Writers Don’t Spring from Zeus’s Forehead Either

I’ve never done a proper fisking on this blog before, but someone seems to have been wearing his curmudgeon pants while reading yesterday’s blog post. I use “curmudgeon” advisedly, in the sense that Jay Rosen does, given the nature of some of the sneers involved. Normally, I’d ignore something like this, but it’s a misunderstanding that has been repeated elsewhere, although this is the only case I’ve seen that’s reacting to my remarks in context and still missing the point.

Specifically, John Pavlus objects to my statement that “For her skills, sure, I would love to be Rebecca Skloot. It would not keep me from staying hidden. If I want to be recognized, I have to aspire to be Carl or Ed.” Rather than characterize the response as anything more than curmudgeonly, I’ll let it speak for itself in its entirety.

This is unfashionable to say, but the above idea strikes me as complete and utter horseshit.

Yes, the only reason I would object to Pavlus’s statement is fashion. It has nothing to do with taking the idea out of its context, as I lay out below. Or perhaps it does.

Skloot is a world-famous bestselling author who wrote one of THE most read, praised, influential pieces of science journalism of the last decade (at least). (Plus she’s been on Colbert!) Ed Yong (for all his talent, and it is a lot) is internet-famous at best.

This, oddly, is exactly my point. In fact, in the post he’s calling “horseshit,” I said, “Rebecca frequently didn’t make those lists, despite being widely lauded as having published the single best piece of science writing of 2010 and having reached an audience that most writers could only dream of. She never came first.” This is a common problem when people make lists.

No, make that internet-famous among science bloggers. That’s like saying you’re king of the nerd table in a high school cafeteria.

Rebecca Skloot is also a science blogger. The blog is currently much more about the book, but I expect that will change when the craziness of her promotion and success steps down a little. She’s not about to stop writing. She is part of the very community that frequently forgot to hold her up as an example, and all her success didn’t change that.

I’m not sure what’s supposed to be wrong with science blogging, but the use of a cultural slur in his simile suggests Pavlus finds something very wrong with it indeed. Thus, curmudgeon.

Write the next “Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” and this precious “recognition” will soon follow, you can bet on it.

Here is the crux of the problem with this post.

Pavlus is a writer, among other things. I have trouble imagining that he doesn’t understand how much work and practice it takes to develop the skills that are on display in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. And there’s a reason writers groups and writing partners are widely recommended: It’s much harder to develop those skills by yourself.

Skloot didn’t develop her writing skills in a vacuum. She got a degree in writing and developed her skills among the magazines. She received feedback from editors and other aspiring and professional writers. And she blogged, receiving feedback more directly from readers.

In addition to her training and practice, Skloot attributes her success to “persistence, thick skin, pre-query research, more thick skin and more persistence.” She also notes that the social aspect of dealing with other writers is “invaluable. It’s also good to just get together and whine, because writing is hard. You help each other through it.”

In other words, writing skills and writing careers do not develop in social isolation. Nobody just sits down one day and taps out The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, not even Skloot.

Also, there are limited options these days for even very good science writers to develop in a professional setting and receive the encouragement of professionals. Paid publishing jobs diminished over the last few years, which makes feedback from readers and peers more important than ever–particularly if we wish to increase the quantity of quality in our science communications. Thus blogging, and the visibility of that blogging, are highly relevant when we want to discuss who will become the “next Rebecca Skloot.”

Saying, “Produce the work of breathtaking craftsmanship, and then we can talk about what you need to develop your craft,” is 100% backwards.

Of course, Skloot also marketed her ass off.

Indeed she did, and well. The self-promotion discussion is happening at Kate Clancy‘s and Dr Becca‘s blogs, however, rather than mine.

But these two facts strike me as about three or four orders of magnitude more salient to achieving “recognition” than the fact of one’s gender.

They are indeed more relevant–if the topic at hand is popular success. This one was about visibility among peers. Those are different.

Seriously: who gives a rat’s ass whose name appears first in the program notes at some science-blogger love-in? Not Skloot, I’d wager. She has more important things to worry (and write) about.

I didn’t suggest Skloot should get involved in the talk over who was cited. There’s almost never any upside for any writer to get involved in discussions about their career or published work (see Anne Rice and Amazon reviews). But that doesn’t much matter, as the discussion is actually about newer writers.

As for ScienceOnline: None of this happened in the program notes, which were linked from my post, but to which I otherwise didn’t refer. There were bloggers, yes, plus entertainers, educators, researchers, technical developers, high school students, etc. And what’s wrong with bloggers? Beyond that, what’s wrong with a “love-in” (particularly when one is referring to the group of diverse colleagues getting together to share experiences, ideas, and challenges that ScienceOnline actually is)? After all, Skloot herself gave the keynote address in 2009, participated thoroughly in 2010, and hopes to again in 2012.

No, for the reasons I’ve already laid out, this conference and the community that participates in it are important to developing science writers. Their ability to fully participate in that community, and to be recognized by that community, matters. They give a “rat’s ass” about it. So do I.

Writers Don’t Spring from Zeus’s Forehead Either

8 thoughts on “Writers Don’t Spring from Zeus’s Forehead Either

  1. 1

    Clearly, your curmudgeon believes you want recognition so that people will hail you in the street and ask for your autograph… As opposed to a comfortable position in a vibrant intellectual community where you can exchange ideas and grow as a writer. Ultimately, it is gradually dawning on me that for my career goals, what I need to do is find (or foster) such a community of scientists. I may have to put Bora under my microscope- it seems to me that community-building (that he excels at) is the one skill that best facilitates optimal (enjoyable and efficient) acquisition of other skills.Which is why it's pernicious that people don't realize when they are building community- and who they are leaving out.

  2. 2

    I was thinking of starting a blog, and the purpose of polishing my prose high on the list of motivating factors. I worry that as a master's student I do not have the credibility to carry an academic blog, and I worry that my early writing being internet accessible will eventually work against me later in my career. It is somewhat embarrassing to admit, but I feel like I should have someone's approval to be blogging as a scholar (as opposed to a cook or a consumer) or have reached some obvious milestone like a PhD or winning a literary award–as if my thoughts would not carry enough weight without some sort of official sanction.I feel this concern is connected to gender. In my experience men accept they are competent in a skill, while women that have that same skill level still feel unsteady. How much skill and clout do you need to already posses begin a serious blog?

  3. 3

    I think he wasn't paying attention to what you wrote because he does an awfully bad job of agreeing with you, in a round about kind of way.

  4. 6

    How much skill and clout do you need to already posses begin a serious blog?Temptation aside, what DM wrote.If you've got something to write, blog it. One of our favorites is Anna White's woodworking blog. Pretty much nobody ever heard of her before she started Knock Off Wood.Or how about Tracy Coenen and Pink Truth or Pamela Jones when she started GrokLaw?Three women who came out of figurative nowhere with something to say. Three totally different topics, handled differently (Anna from sharing joy in working with wood, Tracy [1] and PJ [2] with some righteous anger) — all three have established themselves as "go to" resources in their topics [3].So don't wait for engraved invitation.[1] A forensic fraud investigator[2] A paralegal[3] GrokLaw has been cited favorably by the courts for its in-depth and accurate coverage of the cases before them.

  5. 7

    Based on a lot of what John Pavlus has written, my sense is that he wouldn't disagree with any of your arguments above, or even with almost all of what you wrote yesterday. Rather, I think that one quoted sentence jumped out at him and he took great exception to it; if that means he was reading it out of context, so be it.The point he was trying to make—and I think it's a valid one—is just that there's no reason to prefer Ed Yong's career success to Rebecca Skloot's. The science blogging community is a wonderful, stimulating, nurturing place where we all learn a lot, but popularity, respect and acclaim in the blogosphere don't correlate to monetary success (obviously). Surveys show that only a fairly small part of the public engages with blogs at all, let alone science blogs. Pavlus writes often about the need for freelancers to have a clear sense of what their real jobs are, and I think he was reacting to what he (mis)perceived as a recommendation that aspiring science writers aspire to be big fish in the small pond of science blogging rather than big fish in the lake of science writing.Were you suggesting that? Of course not. But out of such passions and misreadings are misunderstandings born.

  6. 8

    John, I don't doubt that, but given a choice of which of the misunderstandings to respond to….Rebecca, what DM and D. C. said. A new blog is a new blog. A mature blog is still not a perfect blog. Write. Get feedback. Get better. Take chances and test yourself when you feel strong. Promote before you really think your writing is quite ready but when you think the subject needs it. It's easier to promote a topic you care about than it is to promote yourself.Mostly, write.

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