The Need to Write

I used to actually enjoy writing.  Now, it is painful.

As a scientist/professor, one of the main things that you do is to write.  You write papers, proposals, letters of support, annual reports and committee reports.  I can write this stuff with very little problem.  I can take an idea and kneed it and churn it and make it into beautiful prose.  I know what sells and what doesn’t.  I know how to edit graduate student papers and review proposals.  These are the things that my job demands of me.

But, what I have found over the last few years is that my desire to write for pleasure has diminished greatly.  I used to really love to write.  But now I feel clumsy and nothing comes out the way that I want it to.

I feel like there are a few reasons for this:

1. I don’t have the time to write anymore.  I constantly have other things that I need to do.  Like right now, I have a strong desire to look at my runs that I started today for my talk in 1.5 weeks.  This is an urgent thing, since if I don’t finish it, there are consequences.  If I don’t write, who will actually care?  Will anyone say, “hey, you haven’t written on your blog in a while, so we are going to cut your funding”?  No.  So, it always feels like there are much more important things to do than write.

2. Writing so much at work makes it so I am tired of writing.  And the stuff that I have to write at work is often not fun to write.  I therefore spend all of my writing efforts on writing that I don’t actually like to do.  For example, this is the season of faculty awards, grad school applications, promotions and other such things that require massive amounts of letter writing.  These types of letters are, by far, the most painful things for me to write.  Especially if I am not intimately familiar with the student or faculty member.  Figuring out what to say about a person is challenging.  I have tried to write very truthful and honest letters of support (which are the type that I would very much prefer), but have had pretty bad results from these.  You have to figure out how to tell the person what you want to actually tell them in a very subtle way.  If the student is a total rock star, then it is easy to write glowing things.  But most students are not rock stars.  They have flaws just like all of us.  So, do you discuss those flaws?  Or, the more likely scenario is that you only know a little bit about the student, but the student only has a couple of options for letter writers, in which case, from the student’s point of view, I would be better than nothing.  But, that may not really be true.

3. I sometimes feel like I have absolutely nothing of use to talk about.  And if you can’t say anything useful, why say anything at all?  This is a very lame excuse, though.  Since people like to read other people’s opinions and views of things.  I am not sure that my opinions are that important, but that shouldn’t matter.  I should just put them out there.  We are becoming over-saturated with people sharing information, and I often feel like I should not contribute to that.  But, at the same time, people can either read it or not.  I don’t put my thoughts out there to get a big audience, I do it because I want to get it out of my system.  I just need to remember that.

4. If you know me, you know that I sometimes don’t have very much of a filter between my brain and my mouth/fingers.  (How often has Mike said “I can’t believe you just said that”?) Which means I should probably avoid talking/writing.  Especially when I feel like writing the most, which is when the filter is least effective.

There are a lot of good reasons to write too:

1. A story on NPR the other day pointed out that scientists should write blogs more to inform people of the latest issues in science.  I am not sure that people care too much about ionospheric and thermospheric physics, but I can still yammer about these topics and you, the reader, can ignore them or can ingest the oh-so-meaningful insights that are sure to emanate from this site.

2. Writing is cathartic.  It helps to get things off my chest.

3. Blogs are a great way to pass information on to more people than the single person who requested the knowledge from you.  For example, writing about qual exams and meetings and such allow others to see what your opinions are. 

I would really like to get back in touch with the side of me that enjoys writing. Therefore, I will try to write more.  I really will.  Starting tonight.  Hey look, I already have written a bit.



About aaronridley

Professor at the University of Michigan, Department of Climate and Space Science and Engineering.
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