Writing for fun
If you want to be a better writer you need to write.
There’s an old joke about two young fish that are swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"
Ever since I heard that joke I’ve thought about water. What’s water? In the context of the joke, it’s part of your surroundings (internal and external) that are so pervasive you aren’t aware of them. Water can also be a teaching, tradition, etc that may be accepted by you but would be considered foreign or unacceptable in another setting. Perhaps your water is a genetic condition. For example, I have a blind and deaf dog named Leppy. Leppy is short for, and named after the rock group, Def Leppard. The credit for this great name goes to his foster mom; we liked it so much we kept it. Leppy is a Catahoula Leopard, and is blind and deaf due to the mating of 2 dogs heterozygous for the merle gene. Merle is an autosomal dominant gene that causes mottled coloring in certain breeds such as Catahoula Leopards, Australian shepherds, shelties, and some other breeds. Some not-so-reputable breeders breed these dogs together, presumably to get more dogs with this mottled coloring. Dogs homozygous for the merle dominant gene often have hearing and eye issues. Leppy’s eyes are not developed so he is totally blind, and he’s deaf to most sounds. So, what is Leppy’s water? His water is bumping into things quite a bit, sniffing to get a sense of where he’s at, and walking like a Lipizzaner stallion so that his legs find an object before his head does. His water is also getting attacked out of the blue by our lab Big Ben because he can’t hear or see Ben telling him to back off when he gets too close to one of Ben’s chew toys. That’s why we put out lots of chew toys to minimize this happening - if you ever come to my house you’ll probably step on some.
What’s water in the world of academic science? Water is publish or perish, grant funding is scarce, and the institution you trained at or work at is very important. If you come from Poughkeepsie State (home of the Cougars from the movie Dodgeball), you might have to work a little harder to make a case for your environment for an NIH grant. Does that mean you can’t get funded? Absolutely not. Does it mean that you’ll need to be intentional about your description of the environment and collaborators? Yes, but that’s not the end of the world. I’ve reviewed great grants from small institutions and some stinkers from powerhouses of research. My point is to make sure you are aware of the water and don’t drink the Kool-Aid, so to speak. Some ideas are so pervasive that they start to sink in, like second-hand smoke at a party. Collective biases are part of every culture, but awareness of these biases is key. Just because others might dismiss your work because you are at a smaller institution, the important point is that you do not dismiss your work. The same thing goes for grant funding. If you believe the collective, that getting a grant is impossible, then it will be.
What about personal water? We all have personal water. Maybe your water is a traumatic childhood or an abusive relationship. I just finished watching a British TV series called The Split, which is about a family of female divorce lawyers set in London. In one episode the main character, Hannah Stern, is helping the wife in a celebrity couple obtain a divorce. She asked the wife to make a list of all the things her husband was doing that she didn’t like. The wife’s list involved very manipulative and controlling behavior on the part of the husband. Hannah tells the wife that based on her 20+ years as a lawyer, this behavior is not typical within the context of a marriage. In other words, the wife’s water was an abusive relationship. She had been married for 20 years, and probably didn’t realize the toxicity of the relationship until she described it to someone that was in a different pond. The problem with water is that it’s all around you, so it’s hard to get perspective without getting some distance either physically (like a trip or retreat) or getting help from someone (therapist, possibly friend) who’s not in your water. Water can also be insidious, with small imperceptible changes over time leading to some pretty dirty bathwater.
What about your internal water? No, I’m not talking about the 60% that makes up the human body. I’m talking about the things you tell yourself every day. Would you say those things to a good friend? Probably not. Internal water may be the toughest to combat because it’s hard to get out of your own head and get perspective (therapist or good life coach can help here). It’s also the hardest on your wellbeing. Why? Because “the voice” is always there. If you call yourself stupid, a loser, fat, ugly, etc., with frequency, what do you think happens?
Your internal water can also be a feeling. Maybe, like me, your internal water is guilt. Although I understand that taking responsibility for one’s actions is good, being the overachiever that I am I take responsibility for everyone else’s actions as well. Not the good ones, of course, but the negative ones. When my son falls behind in school, I blame myself for poor parenting.
At the expense of sounding like I’m trying to create urgency in a grant - why water, why now? While every day is the first day of the rest of your life, as the saying goes, the end of the year is often a time we reflect on the past and plan for the future. No time like the present to think about the elements of “your water” and whether they are serving you or not. Like many things we may want to change, the first step is awareness. Awareness helps you become the observer so that you can climb out of that dirty bathwater and into the ocean.
I’ll close with an example. If you’re not big on personal examples you can stop here. For myself, I’m pretty curious about what other people are trying, what they’re reading, etc. Besides guilt, another part of my water that I am becoming increasingly aware of is the feeling of time scarcity. I’m probably preaching to the choir here, as they say. Many times, I become so focused on lack of time that I don’t enjoy the time I have. To help myself get out of this water, I’m going to try a few new practices. First, I’m going to try Bullet Journaling, or as the cool kids say, BuJo. I’m hoping that this will make me more aware of how I spend my time and be more intentional about the time I have. Second, I’m going to try a practice called Unified Mindfulness (see link below), which I think will help me stop bugging myself about time. Finally, I’m doing the 30 day Yoga with Adriene challenge, which will be a challenge because exercise and movement are usually the first to go when I’m stretched thin. If any of you have tried these before and had good, bad, or otherwise results feel free to share. And now, time to take a shower….
Resources mentioned and more:
Awareness by Anthony De Mello – great book on, well, awareness
The Bullet Journal Method, by Ryder Carroll
Unified Mindfulness – free training and paid courses for those who want to dive deeper
Yoga with Adriene – here’s a link to this year’s 30-day challenge. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JpWa4LtKe4c
We are adopting a dog named Leppy. His foster mom calls him Leppy, but like most adopted dogs we’ll probably change his name. Leppy is a puppy, only 5 months old. But Leppy is very unusual in that he is blind and deaf. Leppy is white with mottled areas of gray. This mottled pattern comes from the merle gene and can be expressed in dogs such as Australian Shepherds, Border Collies, and Catahoula Leopards. Dogs homozygous for the merle gene can be blind and deaf. Leppy is a Catahoula.
Catahoula Leopard dogs originated in Louisiana. They were mixed with “bloodhounds, mastiffs, and greyhounds” brought by Spanish explorers per the AKC website. Catahoulas were bred to herd wild cows and hogs that were rampant in Louisiana in the 1800s. The dogs would form a “canine fence” to corral the errant animals. The origin of their name is not clear – it might be another name for Choctaw or it might mean sacred lake, from the Choctaw language. In 1979, the Catahoula Leopard was named the official state dog of Louisiana.
I had never heard of a Catahoula Leopard before coming across Leppy. As a family, we’ve had dogs for the past 20 years, including 2 labs, a lab mix, and a beagle. Our lab mix required a lot of care before he passed in July, and I thought it might be interesting to adopt a special needs dog. Over the years we’ve tended to gravitate towards animals that are hard to adopt. We adopted a cat who had been in the shelter the longest, and we recently adopted a black cat that is blind in one eye. Right now, we have 2 dogs, an 80 pound, super chill, couch potato named Big Ben, and a beagle named Tucker who has been with us for 12 years. Unfortunately, Tucker has an untreatable and pretty aggressive cancer, so he probably won’t be with us much longer. Although I was going to wait to adopt until he dies, with the Covid 19 pandemic shelters and rescues have become overcrowded. Also, I have lots of help at the moment since 2 of my kids, usually in college, are finishing out the semester at home. So, we are adopting now.
Catahoulas (or Houlas as owners call them) need a lot of exercise. I’m not sure how this is going to work out with a blind and deaf dog. His foster mom says he walks pretty well on a leash, but running around the yard isn’t an option because we don’t have a fence. Even if we had a fence, he might run into it so a leash seems like the best option. Google, the font of all knowledge, says there aren’t many blind and deaf dogs in the US, so resources may be scarce. What I’ve read so far is that blind and deaf dogs can be trained using touch – tap on the face, rump, etc. I’ve never been much of a dog trainer so this will be interesting. Blind and deaf dogs also navigate by touch and smell. Luckily, we have quite a few different types of floors (hard wood, tile, carpet) so these will help Leppy navigate. We also have a plug-in deodorizer in our family room/kitchen area.
We pick up Leppy today, so I’ll soon find out what it’s like owning a blind and deaf dog. I’m sure there will be bumps in the road, and a few “whose idea was this anyway” comments. Leppy was briefly adopted by someone else, but he cried all night and that was enough. Knowing this, we are prepared. Actually, the shelter owner, who specializes in blind, deaf, and blind/deaf dogs, says that crying in the night is common for blind dogs. Leppy’s foster mom is confident this will only last a day or two, and hey, we’ve had a beagle for 12 years so a little crying and barking won’t be enough to scare us off. I’ll report back soon, after we’ve had Leppy for a few days. Maybe he’ll have a new name by then!
Writing is writing. Ok, Instagram posts don’t count. Although I realize writing encompasses types, categories, subcategories, genres, etc. each involves putting words on a page in a clear and comprehensible order. If you want to be a writer you need to write, simple as that. If you’re an academic scientist, the ability to communicate your work in an exciting but concise way is critical to your success. However, if you’re like me, you might have gaps between a manuscript and a grant where you’re not writing. Hence, writing for fun. For me, writing for fun is a goal, not a process. I guess for some people, I’m not one of them, the words flow out with ease and they write huge chunks of text in a few minutes. I’m more of a grinder. Every word ekes out slowly, like watching my dog poop when he hasn’t been drinking enough water. My hope is that if I write every day, I’ll get a little more flow and a little less grind. Also, I’ve found a lot of surprising parallels between writing for fiction or marketing, for example, and academic writing. I’m the analytic, learn about it before you do it type, so I’ve read a lot about writing. In marketing, for example, you want to make sure your message is clear or your potential buyer will get confused and go somewhere else. The same applies to writing grants and manuscripts. If your grant is confusing, your reviewer will say “no” and your grant will hit the triage pile. In fiction, unless you are a highly skilled writer, you want one protagonist. In writing grants, you want one protagonist, the one solution that you hypothesize will save the world from a dastardly disease.
So, now that I’ve got you thinking that writing every day might be a good thing, what should you write? Well, whatever you want. Does journaling count? No. Journaling is great for self-discovery and might be a good way to get the writing juices flowing. However, I suggest that you write for public consumption. Writing for public consumption takes it up a notch. You have to think about what you’re writing, because you’re writing for another reader besides yourself. No need to torture yourself, though. Write about things that you’re interested in, ideally outside the bounds of science. Nothing wrong with science, of course, but expanding your horizons keeps you from getting stuck in the dreaded science rut.
Now we come full circle, as I introduce you to my practice of writing for fun. If it ever actually gets fun I’ll let you know. Hope to see you there.