From the trenches: How I’m learning to write (guest post)

Image: The monomyth narrative structure – the Hero’s Journey.  Public domain, by David Richfield, via’s_journey


This is a guest post by Joe Drake, a PhD student in the Department of Environmental Conservation at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  Joe’s own blog is The Secret Life of a Field Biologist, and you can email him at

Part I:  In Which Our Hero Enters the Wilderness

Do you know what was one of the most stupid things I ever said I could do? Start and then finish an NSF proposal over the course of a winter break.  My advisor and I sat down the day before leaving and hammered out a wonderful conceptual model for our project and eventual proposal.  We created Google docs to work from.  We were excited. We had a great idea. I said that I’d have a draft in two weeks.  I was an idiot.

This isn’t the story of long-ago writing lessons.  This isn’t the story of how I learned to write.  This is the story of a couple of weeks ago and today.  This is the story of how I’m learning to write.  It’s a story full of failures.  Some have already happened; many are yet to happen.  Many readers may have already learned from their own versions of these, or maybe like me, they have just begun to encounter such challenges.  Maybe my mistakes can help you along your writer’s journey*.

We begin this journey long ago, in a small rural town far, far, away from where this author’s butt is currently sitting. I, as an elementary school student, wrote one of the weirdest and most confusing of bad fantasy stories about a magic box that held secret powers to destroy goblins –  inventively entitled THE CUBE.  My second foray into writing was a set of self-published “how-to” pamphlets, describing such things as how to survive in the “wooods” and how to “start fier.”  Thank goodness for editors and spellcheck, because to be honest, my spelling has not improved.

Then dreaded middle school and high school happened.  But nothing really happened with my writing.  I wrote papers and reports, but that was about it.  Same for undergraduate years at college, except – and please don’t go telling anyone – I tried my hand at songwriting.  One song I crafted wasn’t terrible (it wasn’t particularly a classic either).  Please don’t ask about the others.

Then I graduated and the exposition finishes and the story truly begins.  This is where I started to learn how to write.  I wrote over 50 applications for field jobs in two months, before I even heard back from one.  I didn’t get that job.  Or the next one, or the next.  Eventually, though, someone called me back with a job offer and I took that call to adventure in Arizona working for the United States Forest Service (spoiler…. I’m a Yank).

My major writing endeavors continued to be job applications and – surprisingly – postcards.  As I tried to maintain old friendships and stay in touch with brand new ones, I began to chronicle my time through postcards.  Sometimes they would be standard postcard material (“Hello! The Painted Desert looks wonderful with snow….”); other times I would doodle on them; but sometimes magic happened.  I would let slip a narrative adventure of some strange oddity that had occurred in the field.  It’s quite hard to write a full and compelling anecdote on the back of a postcard.  If you want to try to explain your research to a friend, it’s a wonderful challenge to attempt it in the space on the back of your local landmark’s postcard representation (or email me and swap postcard abstracts with me!).

Eventually, I returned home for Christmas from a particularly brutal field season.  I had just finished my first field job in the Sonoran Desert.  I had worked in Arizona before, but in the ponderosa pine forest of the northern part of the state.  This was the first time I truly had to encounter the border world.  I felt like I had entered a place separated from all I had known. It was filled with blood, sweat, and tears and I had returned different.   I don’t want to sound overly dramatic, but it literally transformed me.  I had experienced things I needed to tell.  I sat down and wrote for 2 days straight.  And what I wrote that first time: it sucked.  But it was a start.  Since my childhood, I hadn’t written a story. My high school and college report writing hadn’t prepared me for this.  I scrapped the whole thing.  I rewrote it and it sucked less. Again I scrapped the majority of it, but small grains started coming together.  I was eventually able to tell a semi-coherent narrative after several more restarts, trimming**, editing, and putting in about a full week of total effort.

I built my blog for the sole purpose of posting that story.  I had grand ideas for it.  I would tell the story of my crazy adventures in the world of technician-dom.  But if you look at my posting history, you can tell that, well… I didn’t do that much with it for at least another year.  Maybe two.  It was basically an online CV with a single story attached.  Not the worst thing in the world, but not what I’d thought I would make of it.

Then the call came.  The professor I’d worked for in the Sonoran Desert called me, and suggested I should apply for a Master’s position with her.  When asked why she got back in touch, she said it was in part because she liked how I told the fieldwork story.  When I learned I had been offered the position, I deliberated with those important to me and decided to leave behind the carefree world to answer the call to adventure yet again.

I had just traded the world I had learned to journey into a brand new unknown: the brutal world of graduate school….

 Joe’s story is continued here!

© Joseph Drake ( March 30, 2017

This is the second in what I hope will be an occasional series (the first contribution, from Rob Johns, is here).  Do you have a story like Joseph’s – but also, no doubt, different? Would you tell it here?  Drop me a line (Steve, not Joseph;

*^Having just started my PhD (which you’ll learn about in Part 2), I feel like I’m currently at the bottom of the circle of the hero’s journey***.

**^Something I’m still horrid at, and will be for some time, and am working on, is telling a compelling SHORT tale.  Succinctness has yet to be my ally, though I seek it out time and again.

***^If you have never heard of the “hero’s journey” it’s okay.  Most people haven’t, unless they took creative writing or the history of literature in college.  It just happens to be the monomyth. It’s a pan-cultural story structure that can be seen in most major works of fiction.  From Gilgamesh and Beowulf to Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings and things less epic, they all share the structure depicted in the image above.  Joseph Campbell was the guy who “described” it.  He was an interesting fellow, and it’s worth reading his work and listening to his interviews with Bill Moyers.



8 thoughts on “From the trenches: How I’m learning to write (guest post)

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