Leaving it all on the field

Last Friday night I stayed up later than I intended, focused on getting a manuscript submitted.  That’s not a particularly big deal (I wanted it to be done before I left on a quick weekend trip from which work was banned).

However, there are reasons that this manuscript is a Very Big Deal:

  • The topic. It’s a known that I have tremendous passion around women in academic surgery and mentors in surgery. This paper pulls those two things together in a way that simply hasn’t been done before.
  • The time. I worked on my very first project about mentors and surgery during my research time/ SERF fellowship as a resident. Shortly thereafter I wanted to dig into this more deeply, trying to identify what mentoring can and should look like for women in academic surgery.  I “accidentally” got the information I wanted in the context of a broader study I have been working on for the last three years. So, the time points here are 10 years on this idea, and 3 years on the data collection/ analysis/ writing.  It has been a long process.  As best I can tell, sticking with it has been worth it.

Friday night at 10:28 Mountain Daylight Time I submitted.  Saturday morning I got up and had that sense that accompanies the submission of any work that we put our “all” into, when I internalize, “What if they don’t love it as much as I do?”  The reality is that people may not share my passion for these topics and they may not value the use of grounded theory to dig into these topics.  For my less senior readers, I want to help normalize for you that sense you get when you submit your first manuscript or a manuscript that you poured your heart and soul into. When you’re sharing work you’re particualrly invested in, it can be hard to make yourself get it done because you know that you’re sharing a piece of who you are. That vulnerability…it never, ever gets easier as best I can tell. The last time I felt this way was when I submitted our first disruptive surgeons manuscript; again, something I’m really passionate about and want people to care about as much as I do.  And, again, reality dictates that not everyone will care and not everyone will want to hear about the stories that resulted in our theory…but a few people thought it was important enough and well-executed enough that it should be shared.  I can only wish the same for this new project.

So, why am I rambling about vulnerability and risk taking in our academic work?  Because it’s real.  Because this stuff takes time.  Because if you truly care about the work that you’re doing and what you’re contributing it’s going to be scary.

It’s also going to be amazing.




Why I write

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I was bemoaning a wicked case of writer’s block earlier this week.

I think it was multifactorial- I just came off of clinical service and was processing more than a few challenging situations.  Fall is always bumpy for me- the wild Vata energy of change, change, change unmoors me, and I struggle to stay grounded between when the winds start (usually mid-September) and when it first snows (hopefully this week).  And from a purely cognitive perspective, I needed a brain dump.  I’ve been going at a dead sprint since the 1st of October, the night before I flew out to the AWS Annual Conference and the ACS Clinical Congress.  It’s fascinating that when I objectively look at the pace of my life and the things that I do, it suddenly becomes crystal clear to me why I need breathing room every once in a while.

Describing it as a case of writer’s block, however, also gave me a context this week for really thinking about this space where I blog.  According to my dashboard, this is my 154th post here, and December 9 will mark 2 years for Life in the Wild West (we should celebrate with Cookie O’Clock!).  I’ve confessed more than once that I started the blog as a literary way of “throwing spaghetti against the wall”; what I didn’t know is how well it would stick, nor the impact I would find it having as both friends and strangers tell me that they read the blog regularly.  At first the Blog wasn’t something I spent a lot of time drawing attention to, maybe because I didn’t want to be everyone’s favorite crazy aunt.  Then Niraj Gusani “outed” the Blog at the Academic Surgical Congress in 2014 and it took off like wildfire (Niraj, I’m grateful, and I owe you many more cookies).  It now goes on my slides when I give a talk, and I have a link to it in my email signatures at work.  I’ve found it to be a place of healing and sharing, and it has quietly created a community that hopefully allows medical students, residents, and practicing physicians to realize that it’s not just any one of us, that many of our hard experiences in this profession are more common than almost anyone wants to admit.

I know that plenty of people think about the blog as “one more thing” I have taken onto my already very full plate, and I suppose there is some merit to their argument.  A blog post can take me anywhere from 15 to 40 minutes, depending on if I’m just riffing and thinking on the screen (tonight) or if I actually do some background work to make it more academic.  What I have realized over the last almost-two years is that the blog gives me a great place to process information and to share things I’m thinking about, often getting input from people with very different perspectives and lives than mine.  I have also learned that if anything, it has helped my academic productivity; it used to be that I would have large breaks between episodes of writing for my research, and it was always a challenge to get back into the flow.  I sense less struggle now when I return to my “academic” writing because I’ve been writing, I’ve stayed in practice.  It reminds me of a more public version of the Big Chief tablet (anyone else remember those?!?) my 7th grade English teacher required us to write in for 10 minutes at the start of every class.  It took me many years to realize how much that practice helped me become a better writer.

So, I write.  I write to share.  I write to normalize.  I write to fight shame (sometimes my own, sometimes trying to ward off others’).  I write because it’s part of what I do and who I am.


Write. Right?

One of my electronic subscription delights/ indulgences is Eric Barker’s Barking up the Wrong Tree.  His blog incorporates science- yes, evidence!- to discuss ways to improve our personal and professional lives.  Those who know my love for incorporating evidence into clinical care won’t be a bit surprised by the fact that I swooned when I first found his blog.  I can have evidence-based life hacks?  Does it GET better than that?

Last week the lead topic, which was from his November 9th blog, was entitled, “How to be a better writer“.  I admit that this is something I wrestle with consistently, a bit for myself, but more often in my role as a research mentor and senior author on manuscripts.  I’ve realized that I was an “accidental” set-up for someone who doesn’t struggle greatly with writing.  I love reading books (Tip #5), and that’s been the case since very early in my childhood.  I also had a 7th grade English teacher who started class every day with 15 minutes of required writing in our Big Chief tablets.  There were no rules about the content, structure, or anything else, but we were expected to have our backsides in chairs writing, 5 days a week.  That’s the one bit that didn’t make it into the tips, but that seems implicit in them, is that to become a better writer you simply have to write.  A lot.  You have to learn to tune out that inner critic that will tell you your ideas aren’t valuable and write fearlessly; that’s been the biggest piece of making this blog work is ignoring the voice telling me, “That’s dumb!” and convincing myself to forge ahead and put material out into the blogosphere.  For me it’s also personally helpful to view my writing as a creative act, which sometimes feels rebellious in my structured scientific professional world.  Honestly, if I had to boil it down to two things, my advice on becoming a better writer?

1.  Read everything you can get your hands on.  You don’t have to read it as a critic.  Read for the experience of reading and learning how other people use language.  Read fiction, read nonfiction, read magazines, read it all.  You’ll develop ideas of what’s good, what’s not so good, and what is aspirational for you.

2.  Write early, write often.  It might take the form of getting yourself a Big Chief (yes, the still sell them) and blocking out 15 minutes in your schedule 3-5 days a week.  It might take the form of starting a blog and committing to posting twice a week with special exceptions for travel and clinical chaos.  Whatever it takes to get yourself in that chair, putting words on paper or on the screen…do it.  You won’t get better without practice.

I know there are plenty of manuscripts for my friends to prepare with the recent acceptances for the Academic Surgical Congress and the American Burn Association.  Let’s consider them a practical application in your quest to become a better writer.


Want more writing tips?  Here’s a curated list from Brainpickings.

(And yes, I know I violated Tip #3 by burying the lead.  Sorry for that, but I felt you needed the backstory- and information about Barker’s awesome blog/ newsletter.  Go subscribe!)