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“Sick” Days

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This will not be a rehash all of the blog posts you’ve read about how women don’t get sick days, especially if they’re moms.

This is still pretty funny, though.

The topic of this post is trying to write while staying home with a sick kid. Most writers I know, (know = have read about their writing habits) shut out the world while writing. Some close the door, some play loud music, some claim better writing through the use of biochemistry.

None of these things are possible when you are tending to a cranky kid with a cold. Some will say power down the laptop, take care of the child. Take a day off. And I would, if she needed me to. I’d toss the laptop out of the window if she asked. But she’s engrossed at the moment with Tinkerbell and her vaguely mean girl friends acting out their latest melodrama. Still, despite her interest, it’s taken me over an hour to compose this paragraph, having run to fetch tissues, to take her temperature, to refill a juice glass, and just to check on her to see how she’s doing.

Each time I’ve come back and reread what I wrote and  have thought about it differently. I’ve broken my “hash out a first draft” rule by sneaking in some editing, and changed the tenor of the post twice because my train of thought switched to another track.

I haven’t even tackled any of my science writing yet. I read over an assignment, and the generally familiar and friendly scientific terms look like gibberish.

I recognize that the end of this post “should” read with language akin to “but I know what’s really important in life, and so, I will take that day off.” But sometimes that’s not reality.  Sometimes reality is deadlines. Is not getting paid if you don’t make them, is losing the job altogether. Reality is losing the story if you’re writing fiction.

So I brush up my balancing act, and press on. And kiss my coughing baby. And hope she sleeps.

Written by Jen Szymanski

March 12, 2013 at 11:28 am

Posted in Personal, Writing

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Having Difficulty Writing? Good.

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According to many cognitive scientists, accomplishing a task with little money or resources may be harder, but it also makes us vastly more creative. This article describes some of the products of creative people placed in (sometimes deliberately) difficult situations – the Beatles’ Abbey Road, for example.

Is there something to the “starving artist” stereotype?

Fans of J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter series know that she was on government assistance while writing Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, jotting much of the novel down in coffee shops, finishing it up on a manual typewriter. And then there’s this:

You might have thought any tool which enables a writer to get words on to the page would be an advantage. But there may be a cost to such facility. In an interview with the Paris Review Hughes speculated that when a person puts pen to paper, “you meet the terrible resistance of what happened your first year at it, when you couldn’t write at all”. As the brain attempts to force the unsteady hand to do its bidding, the tension between the two results in a more compressed, psychologically denser expression. Remove that resistance and you are more likely to produce a 70-page ramble.

Rowling’s not the only successful writer to have to overcome obstacles – in this video, Stephen King discusses writing longhand; when Carrie was published, King was working as an over-worked, underpaid english teacher in rural Maine. Rowling and King are just two examples of successful authors who started in imperfect conditions. After some rumination on this theory, I can think of several writers whose work has, in my opinion, suffered after they’ve become famous, though this certainly doesn’t apply to everyone.

Thus the question: do you write better when you have obstacles placed in your way (physical, financial, or otherwise?) Would you ever deliberately make things harder on yourself to improve your writing or other work?

Written by Jen Szymanski

November 14, 2012 at 11:01 am

Getting “in the zone.”

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Once upon a time, I was a teenage band geek. And I was hardcore, baby. Our band competed on a national level. We had an interstate rival, used to do physical work outs, the whole bit. I learned more life skills in that class than I did in all of my other activities combined – how to be organized, change plans on the fly, be productive in downtime.

Band is also where I learned to focus. I used to plug myself  into my Walkman, and play a cassette full of inspirational music. By the time I got through side A, I’d be so focused on the task at hand that an alien attack wouldn’t break my concentration. It was kind of scary – our bus would transform from a typically loud and obnoxious bunch of teenagers to a silent machine in the space of about twenty minutes.

Time passes, and old habits fall away. But sometimes I find myself back “in the zone” when I am writing. Have you ever written  something, and read it later to find that the words will look strange, foreign, as if someone else wrote them? It’s eerie.

My biggest frustration is that I can no longer seem to control this ability. There are simply days where I have a hard time falling into that writing trance.

Does anyone else do this when they write? If so, how do you get into “the zone?”

Written by Jen Szymanski

September 25, 2012 at 8:45 am

Science Through Story: Needing to Evolve (Part One)

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(Science through story is an ongoing series in which I try to figure out how to make the rest of the world as interested in science as I am.)

Words matter. Since I’m both a scientist and a writer, they matter to me even more. So I never felt guilty taking my college freshmen to task when they misused words in their attempts to explain a scientific process. (Example: Molecules don’t “want” to move from an area of high concentration to low concentration. As non-sentient particles, molecules lack the ability to “want” anything.)

But to the point of this post: one of the moms at my kids’ bus stop was talking about antibiotics. Her daughter had been sick, and had been to see the pediatrician. The doctor told this mom that her daughter probably had a virus, and she needed to take care of her illness with bed rest and fluids.  I was thrilled, having heard too many stories of moms who shop around for doctors until they find one who will give them an antibiotic prescription they don’t need.

And then she said it. “What the doctor said was that when people don’t finish their antibiotics prescriptions, the bacteria learn to mutate and become resistant to the medicine.”

So close, yet so far.

It’s a great visual, isn’t it? Can’t you see a little circle of germs in a football huddle, heads together, saying, “Okay guys, it’s looking pretty bad out there for us right now…the kid’s resting up, mom’s got the fluids going, and now they’re bringing in the big guns, the medicine…so we’ve got no choice: it’s time to go nuclear on this thing. We have to learn to mutate, in order to survive.”

Actual cartoon from one of my college notebooks. I said I was a writer and a scientist, not an artist.

It’s one of the most common misconceptions in biology: that organisms adapt (or evolve) because they have to in order to survive. This misunderstanding robs the genetic basis of evolution of its magic, its randomness, its terror, really – that if something doesn’t happen by chance in a species’ genetic code, it’s going to vanish from existence.

How does that misconception spread? Here’s an example: Antibiotic MRSA in Livestock May Spread to Humans.

Here’s a few quotes from the article:

Livestock in the United States may be building resistance to deadly bacterial infections

‘Most of the ancestral human strains were sensitive to antibiotics, whereas the livestock strains had acquired resistance on several independent occasions…’

Once the strain infected livestock, the strain likely changed into several different types, some of which are resistant to various antibiotics, said Fitzgerald, and it is now a two-way street.

(Emphasis mine.)

Building. Acquired. Changed. These terms are very human. We build buildings, acquire new items, change clothes. It makes the bacteria seem like they will do what it takes to survive. After all, wouldn’t we? Wouldn’t we build a wall, acquire food sources, change our behavior if we knew a hurricane is coming?

When we hear a word, our brains fetch a definition for that word that matches our experience.  In science, that’s how we get from “species evolve because a random act gives them the ability to survive in their environment” to “species evolve because they need to adapt to their environment.”   It’s why I’d like to see news articles meant for a mainstream audience include a paragraph (even a sidebar) on the basics of how a process works to answer questions like:

“Why does it matter if I take antibiotics when I don’t need them?”

“How does finishing my prescription help drop the chances of adding to the problem?”

Time is precious – we are challenged as science writers to distill the essentials from a scientific process to create  concise and interesting ways to convey both the problem and a solution.

(Next post: a possible solution.)  

Written by Jen Szymanski

September 19, 2012 at 10:39 am