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A Generalist is Born

By Dawn C. Dreisbach '90

When I was eight and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I could visualize the answer: a wheel divided into many wedges. Each wedge represented a different career. Firefighter was at the top, doctor was located down to the right, then lawyer, violin teacher. “I want to be everything,” I answered. A generalist is born.

But “generalist” needn’t imply lack of specialization. As a music major at Interlochen Arts Academy, I played the violin for six hours a day in addition to carrying a college-prep course load. By the time I got to Vassar, temporarily burned out on violin, I turned to my next love: drama. (I was among the last to be educated by Mr. William Rothwell [then director of theater], from whom I learned stage-blocking techniques and, at parties at his house, that one never sits down during cocktails.)


A Generalist is Born
A Generalist is Born

The generalist in me viewed Vassar as an interdisciplinary wonderland. I took introductory courses in 12 subjects. All my friends had different majors. Each of us strove for better-than-conversational knowledge about everyone else’s focus; points were awarded for knowing more about friends’ majors than they themselves did. But Vassar also introduced me to feminism, and after graduation I proceeded to get my master’s degree in women’s studies.

The three-ring circus was complete. Soon after graduate school, I was playing violin in an orchestra, auditioning for acting parts (and later, writing plays), and submitting papers to feminist conferences. And I had a day job.
Running somewhat ragged by age 30, I reassured myself that all three interests would eventually make sense and that someday I would find a way to blend them. Now as I approach 40, I’m not so sure they will.

In fact, I value that they don’t gel. Practicing Bach isn’t like writing a scene; interpreting someone else’s music is far more precise than creating one’s own theater. My feminist sensibilities affect my artistic choices but don’t run the show, so to speak. I don’t audition much anymore, mainly because I’m disheartened at how few parts exist for women compared to parts for men, while the number of women actors vastly surpasses the number of men. Feminism does take a back seat sometimes to a really funny line when I’m writing plays. And in the children’s concerts I write, I have expounded on the virtues of male composers who were selfish boors to women.

Choosing one interest would be much easier than trying to juggle all three. But when I try to do so, a sort of disciplinary claustrophobia sets in. “What about my practicing?” “I haven’t sent my play to any contests.” “Where are the women?”

There’s the option of trying to combine them all into one. How about an organization for girls to create music and theater? Possibly, in the future. But I love playing in a concert when the symphony reaches its climax and I’m surrounded by trumpets, tympani, winds, and strings in a massive wave of sound. I love hearing actors bring life to characters that I created. And I love the victories of human rights that I’ve supported and chronicled. Each of my interests has its own power; each must fight, snarl, and occasionally cooperate with the others. I’m addicted.

Over the years, I’ve found that we generalists have lives full of compromises. There’s never enough time to do all we’re capable of, for our minds to be satisfied, for our passions to be spent. And burnout is often one rehearsal or revision away. Yet we can remain ridiculously busy and feel energized.

Patience, self-confidence, self-acceptance and endless curiosity make the happy generalist. The ego needs to take the back seat almost always. Awards tend to acknowledge people who can stick to one interest. In recompense, we generalists know that we influence people for dozens of vastly different reasons, and we are engaged with our world. People don’t know when we’re going to challenge them, delight them, or bore them with our latest obsession, which may last a few days or take up residence as one of our lifelong passions.

We’re surprising, we generalists. Watch out for us.

Dreisbach is a playwright, violinist, presenter of papers at feminist conferences, children’s concert writer, theater board member, actor, and the senior development associate at Walnut Hill School in Natick, Massachusetts.