Saturday, May 29, 2010

Why I Write (or not) -- by Tedd Roberts

(Let's give a big welcome to our guest blogger, Tedd Roberts. After reading his post, tell us why you write. What drives you and how do you balance it with the rest of real life? -- Amanda)

I read my first SF book nearly 45 years ago. At the grand age of 6 I had a book I dearly loved, entitled "Our Sun." For a grade-schooler it was fairly typical, large dimensions, nice pictures, not too many pages. However, for a first grader it was unusual. There were a lot of *words* on those pages, and was well beyond Early Reader quality. You may have guessed that it wasn't *meant* to be science fiction, but it was science, and so much of what was in it was speculation of what we would find when humans ventured to those other mysterious planets in our solar system, that it fired my imagination in much the same way as SF.

Over the years I read voraciously, to the point of having read *all* of the SF books in the school libraries and got first dibs on new books even before the librarian had a chance to check them out. ["Time Enough for Love" and "I Will Fear No Evil" *must* be okay for kids because Heinlein wrote all those nice juveniles!] At college I loved the fact that the campus bookstores had great SF paperback selections.

From an early age I just *knew* that I could write those stories. Just ask my parents and sister - they'll tell you how I tried! Then, just over 10 years ago I found myself recuperating from a near fatal illness. I spent 6 months in a hospital bed, and found that I had time to write (and the combination of medications and disrupted sleep schedules provided such vivid dreams on which to base my stories). During that time and over the next few years as I tried to find ways to occupy my mind during long-distance travel, I wrote well over 100,000 words toward novels. Yes, plural. I should have finished at least *one* Great American SF Novel if only I had been writing just one. Alas I was trying to write three totally disconnected novels, and was less than halfway done with each one.

Fast forward the rest of the ten years and I have since refined my style and better learned how to approach writing. Right now it's mostly short stories, and I am building up at least one novel-length story as a series of shorts. I've scrapped most of what I wrote in the early days but have kept the outlines. They still are demanding that I write them, it's just that I've changed my approach to the plot as I've studied and practiced my writing.

But at the same time I've learned another important thing about my own writing mode: how - and when - not to write. You see, I'm a scientist, a research and academic professional, for whom scientific writing is my career. Unlike Isaac Asimov or Carl Sagan I can't dash off 100 books of nonfiction and expect people to actually buy them. My field isn't like that, and I don't have the Asimov/Sagan arrogance of considering myself an expert in everything. Also unlike the scientists portrayed in the novels of "Doc" Travis Taylor or Dr. Gregory Benford, I can't cogitate on a problem for a few days, then sit down and write a 50 page paper in half as many hours and send it off to Science or Nature and expect it to be published as-is. Nor am I near retirement like Dirk Wyle, the Pharmacology Professor-turned-author who began writing mysteries as his academic duties wound down.

Scientific writing is a painstaking process. In my field it consists of about 1-2 years of data collection, then a three month process of analysis, preparation of graphs and figures, writing, editing, revising the figures, re-running the analyses, rewriting the text, then finally submission - usually late on a Friday when I had been *certain* the manuscript was complete the previous Monday. After about a month in review, the editorial and peer comments come back, and the whole process of editing and revision starts over, usually taking another month. Since professors are expected to publish 3-5 articles a year, that means there's another article or two in preparation at the same time and it's a never ending process.

But the real problem is the mindset. Scientific papers require a detail-oriented approach. Facts, measurements, statistics. The language is stilted, passive and formulaic. Contrast this with writing scientific grant proposals. Proposals require the same facts, but the approach is one of persuasion. As a proposer I must convince my peers that not only do I understand all of the known facts, but that only *I* have the means to discover the (appropriate) new facts.

A totally different mindset is required for review. Sooner or later my penance for being a published scientist or funded researcher is to participate in peer review. Whether manuscript or grant proposal review, the reviewer has to put themselves simultaneously into the roles of reader and author, understand the facts, find the flaws, and most importantly: provide coherent feedback so that the editor/funding agency can make a decision, and so that the author/proposer can revise if appropriate. There are certainly many scientific authors who are poor reviewers, just as there are poor authors who are excellent reviewers. It is a different approach to writing even if the topics are the same.

So, for a scientific professional that wants to be a fiction author, there has to be a mental switch. As a reader I do *not* want a physiology dissertation in my fiction, and while a certain amount of persuasion or critique are valuable, I want my fiction to entertain. On the other hand, there are purists in the scientific publishing world that insist that *any* infringement by popular or colloquial style is unscientific, and has no place in professional publications. For an author/proposer/reviewer, it is even more imperative to separate the different mindsets. For me, I have to have a switch that says "*now* is the time to write that story." Furthermore, as long as that switch is set, I *cannot* work on any of my professional scientific writing, and I cannot let go of my story idea until I get all or most of it down in a way that captures the essence of my inspiration. It is why I have recently concentrated on short stories, blogs and popular science essays. For when that switch is set to fiction or popular mode, I *have* to finish what I am writing before I switch back. Each story costs me a couple of days, and I write from about noon to about 2-3 AM until I am finished.

As I gain skill I suppose I will learn to write chapters and scenes while the switch is in Fiction mode, and come back to write the next one a few weeks later when I can afford to set aside the scientist for a day or so. The only problem with doing so now is that unless I am fully in fiction mode, the scientific author in me wants to go back and keep revising the prior chapters even though the novel is not finished.

It is past midnight as I write this. The concepts I am writing about have been nagging me for two days until I could no longer resist, and the mental switch was set to Blog mode. Now that I am nearly done, I feel the mindset reverting back to Scientist mode much like a scholarly Dr. Jekyll to my literary Mr. Hyde. Until researchers such as myself perfect a direct brain-to-machine linkage to get these stories quickly out of daydream and into print, I will continue to keep my different modes of writing separate, lest I find myself submitting short stories to Nature, and scientific papers to Analog.

8 comments:

matapam said...

Ouch! Yes, the style of writing changes, Science to Fiction, but it's more the mental change, from creating a story to analyzing data.

Not that creativity doesn't have a place in science - where else do you get the hypotheses to test? Not to mention ways to use what you've theorized.

I was lucky, in that my science and fiction writing were separated from each other by several years of intense motherhood. I never had to switch back and forth. Or perhaps that is unfortunate, because I never had to learn how. Now I have difficulty switching from writing to editing mode, and staying there. It's so easy to let another idea sneak in and demand you write it down, right now.

Teddy said...

Matapam:


Agreed. You *do* have to be creative. Some of the most fun conversations I've had in science are when the limits are relaxed and I sit around with colleagues having a "blue sky" conversation.

Your comment makes me wonder if the mental switch is even more common. Wonder what others think?

Bill said...

That was a very provocative and insightful post, Mr. Roberts.

As per Amanda's request, I answered the question. Alas, it got too lengthy for a comment, ha.

http://wolfandrain.blogspot.com/2010/05/why-i-write.html

Teddy said...

Bill:

I can think of no greater compliment to my own writing. Nice blog. Thanks!

Lin W said...

This is going to sound strange, but it's something I've just figured out in the last few months. I have been/am doing research for an historical novel. I've also been trying to write a science fiction short story (originally for a contest, which, alas, I missed the deadline for).

But, what I found out by accident was -- if I limited the novel to working on my laptop (like I usually do) and write the short story *on paper in longhand* I have no trouble moving from one to the other. Different parts of the brain? I'm not the scientist ::grin::

But, for my strange head, it seems to be working. Of course, at some point I'll have to type the short story into a word-ish document ::grin::

Lin

WangZheng259 said...

I write because I read, and I cannot really turn off the writing, no matter how difficult it is, so long as I read.

I haven't done enough different writing at once to know if one type excludes others, but I think it may. I have had issues with projects excluding others, and too much verbal activity shutting everything down. (Foreign Language in college took up some of my 'writing juice'.)

I have difficulty verbally expressing anything I have not expressed before. Perhaps because of this, when I get started trying to express something, I get a little obsessed with it until I am done. Conversely, if I get cut off in the middle of writing, I may not manage to go back and finish it. (Perhaps due to losing the mood or impulse, or perhaps due to posting some on forums that go fast enough that a week, a month or a year after the fact is rude.)

I don't know if this is switchlike or not.

I'm undergrad passable on technical writing, poor at creative, and okay at editing/punching up/finding typos and logical errors (if I am fast enough).

Amanda Green said...

I'm late -- yeah, yeah, I know. I'm often late and will be late for my own funeral -- commenting. First, thanks for a great post, Tedd.

As for why I write, I can't help it. It truly is something I have to do. I've tried stopping, and was miserable for it. To me, writing is not only something creative I do and hopefully sell, it is an outlet. Just as I need to occasionally go outside and build things -- which is why I'm late commenting. I've been re-landscaping my backyard this weekend -- I have to write. There is no other explanation for it than that.

And it is different from the technical and legal papers and articles I used to write. That took a different part of my brain. In many ways, those were easier. I knew what my premise was and all I had to do was find the data to support to disprove an idea or theory. Logical, well thought out, precise. That's the easy part for me.

Letting go, letting emotion come to the foreground and opening up is harder. That is part, I'm sure, of why it took me so long to let anyone else read my creative writing. Now that I have, I've become an exhibitionist of sorts and want the world to read it. Still, there are times I long for the technical writing world again with its rules an logic. Not that I'd ever give up the joy of seeing a piece of fiction I've written published.

Teddy said...

Lin:

Great idea. Since writing and typing use different motor skill, you probably are using different brain "switches" to regulate your writing. Then when you type in what you've written it will be more like the editing/research and should maintain that separation. Good idea, I may have to try that.