. And it gave me cool bragging rights to my school friends.

Was I a great writer? Hell no. But as I look back on those stories, I can see why no one picked up on the fact that the author was 13. They were fairly solid. Cliched, sure. But not awful.

In fact, in 2015, I was going through some old stuff and getting rid of things when I found a story fragment I’d written at 12 (something that I’d been planning to turn into an erotica but had instead discarded, lured away by stories I liked better). As a social experiment, I took what I had written, only adding a short aside to explain why the main character wasn’t using a cell phone (something far more normal in the early 90’s when it was written), and submitted it to 365 Tomorrows. It actually got accepted (here it is). It’s not amazing, and I still prefer stories that I wrote when I was an adult (for example, this one, under a different pseudonym).

But yes. In those years, when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, I had two loves: Music and writing. Music was the talent everyone else encouraged. The one that made me money (therefore allowing me to be independent as a teenager). The one that my family was proud of.

And writing? That was a passionate affair that took place mostly in darkness — and always behind a maze of pseudonyms.

They Always Want You to Pick One

I loved both. Dearly. But everyone was telling me I had to choose, like a love triangle where someone is forced to arbitrarily reject a lover. Pick one. So I backburnered writing indefinitely, focused on music.

But I later regretted it. I had rejected a music scholarship at a prestigious school to stay local to be with a boyfriend, who proceeded to dump me shortly before college. I was underwhelmed by the local school’s music program. And it certainly didn’t help that many of my peers had left for programs out of state, leaving me without my normal contacts. I was still able to land the occasional lucrative gig, but it just wasn’t the same. I knew the difference. And all of these felt like deeply depressing changes.

Shortly after I began to isolate, and in my isolation, I found myself gravitating back towards writing. Became a playwright. Produced plays. I made a name for myself on campus by winning awards for my work. In one year, I earned top prizes for playwriting, poetry, AND fiction.

Again, even though I was focusing on one discipline, people regarded me with suspicion. “What are you, a playwright, a poet, or a storyteller?”

It was the same old story. People were saying, “Pick one.”

People always want you to pick one. One that’s the most important. One that’s the most real.

They can’t understand that sometimes those distinctions are truly arbitrary. That it all matters to you.

Wait, Artists Aren’t Allowed to Be Practical…Are They?

Eventually, life intervened. In all honesty, life briefly broke me, as I recovered from an abusive relationship with a much-older man.  I did continue to write during the time I was with him and after I fled, but usually only in poetry. In bizarre images. Ideas viewed askance.

With fresh trauma, it terrified me to say anything clearly. Conceptual obscurantism became a perfect self-defense. I returned to college on a part-time basis, eventually getting connected to the fantastic Constance Hunting and Robert Creeley through a Canadian lit professor I befriended and who believed in me — in spite of my wackiness and clearly overwhelming social anxiety. I became known primarily as a poet. And everyone seemed satisfied by that. I’d finally picked a side. I went on to start a fairly successful poetry magazine in the Maine woods, supplemented by my day job working in a bookstore. In those days, I loved writing that frolicked around the margins. Pieces that insinuated rather than named. Poems that were the verbal equivalent of Magic Eye puzzles. You know, the posters where you’d stare forever until you saw a boat. Or a sports car. Or whatever.

Over the years working at the bookstore, I realized I really liked medical terminology (one of my duties was taking care of the medical reference section). Shocking everyone, I quit my job there and went back to get my associate’s degree. I happily settled into transcribing medical records for the local hospital system, a job I made good money for (because I was fast and accurate and worked on production-based pay). I loved the music of the words and being afforded peeks into people’s personal lives (although I obviously couldn’t tell anybody what I heard because of HIPAA). And better yet, it was something I could do at home. My social anxiety (much worse in those days than now, where it’s at a very manageable level) was a non-issue.

But everyone in my life was confused. How could I possibly enjoy this job? I was an artist. I was meant to do creative work.

But you know what? I loved that job. And I did it happily until the day my position was outsourced, viewed as an unnecessary inflation to healthcare costs, my industry taken over by voice recognition software and offshoring.

It was during the medical transcription years, before that happened, that polyamory crashed into my life — upsetting everything I thought I knew about relationships. And about myself.

Polyamory Crashed Into My Life

I had noticed that my friend’s husband seemed to be acting strangely with a female coworker of his. My gut told me they were having an affair. I knew it really wasn’t any of my business, but still, I felt conflicted about what I’d witnessed. And I knew that if I were in my friend’s shoes, I’d want her to tell me. 

So one night while we were at a small party that her husband wasn’t at (surrounded by my husband and two other friends), I voiced my concerns.

She didn’t even let me get through what I had to say. Instead she burst out laughing.

She told me, yes, her husband was seeing that coworker. But with her blessing. They were polyamorous, she told me. Had been for a few years.

I’d never even heard of the word. She explained what it meant, to all of us. We were stunned — it sounded so unconventional, and yet, she and her husband had been dating other people for a few years, and none of us had even suspected. It was that harmonious.

And they were both people who were deeply respected in our friends group. In all honesty, prior to this revelation, I had thought she was kind of a prude.

My first impression honestly was that it was all a little weird. I was frankly a little judgemental. But I did my best to stay curious, and it began to occur to me as the weeks wound on and I chatted with my friend about her dynamic (she was very open about it, relieved to finally have a confidant), that maybe I didn’t know everything about relationships.

Questioning Monogamy Led to Questioning Everything Else

By the end of that year, I’d opened my own marriage. And I was shocked to find that I was a great fit for polyamory. Leaving my comfort zone resulted in a domino effect I couldn’t have anticipated. It wasn’t terribly long before I started looking into other things that I had previously dismissed: feminism, sex positivity, BDSM.

In other words, questioning monogamy led to questioning everything else.

After I’d been polyamorous for a few years, the medical transcription industry started to tank. And I realized that I had more options than I thought I had starting out.

My whole life I’d been told that I was clearly an artist. A musician or a writer. But not a scientist. Because people who were artists couldn’t be scientists.

But it had been a couple of years of steadily realizing that most of what had been drilled in my head were suggestions, not hard and fast rules.

I realized it might not be true.

I had always liked the psychiatric charts best as a transcriptionist (social histories were fascinating), so I took a chance and went back to school with that in mind and became a psychological researcher.

People who had known me to be an artist were shocked when I became so proficient in research.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, people who knew me first as a researcher were often shocked to find out that I played music and wrote. That the scientist was an artist.

A Jack of All Trades Is a Master of None…But Oftentimes Better Than a Master of One

We live in a culture of extreme specialization. As a generalist, I’ve often found my expertise dismissed with the figure of speech “A jack of all trades is a master of none.”

But something not everyone realizes is that there was a second part to that saying: “but oftentimes better than a master of one.”

Essentially, something that was originally intended as a compliment for generalists was clipped off and weaponized into an insult.

Talk about taking a quote out of context.

Of Course Polyamory Is Confusing — People Can’t Even Accept Polymathy

Anyway, it’s no surprise to me that people can’t understand how polyamorous people could love more than one person at a time.

Lots of folks can barely grasp how people can be polymaths. And that’s some low-hanging fruit, relatively speaking. Polymathy doesn’t butt up against religious dogma or personal insecurity or any other forces that tend to cultivate a wider cultural aversion to polyamory.

And yet, people still insist “pick one.” They tell you that one has to be real and the other false.

But I don’t believe that anymore.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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1 Comment

  1. Well, I’m not *that* brilliant at that many things, but I’ve changed course a few times myself, and I do get it. people have this tendency to simplify their thinking by putting everyone and everything into little boxes, and then freaking out when they don’t stay put 🙂

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