On writing

I’ve heard it said there’s no such thing as ‘bricklayer’s block’.

The argument goes that bricklayers lay bricks, that pilots (say) fly, and that writers write. For those of us lucky enough to be paid to put one word after another to create something that makes sense (in the same way, perhaps, that a bricklayer puts bricks one after the other to build a house), the curse of writer’s block looms over our lives like an oppressive low pressure system moving up through Fastnet and Lundy.

Actually, no it doesn’t.

Just as a bricklayer can’t get away with not building a house because she lacks inspiration, or exactly the right size brick for a particular corner, so a writer can’t get away with not filing copy because he can’t find the right word or phrase or opening sentence.

To be fair, however, I can appreciate that when you’re not writing for money sometimes projects fall into an insidious limbo because you just don’t have the energy to get over the particular wall you’ve come up against. But when your career depends on being able to mortar those words together (my metaphor is failing here. Help me out. Mortar equals punctuation?) then you’d bloody well better find a way through. Even if the topic is far outwith your knowledge, or your editor hates you, or the subject is simply tedious in the extreme (and believe me, I’ve had enough of the latter to last me a lifetime).

You know this already. So why am I telling you?

As you may not know—because I didn’t make a great song and dance about it—I started a new job in November. And while my previous gig came with multiple titles, none of which explained adequately what I ended up doing, the new one has the simple and (apparently) understandable title: ‘Senior Writer’.

Which is a little bit funny, because in the two months I’ve been here I haven’t done anything like what I’d call proper writing. Sure, I’ve done a heap of editing, literature research, website design, on-site support, storyboard editing, animation direction and even some information architecture, but not actual, honest to goodness writing.

So on Monday evening when the scientific director asked me if I was interested in working on a proposal for a mini-symposium I leapt at the chance. He wanted 1000 words on rheumatoid arthritis treatments—past, current and future—fully referenced and targeted to an audience of clinical rheumatologists. Sure, I said. How long can I spend on it? Well, he said, it needs to go off on Thursday: so a day and a half.

I spent Tuesday Googling and PubMedding everything I could find on the subject—something of which, by the way, I had no clinical knowledge whatsoever. I ended up with 50 papers (mostly open access, but I actually bought a scientific paper for the first time in my life), and on Wednesday I turned some half-baked notes into 1094 words on the subject, with 17 references.

The editor liked it, and the director liked it, and the proposal went off on time. And for the rest of the week I haven’t been able to get these words out of my head:

I am a writer.

About rpg

Scientist, poet, gadfly
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13 Responses to On writing

  1. ricardipus says:

    100 per cent awesome feeling, I imagine. But RA? Talk about a trial by fire! Inflammatory disease therapeutics, as you are now painfully (ha ha) aware, is a pretty daunting area to summarize, even given weeks to do it. Well done you.

  2. rpg says:


    And thanks. Another way of looking at it is that for about 15 minutes this week I was the world’s expert on RA.

  3. stephenemoss says:

    Kafka had a cheerful take on what it means to be a writer – “Writing is utter solitude, the descent into the cold abyss of oneself.”

  4. rpg says:

    That tells you more about Kafka than anything else. Not that you needed him to explicitly admit what a weirdo he was.

    My soul is warm and bright and cuddly. Hello trees, hello flowers.

  5. Eva says:

    (As you can tell from the previous “comment”, I’m not feeling very writerly lately…)

  6. Quoting Stephen:

    “Kafka had a cheerful take on what it means to be a writer – “Writing is utter solitude, the descent into the cold abyss of oneself.””

    And then you turn into a giant cockroach and make your family’s life miserable too.

  7. Heather says:

    I echo Eva’s sentiments. Also glad you are able to feel as pro as you are.

  8. rpg says:

    Thanks Heather. It’s nice to feel I have a real job again!

  9. Frank says:

    Kudos. I remember some moments like that. My first proper job as a librarian, first week getting a real bastard of a book to catalogue. Early on in my time as a hospital librarian, getting asked for a humongous and excruciatingly complicated literature search on various forms of cancer. Similarly, a few years later after moving to Mill Hill, trying to answer a very elaborate immunology literature search requested by someone who was very demanding.

    Sounds like you feel powerful right now. That’s a good place to be.

  10. rpg says:

    Thanks Frank. I’m not entirely sure about the ‘powerful’ part but I do know I’m having more fun—professionally—now than I have done in a long time.

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