Various Lies

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Standing in the Foothills

I wondered how I'd feel coming back here. I'm still parsing the information I think. For some reason, and it's as likely to do with the unseasonably cold weather as it is anything else, I'm feeling oddly introspective.

However, introspection is best done in private, at least until the process has finished. At that point one can decide to share as much as one wishes of the journey. But to interrupt preemptively with extrospection and declamation is likely to force a early termination of the initial event itself.

I wondered what I would write about now that I once again had the freedom to write about anything I so chose. And of course, I can now think of nothing to write. I thought creative writing might again be fun. I used to do a lot of that for LabLit and I really enojoyed it. Some time peices were more free and creative than others, but I tried to put my style on everything I wrote, even book reviews.

"I can clearly remember the first time I saw the Milky Way. I mean, really saw it. I’d noticed it before while vacationing with my parents in rural Yorkshire, a wisp of starlight like a cloud trapped in moonlight. I remember being impressed, or at least as impressed as a surly teenager stuck in the Dales with his parents for a week can be. But the first time I saw our galaxy in its full glory was driving across the Texas panhandle a few years ago. I had reached a crossroads in my life and decided that the best way to determine which direction to head in was to take some time off work and embark on the kind of road trip my heroes had taken before me. Sometimes it was more Kerouac than Steinbeck, but it was nevertheless the quintessential American road trip.

I was somewhere between Amarillo and Oklahoma City on I40, a thick brown scar cutting across the belly of the nation. The sun had set and the landscape around me, an unending sea of featureless desert and scrub, had disappeared, swallowed by a thick darkness that pressed in on the windows of the car. I stopped, switched off the headlamps and walked off the road. Above me an infinity of stars receded to the limits of imagination. The foreground of familiar constellations was blazing atop a shimmering highway of starlight. Only once before have I been rendered breathless at the realization of my own infinitesimal place within the majesty of the universe. In April 1997, my band and I had traveled to the Scots border to watch comet Hale-Bopp glide overhead. As we entered a forest clearing and looked up we suddenly seemed very small and foolish, and our bottle of vodka for the toast, oddly sacrilegious."

(from What It All Means A review of 'Origins of the Universe for Dummies')

I tried to do it sometimes when I wrote for Nature Network, but felt the exhortation to stick within the unwritten guidelines of 'being scientific' stifled my creativity. It also effectively put an end to my writing for LabLit because every idea I got for something science-based to say was written for Nature Network instead. I deeply regret that.

I moved recently to LabSpaces and enjoyed the re-creation of 'A Meandering Scholar' with more freedom to wax lyrical. But as you know that little experiment didn't pan out for me. This is self-imposed, I think, but I still didn't feel free to write about anything I chose.

Oddly, part of my rapid and sudden departure from LabSpaces was the gnawing urge to write freely again. Silly, I know. There was literally nothing to stop me doing that either there or here. We were told we had freedom to whatever we liked, but I think having the banner of a network let me construct a mental barrier. I know at least one of my fellow exiles felt/feels the same way.

I think this is why Occam's Typewriter is going to be enormously successful. Not just because of the very talented crew of writers they have, but also because they are very open about being a blog network by scientists, not for scientists, or even always about science.

The best advice a writer gets is "write everyday", or my personal variant, "Just fucking write it". Grad students working on their first proposal or manuscript often feel like an asthmatic staring up from the foothills to the cloud smothered peak of Everest. "How am I going to do this?"

I was taught, and still rely on the same technique, to write, starting in the middle if need be, and rely on editing to whip the beast into shape. I feel the same when facing enormous projects involving any level of creativity. The most recent (and on going) is the annual overhaul of our Institute website. This year I decided to take the initiative and just do it my way. Partly this is borne by the confidence that I finally know what I'm doing, and partly by the fact most of the senior investigators involved don't believe we have a hope in hell of getting funded so the whole exercise is futile. Well, not to me. Right now, at my career stage, every experience is potentially valuable, and almost everything can be used to pad my resume in one direction or another.

It has been a protracted event this year because my time has been split between this and another major institutional project, but I think I'm nearly there. One of the investigators gave me 21 pages from the grant and said, "Use this to make the website". Well, shit. Talk about standing in the foothills of Everest with my Salbutamol inhaler uselessly back in Memphis. But, following my own advice, I have finally figured out to do it (it involves liberal use of internal redirects, pop-ups and understanding how to effectively use ahref anchors inside pages).

But what about the blog. What do I write here. I guess, sometimes you need to just write. Thanks for listening.

22 comments:

JanedeLartigue said...

Beautifully written and wonderful advice, as Jack London said "You can't wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club" but I prefer your more eloquent take "Just fucking write it". I think I'll print that off and stick it above my desk where I do my writing!

gerty-z said...

I hope that you can find the space to write how you like. Because I like to read what you write. So have fun and thanks for sharing!

tideliar said...

@JaneDe: Thank you! Wow, so I'm better than Jack London (I now firmly believe you meant it that way). I was huge fan of his growing up and "Call of the Wild" et al. had a major impact on me.

In fact his book and other frontier stories (Last of the Mohecans for example) allowed me to have no qualms when I moved here. I knew it wouldn't *be* like that, but I wanted to...get closer to the action :)

@GertyZ: I'll find it. thanks for stopping by :)

And shit. I need to get my blogroll fixed. I deleted all the LabSpaces people trying to fix the RSS thingy

JaySeeDub said...

Incredibly well written post, sir. I, too, enjoy the "Just fucking write it" statement.

LabMom said...

I totally hear you about feeling constrained without actually being constrained.. It just feels out of place to write non-science in science focused venues. Really, nobody wants to hear me wax poetic about Reality TV gone by (And I'm talking The Mole here.. good stuff.)

I kept my personal blog going on the side too.. Since then I can write whatever the hell I want. Now I just need to take your advice to fucking write it.

Best of luck getting adjusted again! I look forward to hearing about whatever crosses your mind.

JanedeLartigue said...

Yep, me too, I loved anything about animals and wildlife when I was a kid, still do, and his were the best. I have White Fang as an audio book on my iPod so I can listen while I work. I'm still always moved by the beginning bit where they are being stalked by the pack of wolves. Great writing!

I know what you mean about the move over here as well. We have some breathtaking countryside and wildlife in the UK, but nothing on such a large and awe inspiring scale.

chall said...

well written :) Funny that the idea "write what ever you will" leads to a slight writer's block. I've realised that my few posts the last months is a self-imposed block - like you write about in the beginning of this post... the introspective and if you let people in on it halfway, it will keep being an unbaked cookie.

Then again, as Buffy says, "I'm cookie dough. I'm not done baking yet" I guess we'll see what kind of cookies will get out of the oven ;)

Pharm Sci Grad said...

"...to interrupt preemptively with extrospection and declamation is likely to force a early termination of the initial event itself."
Yes, exactly. That's just it, isn't it?

"Just fucking write it."
Also so true - I feel like I need that imprinted on my eyeballs these days. Glad to hear you're making progress in the "write" direction.

Keep it coming sir... it's always a pleasure. :)

Mike Fowler said...

Holy jobbies. For a guy who doesn't have anything to say, you sure do talk a lot. Reminds me that I'll have to dig out some of the great ol' american authors to read to my nipper soon, though. Twain remains a favourite, and possibly more appropriate than Kerouac at the moment.

I have the opposite problem on NN. I don't want to talk about non-scientific topics, or even talk about being a scientist much. I'd rather talk about science, but it takes so much freakin effort. Right now, I'm just trying to fucking write something though.

Oh, and I gave your NN misadventures something of an anonymous hat tip recently. See if you can find it.

tideliar said...

@JSD: Cheers mate

@LabMom: IT was strange knowing that I coud write here and choose to cross-post at labSpaces, but feeling that i couldn't/shouldn't. Hard to explain...

@JandeDe: I tried audiobooks on my iPod, but I only have a wee old 2G Nano, so it's hard to get much on there :/

@Chall: Buffy LOL, trust you :)

@PSG: My pleasure!

Genomic Repairman said...

While you were staring at Hale Bopp in 97 those kook Heaven's Gate members were offing themselves.

microbiologist xx said...

Whenever I take a hiatus from blogging, I always find it difficult to get back into the swing of things. The less I write, the more difficult it is to think of "something" to write about. And yeah, I'm totally having that problem right now.

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

a blog network by scientists, not for scientists, or even always about science.

Exactly - and I wouldn't have joined if it had been otherwise! I felt the same way at NN that you apparently did, there and at LS, and I don't want to split my blogging efforts into science and non-science posts again!

Hooray for freedom, and I look forward to reading whatever you come up with!

tideliar said...

@MXX: I think you have a better reason than I for not feeling inspired right now :)

@Cath: Part of me wishes I'd stayed in the original discussions back a few months ago. But, que cera cera, or whatever that French lady sang :)

tideliar said...

@MXX: I think you have a better reason than I for not feeling inspired right now :)

@Cath: Part of me wishes I'd stayed in the original discussions back a few months ago. But, que cera cera, or whatever that French lady sang :)

h2so4hurts said...

Great post, TL. It's really sad to hear that both you and GR felt so constrained and forced to write about science at LS. I never meant to box you guys up and steal your creativity. Keep up the great prose and hopefully you will stumble on a space that works for you.

Anonymous said...

Just fucking write it reverbs around my office/lightless soulless cell a few times a day.

As for what to write I suggest you go with the Englishman's traditional strength: longish outrageously funny stories that may or may not be based on truth. Fun to tell fun to listen to. Plus there's beer.

-antipodean

tideliar said...

@H2SO4 - No worries mate. Was a fun experiment!

@Antipodean - Cheers mate :D

Ricardipus said...

I am reading your blog at the moment because I am procrastinating writing one of those Everest-like grants.

Mission accomplished, I'm going to go and f*cking write part of it now. Thanks for that. :)

tideliar said...

Anytime :)

Scott said...

Another problem with blogging these days is I can't keep track of where anyone is anymore. My google reader is overloaded and now full of dead links, so I just give up :D

Anyway, well said!

I'm glad you mention the feeling of constraint. I am still finding it far more pronounced with sci-related stuff than I ever felt with personal blogging.

The problem with science and blogging for me is if I don't often want to write about points-of-fact in science (ie, new papers, etc) but instead aim at the public ( as in "by scientists, not *for* scientists").

When I do that- and that's absolutely what I want to do - there's that PI, or some established sci-blog bigwig, popping in my head going "you're just writing baby talk. This isn't science! It's crap."

And even though I think that voice is dead wrong, my grad school and post-doc years still give it the upper hand.

I actually wonder if that's a common reaction - *especially* among those who've been through the science PhD... uh... experience.

tideliar said...

Hi Scott, TBH for blog tracking I have a group of about 10 I follow regularly and i rely on their sidebar/blogroll updates to let me know about the rest. Also, with so many people now at one of the networks you can sometimes just rely on mainpage updates.

The problem is, of course, finding and following new/independent blogs.

As to your writing, wrote whatever you damn well please. The voices in your head are your own fear of failure and ingrained conservatve/scientific retraint. The more you write, the more you'll find your voice and the more you'll develop your style.

If you want to write about lay-science, or science-to-lay style, then maybe combine the two issues - find something deeply scientific and *explain* it to a layperson.