"A writer and nothing else: a man alone in a room with the English language, trying to get human feelings right. " ~John K. Hutchens, New York Herald Tribune, 10 September 1961

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Piled Higher and Deeper - writer's block of an unusual kind

posted by Shehla


I once watched a documentary on Leonard Cohen and was struck by his discipline in writing. He insisted that to be a writer, he had to "go to work" every day, and therefore, to write every day. I'm much more liberal in my approach to writing, choosing to wait for revelation, the right mood, the perfect environment. It is one of the main reasons why I often tell people I am not a "real writer".

So imagine the gravity of the task at hand. Writing the introduction chapter of my Ph.D. dissertation. Is there ever a perfect environment to sit down and regurgitate facts about prostate cancer and molecular signaling pathways? Can one ever be in the mood to describe, in great length, the zonal anatomy of the prostate, the gaping holes in knowledge about the disease, and the dearth of treatment options available for advanced stages of said disease? No prizes for guessing the right answer.

It hasn't been all that bad. I've learned some very intriguing things, which 5 years of doing experiments and reading the literature never taught. Did you know, for instance, that prostatic intraepithelial neoplasia - the precursor lesions that lead to prostate cancer - can be present in men as early as at 20 years of age? Now there's a reason to be grateful I'm not a man. Sadly, this documented, reference-able fact takes up only one line to communicate. I'm supposed to write an entire CHAPTER. It also makes for very strange conversations, as I go around punctuating dinner with my treasure of "believe it or not" prostate cancer facts.

As stuck as I'm feeling, this is a very exciting time in the life of a graduate student. Years of hard work has finally shaped up to form a coherent theory. And nothing can match the feeling of coming up with and proving a novel hypothesis. My thesis mentor told me writing the intro will be hardest part of the process. I couldn't imagine what would be so hard about collecting background information on a topic I have lived and breathed for years. Turns out (as always) he was right. It's not so much collecting the information than figuring out how best to summarize it. Gives a whole new meaning to the term "writer's block". For inspiration (or for lack of it), I have resorted to perusing my favorite comic website, www.phdcomics.com. Yes, it's real. Yes, they really do put up comic strips on the life of graduate students. I can safely credit them with hours of procrastination, and in addition to providing the title to this blog post they have also been an amazing support group over the past half-decade. Too bad they can't summarize the different stages of metastatic adenocarcinomas.

2 comments:

Blue Wit said...

"It also makes for very strange conversations, as I go around punctuating dinner with my treasure of "believe it or not" prostate cancer facts." Pfffffft!!!! *chokes on food*

Having been through the whole grad student 'thing', I can totally relate. I wrote my intro last, though. Mainly because I had no idea what my argument would be in the main body of the thesis. Hello, Social Sciences ;)

Noor said...

I think you will do a great job and soon we will be calling you Doctor Wynne. :)

And you ARE a real writer - believe it or not.