Writing is life.

A few weeks ago, Lisa Munro wrote “Writing as Self-care” on her blog and this follow-up on focusing/actually writing when you dedicate time to doing it.

Jennifer Polk also referred to the Lisa’s post in her latest University Affairs column.

And it’s exactly right (write?). Prioritizing writing means prioritizing yourself and that is hard for a lot of people, including me. One of the biggest things I say about depression is that it makes it that much harder to consider yourself a priority.

I’ve often thought of it this way: it’s not even necessarily that I’m not a priority, it’s just that everyone else is more of a priority than I am.

In academia, and many other competitive fields, there need to be at least some moments of self-prioritization, otherwise careers and other things can stagnate.

In some ways, I’m doing better at saying I belong on Earth, being a person and trying to be OK taking up space.

I started this blog because I had nothing else going well in my life at the time. Writing has done more for my mental health than almost anything else. I’m trying to transition into a job where I get to write a lot for my job (that isn’t the traditional tenure-track academia). My science blog has done pretty well in its first year, beyond my expectations.

Writing is not just priority for me, even though the last few months it’s gotten harder to maintain a daily practice. And I need to make it more of a habit as well as incorporating the trappings that go along with writing: research, graphics/art, and editing (ideally separating those tasks in time).

Writing is life.

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On Standby.

My writing brain has been broken lately.

Maybe more than just my writing brain. My capacity to engage has been low for the last few months. Everything feels heavy, like it’s an obligation, and voices that used to work to bring me out

I’ve felt stuck in what other people think, my own perfectionism about what to write about and whether I can do a subject justice or not, whether I can do sufficient research for a post, etc.

I’m paralyzed and basically refuse to pitch ideas, I’m just so certain none of my ideas are that good, that I’m not that good. Or that I’m not up to the challenge of writing well enough.

I just read Randal Munroe’s brilliant essay in The New Yorker explaining Einstein’s scientific contributions using the ten-hundred most common words in the English language, which is a bit of a contrast to what would normally appear in the New Yorker that may be associated with $20 words. That said, good writing communicates complex ideas in the most straight-forward way possible. In that sense, Munroe’s essay fits perfectly there (Munroe is also the person behind the great web comic XKCD).

My brain acts as a black hole. Ideas pop up, seem good, but then disappear, get buried in gravity of questioning them, even if I write them down. There’s no drive to get them out there.

There seems to be a chasm opening, a crack on the wall. On one side, is the me that’s vital and vibrant and the other is the one that seems most visible to others. The drab, the dull, the dis-engaged. The exhausted. The aimless. The dispassionate (that I know means rational/cool as well as emotionless, but I feel the latter).

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows has an entry nodus tollens, the realization that the plot of your life no longer makes sense to you.

Very little makes sense to me. Everything makes me feel worse, it seems, despite trying to be efficient, close loops, improve my skills, etc.

What’s missing? Part of it is still the feeling of not being connected to a community, or that I’m not good at building that in my life, or even speaking. I like writing, but am not yet really a paid writer. I like science and education, but don’t feel like either.

Where do I fit? What community do I belong to? How can I bring some enjoyment back? Does my narrative make sense? Can I communicate with people, especially through writing (b/c it’s my preferred medium)?

The dream would be to publish an article in the New Yorker or similar, I think, or feel? I am no longer sure which way growth lies.

 

Blank pages.

I feel like I’ve been crossing things off this year. And I have a lot of blank pages to fill. To figure out.

I don’t think I want to be an academic anymore; not the PI route. I’m not sure I’m cut out for it and of course, it’s always been a tough job that seems even harder now. Plus, even if I were to succeed, something I’ve come to care about a bit is diversity. And in academia, I simply can’t contribute to it, period (no matter how much of an ‘ally’ I am).

Of course, it’s unclear that there’s anywhere I could go where I’d actually add diversity. Of course, I hope there’s such a thing as an expanding economic pie or growth in opportunities (I think at least some of the problems in academia stem from the limited opportunities there, driving unhealthy competition; it’s a lack of growth in the sector leading to stagnant demography; and yes, of course unconscious bias exists to make it even worse), otherwise there will always be people left out. And I still do need a job. Everyone does (that wants one or can do one, that is; anyone not working needs to be taken care of too…not unto ourselves alone are we born). (and yes, I know, my problems don’t really matter in this area).

I’ve explored consulting a little bit. I don’t think it’s for me. Maybe there’s a firm out there that’s the right fit for me and would have a role for me like doing some technical writing or data analysis, but I don’t think I’d do well being a boots on the ground consultant.

The startup world fascinates me. I even went to a conference all about Intellectual property and tech transfer, which is a cool world too, but again, my inner sense just told me this wasn’t for me either. Again, it’s not something I’ll write off entirely, but I just don’t see how I fit or how I can help contribute to that world.

The last few years, I’ve been writing. This blog, my new(ish) Quiet Branches blog. I’ve been guest blogging for the ASPB every so often and have the honor again of being able to officially cover the conference via social media and blogging (along with a team). I really like doing it. I love being a curator, telling the story of a day at a conference. I think I’ve learned from last year just how much better I should be able to do that too. After all, there are a lot more tweeters at the conference than ever before. Note how this is a longer paragraph than the previous two. It probably means I’m excited about doing this kind of work. The gathering of information and trying to make sense of it into a good narrative. Telling the stories of science. And the scientists that do it. And telling the world about it. I believe every journal needs a blog dedicated to its content (I know many already do).

It also seems like the most impractical path ever. Is there a career in it? I don’t really know. We hear a lot about how journalism is dead, writing is going by the wayside as a profession and anything to do w/ human communication will be done by a computer in a few years. I don’t want to be cynical. I think I’d like being a writer/editor. I had a nice moment on Twitter a few weeks ago…I noted a correction that needed to be made (a minor one) to a story by a journalist I really like. I get a rush out of editing copy and helping people tell their stories (ed note: this blog post will not be highly edited).

I also like being an educator. Or at least feeling like one. And even though I don’t generally know a lot about how it works, genuinely educating people about things is a part (I would hope a big part) of marketing. I could see myself in a role like that as well.

So, have I done things to move in this seemingly fraught and stupid career direction I seem to be ineluctably moving toward? Yes, but perhaps not enough, maybe never enough. Whatever I go on to do, and it will be something (I’ve at least jettisoned the idea that there’s nothing out there for me), I hope it’s not another academia. I just hope I can do to the point where I’ll actually grow and thrive, not remain super stagnant.

The thing that’s always frustrated me about my own brain (besides depression) is that it thinks. A lot. Decisions don’t come quickly. I think about a lot of aspects of things, I don’t consult people enough (been correcting that lately, perhaps). And it can get me down. But they’re also precisely the things that I think make writers good a lot of the time. Things percolate. Sometimes there are quick stories,but often times there aren’t. Things take time. Thinking, re-writing, editing, trying again, are all part of it. And it’s something I like doing (I know there aren’t necessarily jobs that follow ‘what I like’).

I’ve fought against myself for a long time. I’m happier when I am able to embrace a bit more of what I gravitate towards, at least. And that is new. Also, stating what I like is fairly new to me too. I’m what would be described as an ‘old soul’ I think.

My career still feels full of blank pages. As does my life. And my brain. I still have vestiges of depression too that make me feel empty inside too. But slowly, I’m eliminating things that don’t make sense, and I hope populating my mind with worthwhile things. Things that are important to me.

So if you’re looking for a writer/blogger/editor/educator/marketer with a science background, get in touch. Maybe we can work together.

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Do something.

I’ve been struggling the last few days…physically not feeling great, mentally feeling foggy. And not getting enough exercise. Which is frustrating.

I’m powering through, still investing in myself, and catching glimpses of being actually confident in some ways. A feeling I’m not very familiar with, honestly.

Today, I read this post from the thesis whisperer on being someone that’s thorough, but not perfectionist,  vs. someone that’s a 95%er, someone that gets most of the way there, but struggles to close the final 5% of a project. There are definitely two strains of perfectionism: the one that’s crippling and interferes with your life and the one that is just holding yourself to a high standard and putting out things that are as good as you can make them.

She also linked to this post about a lot of bad advice out on the internet (shocking, I know). I hope I haven’t contributed too much to that problem. The entire piece set off thoughts in my head.

I worry about being considered an expert or authority (even though in some areas, I am). I’ve done enough leg work with my own mental health to be comfortable conversing with people about it, but haven’t done any active research or delved too deeply into the literature on it too much (other than reading a few books, but that’s not primary lit). And I know a thing or two about plants and plant hormones. This is one part of what I think people think about when they say someone’s afraid of success.

I really am always seeking to learn new things. And that’s been a frustrating part of feeling awful lately…my brain hasn’t been good at absorbing things; do I need to work more on my meta-cognition?

Stephen Tobolowsky was on The Nerdist podcast today. Ned Ryerson himself. He’s a really fascinating person. And one that has some interesting things to say about being productive, managing our limits to thrive by finding things we can do (note: not watch TV or otherwise passively consume things). And further, view new opportunities as doors, not prisons. Anything can be a prison. Academia, fabulous wealth, name it…it’s all in how we think about them. I’d recommend giving it a listen. It is about holding onto things loosely, not being overly attached.

Do Something

As someone that’s been trying to change my self-narrative the last few years, I am at a point where I realize that I may have more control than I think I do over situations. I’ve made writing a habit (perhaps not good writing, but that’s not really for me to judge necessarily). I’m slowly building nodes in my network and really trying to do things for people in small ways, at least.

I still think I’m a 95%er when it comes to many projects, but there are projects that I want to see to completion, getting them as good as I can make them before release too. It just kind of depends how resonant something is. It should register higher, but doing a thorough spring cleaning of my apartment is in my 95% category. Writing my science blog is more 100%er territory for me, but I know I don’t always have time to have that standard. Done is determined by deadlines. And I hit publish each Sunday, whatever I have and promote it the following week no matter what. I hope I’ll get better.

I feel like I am slowly connecting the dots, extending beyond myself now that I have done some hard internal work. And it feels good, but still frustrating because there’s no obvious path forward. Being on a team of people brought together to do something just means you have good people around a specific task. The key is getting to be one of those good people that are wanted on a team; a team can do a lot of various things (even in this world of needing to be a specialist and generalist at the same time).

Quietly Doing Something

I’ll never be the loud member of the team. I’ll be thinking, trying to find blocks of time to read, process, do, make, and otherwise work. I’ll put ideas out sometimes, but it takes time for me to think things through. I’ll suggest things to individuals and let them take credit for it. I’ll connect people to ideas, people, and other things that may not have occurred to them before, or just listen as they hash something out for themselves. I want my superpower to be quiet connection because I want to put people on a path to productive, and good, work. That’s what matters in the end to me. Are you working to put something good out into the world? And can I nudge you along that path? If so, wonderful. If not, that’s OK too. I’ll be here writing and doing work in my own quiet way to serve and better the world.

I’m sure I’ve made wild leaps of thought in this post. Sometimes, doing something is just getting what’s in your head on paper. Or screen. But I hope there’s something in here, reader, that helps you in your day.

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Adaptable.

I’ve been thinking about my career a lot and just how I might fit into the modern world.

I’m a thinker. I research. I do things once I’ve thought them through. I need space and time to focus and process things and then I’ll talk about it until the topic and possibly my conferees are exhausted and am still willing to keep going. It sometimes feel like I want the last word on nothing.

One thing humans are praised for is adaptability. PhDs seeking to go beyond academia are said to be flexible too. And in a way, the in-demand person is adaptable and can roll with many situations, learn what’s needed to get something done and do it.

I may be missing something but I do worry that the modern world vastly favors specialization (and automation). It is impossible for one human to do it all. I can’t build a computer or a smartphone (at least not a notebook computer) from scratch (yes, I could source components, but can’t make them myself). I can create blogs, I can write a bit, and research, as well as explore data and get something out of it. But that is general and vague it seems to me in a world that wants instant specialists. And fast specialists. Patience and thinking seem to be luxuries of the past.

A lot of people seem relatively adept at creating their own job within an organization, or at least that seems like a relatively common way jobs are gotten as organizations simply like having good people on hand. To do specific things sure, but who can adapt to new roles and grow as well.

It seems like the ideal candidate is a specialist that can generalize/adapt.

I hope I’ve specialized enough, that I can adapt. That i’m not stuck in Shawshank Prison.

In my next post, I think I’ll try and inventory my skills and see if something interesting emerges from the exercise.

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Life metaphors and narratives.

I’ve been challenged (keeping the by who vague for now) to write a blog post talking about a narrative, a story I tell myself to help me along as I try to become more of a blogger/science writer/editor/informal science educator of some kind, likely beyond academia, but not necessarily so.

And the challenge is to come up with a positive narrative, one that has challenges and obstacles, but not one that is self-limiting and stifling. I’ve been there and done that narrative, and it doesn’t work well.

Is academia like Shawshank Penitentiary? Yes, it kind of is. And I am trying to crawl through the tunnel out into the clean rain on the other side, and pray I’m not like Brooks, unable to make it on the outside.

For awhile, I’ve felt like I’ve been trying to swim to the surface but I’m being held down by a large squid, each arm an aspect of life that I have to take on, but there are so many of them and each time I take care of one, there’s another one there…hard to get free. Or to go after the squid itself for some reason.

One, more positive, narrative is that I’ve gotten away from is Ian 3.0. Treating myself as software that upgrades over time with all the right skills (of course, I wonder how many of us have software on our computers we don’t use often, or that we don’t use to its fullest extent or become full masters of no matter if we use it regularly or not.

However, the one I’m going to explore is that of running an ultra-marathon, Something I have never done (best I did was a half marathon). It takes training, and grit to do something like that and the fact that I’m still here, after going through a deep depression, still showing up, starting a science blog and spreading the word about it. Hitting publish each week, even if I know each one is not the best work I could possibly do. I hope I’m getting better as time goes on.

I have helped staff an aid station at one ultra-marathon, and it’s the kind of event that relies on having friends and staff to account for racers along their way. I think runners go through more than one pair of shoes, and their friends/staff leave aid packs strategically along the way, at least for some of the runners.

And that is what I need more than anything. Connections with others, and being able to ask them for things/help/encouragement to keep going. And of course, having a staff to track me well along the way would be useful too.

I have been running for awhile, I may be halfway to a finish line that would mean a new job, new life, a better place for me. I am tired. I have a lot of trail to navigate still.

I fear that any step I take towards a new career also means stepping away from having a life outside of work. I hope that’s not really true. I want to experience things outside the world that is the career race and I hope that it’s still possible to explore beyond work. I can’t see them really in opposition, because that will always cause problems.

I hope I have a network of people I can ask things of to help get me to the finish line. I am a lot less hesitant to ask for things, though I still feel like I could do more in that regard. I know I can’t do it all alone and that indeed I am not alone.

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The new impostorism.

I co-moderated a Twitter discussion for the #DiversityJC yesterday about mental health and academia. As readers might know, this is a topic near and dear to my heart (and brain). It was a really good discussion and the re-cap of it will appear soon. Stay tuned to their blog for that.

It brings up something I feel like I’m facing a lot lately: am I delusional? Have I built an isolation tank of my world where I exist and it is nowhere close to reality? (the good idealistic side of this is I see a world how it could be different from what is…it’s how new ventures get started/founded).

I know about mental health, specifically because it’s affected me and I’ve read other people’s accounts of their experiences with mental health in a STEM/creative field. They resonate and make me feel like I’m at least not alone. but am I an expert in this field? Probably not. I am vaguely aware of some of the issues surrounding seeking help and navigating the often hard gauntlet of explaining what is wrong (b/c outwardly  things appear “fine”) and to who, and when (to your employer? Around work? When it really affects your work negatively?). it’s not my field of expertise though; no one pays me to dive into it even though I think there’s enough out there to say it’s a real problem (and depression, at least, really does not care who you are or what station in life…it can drag you down).

I try to strike a tone of realistic optimism here and in life, and hopefully with some humor. And I’ve been struggling lately. Falling on the more pessimistic side lately. i’ve been trying for years to do better and in many ways I have and am. I started a new blog dedicated to plant science (& the quieter/more esoteric world of basic research and just how we barely notice how plants are present plants are in our lives every day), I’ve made some strides in research and networking. I am still learning statistics/data analysis, but maybe I’m seeing progress there too, and I’ve gotten a little better at networking as I embark on figuring out what’s next (still likely not to be straight academia). I adopted a cat. And I’m working on some projects I care about with the ASPB. Which is cool too.

And I still feel a bit empty. Still isolated. And I don’t have a ready cure for that.

One of the things that I really struggle with now is feeling like an impostor before I even apply to anything. It’s still the “Who am I to…..” phrase. I try not to let it get to me, and do things anyway, but it is still there…still very effective at stopping me short. Right now it says “you’re too old too____ and anything you do now will be through that lens….”

I’m a thinker. And probably always will be. And that’s OK, I just hope I can incorporate acting on that thinking more often than I do in a world that seems to move faster every year.

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