Mantras for Writers

We’re writers. We like words. We don’t always like writing. Or maybe we just need a little nudge sometimes. Today we’ve collected some of the inspirational (or harassing, or shaming, or whatever works for us) quotes that we have posted around our computers. Maybe some of these will work for you.

Christie: I am writing a book. Book writing is hard. Some days are harder than others, and for inspiration, I’ve taped a bunch of mantras and words of wisdom to my computer monitor. I’ve stolen most of these from inspiring people.

I am in deep water, but I know how to swim. — From my wise colleague and friend Farai Chideya. (Everyone should read her book on building a career in this changing world.)

Grandiose intentions are the death of getting shit done. — Helen Fields, telling me to stop ruminating already and start writing.

There’s no magic. Really, there isn’t. It’s just one word in front of the other until you’re done. (From a discussion I had with Deborah Blum about book writing.)

I don’t need more time. I need a deadline. This is my “calling myself on my shit” self-talk. Every task balloons to fit the time I’ve given it. Deadlines are how writing gets done.

WTMFA! (Write the motherfucker already!) Some very good advice (based on a Dan Savage saying) that I’ve put on a mug, a whiskey flask and, most recently, my office chalkboard.

Obey the poem’s emerging form! This one was given to me by Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, whose friend Jack Mueller shouted it to her, with insistent love. I don’t write poetry, but I’ve found that Jack’s words are true for most creative endeavors.

Just one more hill. Here, have a banana. Now keep writing. — Greg Hanscom, my suffer buddy. Continue reading

Redux: Behind the Steel Door

This post first ran on February 11, 2015. 

Flu_Lab_tour15_7070In 2011, Yoshihiro Kawaoka reported that his team had engineered a pandemic form of the bird flu virus. Bird flu, also known as H5N1, has infected infected nearly 700 people worldwide and killed more than 400. But it hasn’t yet gained the ability to jump easily from human to human. Kawaoka’s research suggested that capability might be closer than anyone had imagined. His team showed that their virus could successfully hop from ferret to ferret via airborne droplets. In addition to scaring the bejesus out of many, Kawaoka’s controversial study, and a similar study by Ron Fouchier in the Netherlands, also sparked a debate about the wisdom of engineering novel and potentially deadly pathogens in the lab. 

It’s easy to see why people would be skeptical of research that aims to make pathogens that are deadlier or more transmissible than those found in nature. Marc Lipsitch and Alison Galvani outline many of the criticisms in an editorial published last year. Such experiments “impose a risk of accidental and deliberate release that, if it led to extensive spread of the new agent, could cost many lives. While such a release is unlikely in a specific laboratory conducting research under strict biosafety procedures, even a low likelihood should be taken seriously, given the scale of destruction if such an unlikely event were to occur. Furthermore, the likelihood of risk is multiplied as the number of laboratories conducting such research increases around the globe.” Continue reading

Bat Facts

The Washington Monument at night, behind a bunch of trees

Last week was National Pollinator Week. Did you eat your pollinator cake and enjoy pin-the-tail-on-the-pollinator games at your neighborhood pollinator party? Yeah, me neither. But, thanks to an observant friend who’s on a lot of e-mail lists, I did get to celebrate with a bat walk.

Some bats are pollinators. None of them happen to live here in Washington, D.C. Pollinating is more of a thing for bats that live in the tropics and the desert. But our local bats are, like many bats, cute and fuzzy as heck, so I will not complain that the U.S. Department of Agriculture hosted a bat guy as part of their eighth annual Pollinator Week Festival.

We met on a street corner at 8 p.m., next to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The bat guy – Rob Mies, founder of a bat conservation organization in Michigan – had brought a big brown bat with him, in a cage. Apparently the best way to tell the difference between a lot of bat species, including the big brown bat, is to do a bunch of careful measurements and maybe check their DNA. I was glad to find out the easy way: being told by an enthusiastic man in an adorable bat t-shirt.

While he held the bat in his gloved hand and fed it mealworms, I learned bat facts: Continue reading

The Fall Line

I have a mild case of fatal familial obsessive-compulsive disorder. (At least, if that were real I’d have it.) Today’s obsession is the Fall Line.

It’s the line that runs through the big east coast cities — New York City, Trenton, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore, Washington D.C., Richmond, all the way down to Columbia SC and Tuscaloosa AL.  And you thought the connecting line was I-95, didn’t you.  (I know you didn’t think that because you didn’t think about it at all, why would you.)  But I-95 only follows the Fall Line.  The Fall Line is a real physical line in the bones of the continent.  It’s the reason all those cities were born where they were.

As usual, my first obsession was with the prettiness of the name.  Fall Line.  I looked it up and found out that it was the point at which the east coast rivers all had rocky falls that couldn’t be sailed past.  So the rivers all had falls, so what? why dignify that with a name? so I just kept loving the name and not understanding what it meant.  But now I’m writing a story that requires some brain work on the Fall Line and besides, it runs straight through Baltimore.  (You could see it on a map if I-95 went through Baltimore instead of around it because Senator Barbara Mikulski made it do that.) I’m sitting next to the Fall Line right now; my office is in a converted sail cloth mill that is one of a string of mills running along the Jones Falls.  The picture at the top of this page is of the local falls and a brick mill just upstream from mine. Continue reading

The Last Word

June 19 – 23, 2017

“I imagine the zucchini plant at the end of the summer, lying back on the couch, an ice pack on its head, its eyes closed. Good work, I want to say to the zucchini. You made it.”  Now, says Cameron, will somebody please take some of it please?

Who besides Craig gets bear skulls as presents?  “What to do with a grizzly skull? I gave it to my desk, facing it toward me so when I look up I can see both sides of its life. One side is like cleanly polished marble; years of deep winter hibernation, summers of rivers and rivals. The other side, exploded, tells of a moment of flesh and blood to only be skinned and cleaned, where it now peers across books and papers at my mostly empty chair.”

Sarah invents the canine thermometer, a glorious gift unto the unhappy world.  “Heat can be gauged by the degree of extension, and whether the body is pointing up or down, and at what angle. Here, you can tell by the dogmometer’s full stretch that it’s pretty hot, but the positioning on the couch means it’s not so hot that she has to move to the much cooler wooden floor. That’d put it at 82.3 degrees Fahrenheit in the house.”

“So here is my exciting new proposition – call it the next big disruptive idea, call it old fashioned common sense. Every doctor, before he or she graduates medical school, must prescribe placebo pills to ten people and get four of them to respond. You can have as many tries as you want but you have to do it.”  Erik proposes a revolution in medical education.



My Garden of Evil (Plus, Planting Tips!)


So, here’s a weird thing that happened.

It began when I bought some new plants for my “garden” in Virginia. (I put “garden” in quotes because most of what grows in this spot are weeds, which I’ve taken to calling “native plants” to make myself feel less inept.)

These were the kinds of plants you pay good money for (and by good I mean A LOT), and I’d decided prices be damned, go for three of everything because sets of three look best.

I got them at the nursery part of the gift shop at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s old digs. Most of the plants sold there are species that have been thriving on the property since Jeffersonian times, so there’s a sort of botanical history that comes with them—and, as they’re tried and true in his yard, theoretically they should survive less than 10 miles down the road in mine.

The plants, the day, both so filled with promise.

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The Placebo Test

Over the past few months, I’ve spoken to a number of groups about the power of belief in medicine as a part of promoting my book, Suggestible You. It’s been a fascinating process and I’ve loved hearing about people’s individual experience with placebos, self-healing and alternative medicine.

But I often asked a simple question: what does all of this offer us? The mind is a powerful thing. Great, what do we do with that?

If you are not into mind/body medicine, it’s a pretty good question. Why should we care? Whenever I get this question, I find myself telling a story about an accomplished placebo expert by the name of Karin Jensen. It seems that when she first started studying placebos, she quickly ran into a rather serious problem: She could not elicit them.

Try as she might, when she gave little inert pills to unsuspecting subjects, they never reported feeling better. Which might not seem strange except studies have regularly shown that whenever you give placebos to subjects, some percentage do end up feeling better. Sometimes as many as 60 percent of them.

And to make matters worse, her assistant wasn’t having this problem. She could give out pills left and right and, Bam!, people felt better. For Jensen, who was dedicating her life to placebo research, this was kind of an existential crisis.

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Doom and the dogmometer

One way to understand a really big problem is to break it down into more manageable parts. That’s why scientists use specific, smaller systems to help them grasp the overall health of the planet. The Arctic, for example, is regarded as a bellwether for the catastrophes of climate change that will soon afflict us all, thanks to its temperatures that are rising faster than those in any other region on Earth. There’s also the escalating loss of glacier ice around the world. Or this week’s “heat attack,” which will basically force residents of the American Southwest to go hide deep underground in caves or risk perishing in temperatures predicted to climb past 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

But since long before the famous hockey stick graph, scientists have also secretly relied on another, much more ancient analog to skry the hot ’n’ doomy future: The dogmometer. Continue reading