Editorial: Why John Holliday ‘04 went from Engineering to Creative Writing and Philosophy

John Holliday '04 has a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Maryland, an MFA in creative writing from Syracuse University, and is currently Teaching Instructor and Director of Graduate Writing in the Rutgers Writing Program.

John Holliday has a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Maryland, an MFA in creative writing from Syracuse University, and is currently Teaching Instructor and Director of Graduate Writing in the Rutgers Writing Program. Holiday graduated from Kettering University with a degree in Industrial Engineering in 2004.

His primary academic research program concerns the value of literature; thus his creative and academic work is intertwined. His research has won the BSA Essay Prize and is forthcoming in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism; and his fiction has appeared in Hayden's Ferry Review, Denver Quarterly and Sonora Review, among other places.

Anytime anyone hears that I went from engineering to creative writing to philosophy—BS to MFA to PhD—I get some version of a question whose heart is something like: “So what’s that all about?” Even before the PhD, I got it. The question. In fact, it came the moment I informed the people I sat with in a basement office that smelled of the metal of the GM trucks assembled above that I’d be leaving to go write fiction in upstate New York. Mostly then as some euphemism of "Are you out of your mind?"

Here’s my usual story. I was good at math and science in high school and lived in (read: near) the motor city, where people who are good at math and science go to school to be engineers. So that’s what I did. But I discovered it wasn’t for me. And while out trying to find what the heck was for me, stumbled on something in the magazine rack at Tower Records that looked like a book and published fiction. Which I bought because it looked cool and read for the same reason despite not having read much of anything not assigned as homework since the fourth or fifth grade and thereby in effect personally discovered reading and that writing fiction was alive and well and could be an almost counterculture thing to do. Which got me hooked. And so I joined a writing group that helped me get into Syracuse, where I took a philosophy of math class that got me hooked on philosophy too.

It’s the nutshell version. And it’s pretty much right, even if it leaves out the time I called home from my Kettering dorm to cry about Calc II, or that I thought my thing was going to be being a rock star and then got kicked out of the band I was in, or that I tried photography and then learned everyone out trying to find her thing tries photography.

It also doesn’t include my spiel about how I think the things in the wake of my weird path aren’t all that different, at their core, for me. Or to be more exact: that the cognitive underpinnings behind my relative success in fields typically considered wildly remote are very similar. That it boils down to a tolerance or patience or maybe even joy for minutia, for tiny and sometimes seemingly inconsequential details. It’s just that my minutia of choice isn’t cars or robots or whatever other hardware a real-deal engineer might be happy tooling with on a Sunday afternoon. For me it’s sentences and arguments and the assumptions rattling in our heads unprobed. It’s exploding the syntax of a clause and reassembling for rhythm. It’s reconstructing in formal form what someone mentioned in passing, over coffee. It’s thinking really hard about questions that look incredibly simple till you start thinking really hard about them.

So while my time in engineering was over 10 years ago, I still feel it working inside, fundamentally, kicking into gear when I’m writing or teaching or reading or organizing the contents of my kitchen cabinets. I still think in terms of efficiency and effectiveness. I’m still fascinated by systems. And I’m still proud about having gone to Kettering. It unearthed a deep-down bent for minutia, refined it, and gave it serious firepower. Plus it threw me into the world of real work. Which, sure, came with immediate goodies, like a paycheck and legit experience. Which was great. But what I in hindsight find crucial is that it forced me to grow up. I didn’t dawdle in the summers or switch majors five times or worry what life was like after college; I worked and burned through 11-week terms and knew what life was like after college. Was my decision to leave engineering and a salary I wouldn’t be seeing for a long time impractical? Probably. But it was also informed and clear-headed, not some impulsive thing with regret waiting in the wings. And that was Kettering built.