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

Image: The PhD monomyth.  Compare with the monomyth narrative structure, the Hero’s Journey (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hero’s_journey).   Adaptation by J. Drake.

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


Part II:  In which our hero returns…. “enlightened”?

Our story up to now: I am a student learning how to write (and to do science, which involves a batch of writing).  I haven’t been very good at it, and I’m still not that great, but through valiantly misguided (misguidedly valiant?) efforts, I’m here telling you how I’ve started to get better.  Perhaps this will help you too (for more details see part 1).

As a new grad student, I had just traded the world I had learned to know (as field biologist) for a brand new unknown.  I landed myself in the middle of nowhere: Lubbock, Texas.  Far from the areas I had done research.  Far from anything but dust storms, cotton fields, and BBQ (hey, it wasn’t all bad).

I had a very constructive and supportive environment in the Dr. Griffis-Kyle Lab, and thus a soft landing into this unknown.  My lab held writing group meetings and helped me develop good writing habitats alongside people willing to support them. They offered a helpful critique to enhance a well-executed bit or a hand when I fell flat on my face in failure.

My blog continued in bursts and fits and spurts. I tried (and still try, for that matter) to post regularly. I got into science outreach and communication and that lead me to try writing for even wider audiences.  Then I got to participate in different types of seminars that pushed my comfort zones and let me explore the literary side of ecological writing.  I got to present at the Sowell Conference and meet Barry Lopez and other great writers.  I started delving into authors like David Quammen, Rick Bass, Peter Matthiessen, John McPhee, Stephen Jay Gould, and Charles Bowden.  I was inspired and educated more deeply than I could have thought.

I stuck to a decent writing schedule throughout my time in Texas. I had to.  In addition to my research, I had a report due to funding agencies on that research, and my thesis to get out.  The report, even with extended editing, ended up being about 200 pages (half of those pages were figures, thankfully).  I managed to write my thesis, and get one publication out my first year. Later, I got another first-authored paper out of it, and a second is under review (fingers crossed).  I thought I had it all figured out. I thought I knew what I was doing.

Which brings you to my now, our now.  Oh, the hubris. This may be a dark period, the abyss in the PhD student’s journey (Dr. Sutherland, if you are reading this just skip to the end, pretty please).

Since I thought I knew what I was doing, I stopped doing.  I can use the excuses of moving to a new state in a new area without knowing anyone but my fiancé, trying to set up a whole new life, and starting a Ph.D.; the list of excuses could go on.  But the reality was that I wasn’t making time.  I wasn’t sticking to the way I did things when I was successful.  I thought that since I had minor success, I didn’t have to keep working as hard as before, that things would fall into place on their own.  Let me be clear, I kept working and doing what I needed to – but I didn’t do right by my writing time.

Basically I failed as a writer.  I figured this out when I got stuck on a New York freeway at 1:30 AM in a snowstorm.  I call this my most recent “death and rebirth” moment.  I realized that I wouldn’t be able to achieve the goals I’d set out.  Not because of the stupid alternator that left me without a working truck in below-freezing temperatures – it was that I hadn’t put the work in before the alternator hiccup.  It was the stupid decision to say that I could finish a NSF proposal by the end of winter break.  That set me up for failure.  I took on too daunting a task because I was too confident in myself. And then, instead of making a good attempt at it, I got overwhelmed and said, “I can do it later.” Which I didn’t. But sitting on that freeway in the dark I had a revelation that I didn’t know as much as I thought, and needed to cross the threshold back into the unknown.

I was transformed and ready to start the adventure anew.  I’ve atoned with a more smartly structured spring semester that allows me to write and focus.  I took on fewer classes and I’ve figured how to make more realistic goals. I was reborn as a productive grad student with the gift of knowing my own limitations – and how to overcome them. Maybe. Hopefully.  Eventually.

This story, and my career, will surely be continued (whether I blog about it or not).

TLDR: Here are some of the things I have learned (and where I learned them, when I remember that tidbit).

Make time to write – you can’t write if you don’t have time to write.

  1. Make it a habit – I can’t begin to stress this enough [How to Write a Lot – Paul Silva].
  2. Defend your writing time like your thesis was due tomorrow.
  3. Ask everyone and anyone who’s willing to read and edit it (then ask some more people, and then some more) [The Scientist’s Guide to Writing – Stephen Heard; perhaps you’ve heard of him?].
  4. Don’t be defensive when people read your work and offer constructive advice for you. LISTEN.
  5. Listen to the podcast writingexcuses.com from start to finish (pay particular attention when they mention “killing your darlings”).
  6. Read outside of your discipline and explore narrative structure.
  7. You’re going to fail at some point. It’s okay.  Try again.

© Joseph Drake (jdrake@umass.edu) April 6, 2017

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

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

  1. Pingback: Writing From the Trenches: My Writing Journey… So Far | The Secret Life of a Field Biologist

  2. Pingback: From the trenches: How I’m learning to write (guest post) | Scientist Sees Squirrel

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