Tag Archives: writing

Why Do You Write?

Sometimes it takes a swift kick to get me moving again, and I can thank my friend Tasha over at Metacookbook for the boot to the backside this time. She’s taken on a challenge to write a post about writing, and I am going to follow her lead.

Why do I write? I write to get thoughts out of my head before they crumble. I write to inform, to rant, to record my family’s story. I write on this public blog, so I guess I write for recognition and attention, too. Look at me! Are you looking at me yet???!?!? Lately, I even write a little for money, and that’s kind of neat.

But it’s harder to explain why I don’t write. Because there are so many excuses.

My writing is an urge. An instinct. If you give a bird a string, she’s going to stuff it into a nest. It’s what birds are programmed to do with string. I’m the same with a good pen. When I hold a pen, I want to write with it, and if I don’t have anything TO write, I get anxious and uncomfortable. I feel like I should be writing, and I get mad at myself when I’m not. But I’m not good at managing my time (hello, parenting and full-time job), and I’m also weirdly hard on myself about what I write. It’s like I’m not allowed to write something until it’s all figured out, but I can’t usually figure something out properly until I can separate it from the hundred other things going through my head and pin it to a page. And if I wait too long for the thought to mature and straighten itself out, sometimes it fades away. I don’t know how many wonderful ideas I’ve lost to my perfectionism. It hurts to think about.

Like Tasha did (and, I suspect, like most others who write), I used to journal. But I wasn’t good enough at it. I’d judge myself for skipping too many days, and it felt odd to come back and have to explain to my journal or to my imagined future readers what had happened during my absence. “Dear journal: previously, on LOST…” I couldn’t commit. I felt like I had to catch up on every missed day, and the longer I waited to go back, the bigger the void. And then, of course, once I did go back, I had to start a new notebook from scratch. Because this one would be better. This one wouldn’t have any gaps. Except of course it did, because of life. Life is busy. Life doesn’t leave me time to write. I know I need to make time. Prioritize. But it’s hard.

I almost made writing my life. Every career aptitude test I ever took split me exactly down the middle, halfway between writing and science. I’ve always loved science, but I’ve also always been a “good” writer. Lots of gold stars on writing assignments, from stories to essays to poetry. Teachers told me I had a gift, and that kind of thing can get into your head and make you feel like you need to pursue it, or risk “wasting” the gift. I thought for a while I’d go into journalism, because journalism meant writing, and because I felt more personally attracted to writing as communication than as creativity. I’d be a reporter on a science beat, not a novelist or playwright. I even checked out an open house at a journalism program at one of the colleges in Montreal when it was getting close to application time. But after considering my options, it made more sense for me to pursue science as a primary career. I couldn’t teach myself about the lab, but I could probably improve my writing skills on my own eventually. Given what I’m seeing happening to the newspaper industry and the media as a whole, I think I made the right call. Except that I’m not writing enough, and I feel like I’m missing something.

I have thoughts bouncing through my head all day, every day, and when it gets overwhelming it can sometimes make me literally lightheaded. Like I’m carrying a huge balloon full of half-formed ideas instead of a head. But there’s only so much room in there for ideas, and new ones sometimes squish old ones before I’ve given them a chance. Or the thing I was going to yell about isn’t in the news anymore. Or my baby’s zoomed past a year and I never wrote a post to celebrate it and it’s too late now. All that makes me sad.

I’m not going to end this with a promise that I’m going to write more, because I don’t know if that’s a promise I can keep. But I want to promise it. I don’t want to keep starting new notebooks. I want to learn to accept the gaps and the disorganized mess of half-formed ideas without a real point. I’m happier when I write, and I like to think that sometimes another person somewhere is happier when I do, too.

And I just have so much to SAY.

The Obligations of a Scientist

As much as I wanted to, I initially decided against answering Dr. Stemwedel’s questions about scientists’ obligations. She split the respondents into two groups – scientists and non-scientists – and I was uncomfortable with choosing a side because I wasn’t sure where I belonged. Yes, the word is in my job title (I’m a Medical Laboratory Scientist), but I always imagine “a scientist” running experiments and curing cancer and discovering quasars and writing papers that will earn them a Nobel prize. I don’t do any of that. I just play with blood. I used to work in a hospital blood bank. These days, I work in manufacturing.  I make specialized reagents for reference immunohematology laboratories to use in solving complex cases and finding rare blood types for transfusion. I work in a scientific field, but am I a scientist? I don’t think Dr. Stemwedel intended for her questions to open up cans of introspective worms in her readers, but they gave me a lot of thinking to do.

After discussing my dilemma with friends who feel the same way, I finally decided that I am comfortable saying that I am a scientist1. Wearing that badge, I will offer up my thoughts, even if I’m late to the game by a couple of weeks.

Note: Because of my background, I’m biased towards biological and medical sciences. There are many different species of scientist, of course, and I can only speak for myself.

1. As a scientist, do you have any special duties or obligations to the non-scientists with whom you’re sharing a world? If yes, what are they?

As a person whose daily work affects the lives of others, I think I have a general obligation to give a damn about the work I do, and take pride in doing it well. I’ve written about professionalism before, and I still think it’s a critical quality for a scientist to have. That said, I don’t think a commitment to quality is in any way restricted to scientists. I think that any human being who’s taken on a career of any sort has that same obligation, although laziness and corner-cutting will have a greater impact in some fields than in others. A bolt missing in a box of Ikea furniture, while annoying, isn’t as bad as a bolt lost in the assembly of a helicopter.

Scientists are held up to a different standard, I think, than the average person. The title of “scientist” often carries with it an presumption of intelligence and authority, which is why an answer from a scientist on a scientific topic will carry more weight than the same answer from a bus driver. The same can be said of anyone who’s an expert in a field, from law to medicine to electrical work. We need to be aware of the fact that people will trust our answers, and we must be comfortable with admitting ignorance instead of making guesses. As scientists, we should be the very last people pulling answers out of the air (excepting, of course, the atmospheric scientists among us) when we’re not entirely sure. Our training urges us to do the research, check sources, and back up our assertions with facts2.

Over and above avoiding statements we can’t back up, I think we have an obligation to call out bullshit science when we see it. Homeopathy, wacky diets, “OMG the moon will be BIGGER THAN MARS tonight” Facebook posts, and that sort of thing. If those of us who know better don’t step in and replace false claims with correct information, then the level of scientific literacy in this world will keep declining. That would make for a sad and ignorant world, and i’d very much like to avoid it. We get bonus points if we can make the real science as exciting as the fake science, because then people will be inspired to share the good stuff, and it will get out there faster and crush the forces of bullshit. I hold up Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, as an example we should all aim to follow.

2. If you have special duties or obligations, as a scientist, to the rest of society, why do you have them? Where did they come from? (If you don’t have special duties or obligations as a scientist, why not?

I was raised believing that we all have a duty to contribute to the world in some way, and to live and work with integrity. My teachers in the medical technology program reinforced the importance of quality in laboratory work, and I’ve taken that to heart. Thanks to those teachers, I’ve always felt very strongly about promoting my profession. I don’t scribble fun lab facts on a sandwich board and stand in the park with a megaphone, but when Medical Laboratory Professionals Week comes around, I put in a lot of effort to get information out there.

We need a scientifically literate society if we want to keep making progress as a species. If I don’t support and promote science when I’m given an opportunity to do so, then I’m not contributing to that end.

3. As a scientist, what special duties or obligations (if any) do the non-scientists with whom you’re sharing a world have to you?

To ask questions, even if it means challenging a scientist. It’s just like the “Ask me if I’ve washed my hands” buttons you may have seen nurses wearing – just because we know we should be doing it the right way doesn’t mean that we always are. And it’s okay to remind us of that.

1.  That discussion deserves a post of its own, and it will get one soon.

2. I’m looking at YOU, “Doctor” Phil.

Mediocrity

A friend sent me a link to a contest. To enter, people write blog posts about their greatest fears and submit them to a published author, who will choose the best story and give the winning writer a trip to anywhere. How could I ever enter such a thing? My piece would be compared to hundreds of others. It would likely come up short.

I am afraid that my writing isn’t good enough. That I’m not good enough. That when I think I’m going to be a great writer someday, I’m wrong.

I am afraid that the voice inside my head that says I’m silly to want to be a writer, the voice that says I should give up and just keep a little journal for myself, might be right.

I am terrified of my own mediocrity.

I grew up nerdy, awkward, and quiet. I never had many friends, and my family didn’t have money for music lessons or sports teams. Instead of popularity, I comforted myself with my brain. I could read at three, write sentences at four, and I was so bored by the A-B-C of kindergarten that I was skipped through to second grade the next year. My parents praised my grades, so I kept bringing them quizzes adorned with gold stars and smiley faces. My teachers told me I was smart, told me I was talented, told me I should be a writer. Daily, I was praised for my brain. I was a very smart kid.

Then I got older, and I met more people. Smart people. People who were better than me at so many things, and so much more confident. People who inspired and intimidated me. I attended medical conferences and heard scientists speak excitedly about their work. After every conference, I wished I had gone on to grad school so that I could stand up there with those amazing people. But I doubt I’m smart enough to get through it. I went on a special cruise with hundreds of other geeks and was blown away by their guts and creativity. Singers, comics, writers and artists – I want so badly to be like them and to share myself with the world, but I don’t know how. Deep inside, I feel that my efforts would never compare to theirs, so I am afraid to try.

I am afraid that my brain has failed me. I used to feel so smart, and now I feel so… stupid. Is my pond bigger and more crowded now than it was when I was young, or has insecurity shrunk me into a smaller fish? I have grown into a woman who surrounds herself with intelligent and engaging people – why does this intimidate more than it inspires? In comparing myself to these people, my sense of self has begun to crack. If I’m not as smart as everyone’s been telling me I am, then what is left of me?

Here, on my blog, I feel safe. I write more for myself than for anyone else, and nobody is judging me. If readers don’t enjoy what they see, they don’t come back, and without a statistics counter embedded in my code, I’ll never know. It’s comfortable and isolated, and I can pretend here that I’m a wonderful writer who just hasn’t been discovered yet. Because, truth be told, I might not be all that good, and that’s a reality that I don’t want to face.

I am afraid to expose myself to criticism. I know it’s the only way to grow, but doing so may force me to admit I’m mediocre, and not the writer I wish I were. I fear that rejection will break me. It will reinforce the negative voices that whisper to me at night and prompt my retreat.

By entering this contest, I am choosing to face that fear. I’m handing in my assignment for some very talented and intimidating people to read and criticize. The little girl in me hopes desperately for a gold star. The insecure adult in me worries that putting my post in a pile with those of better writers than me is a mistake, and I shouldn’t try. They’re both wrong. What I need is not empty praise to puff my ego. I need to improve, both in skill and in guts, and the only way to do that is to take a deep breath and ask for criticism from people who are qualified to hand it out.

 

 


Love with a Chance of Drowning – A Memoir by Torre DeRocheThis post is part of the My Fearful Adventure series, which is celebrating the launch of Torre DeRoche’s debut book Love with a Chance of Drowning, a true adventure story about one girl’s leap into the deep end of her fears.

“Wow, what a book. Exciting. Dramatic. Honest. Torre DeRoche is an author to follow.” Australian Associated Press

“… a story about conquering the fears that keep you from living your dreams.” Nomadicmatt.com

“In her debut, DeRoche has penned such a beautiful, thrilling story you’ll have to remind yourself it’s not fiction.” Courier Mail

Find out more…