Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Blank Page

There is nothing more daunting to me than the blank screen.

Before I had consistent access to computers (and my very first computer was the family Commodore 64 that we received second hand from a relative during Grade 7, and it had a black screen with green letters and came with a lovely D&D style maze game), there was nothing more daunting to me than the blank page. I know I'm not alone when it comes to having a stare-down with the blank screen. Scientists and writers extraordinaire with much more experience face this stare-down at various points in their lives.

I admit to being a procrastinator when it comes to physically writing SOMETHING. I'm not a procrastinator in the sense that I'll look at a writing task and think "Oh, fiddle-dee-dee, I'll think about writing that tomorrow," but a procrastinator in the sense that I spend more time than I should, well, assing around before I write what could be considered a passable sentence containing any content. I fill the time when I could actually be depressing keys with my fingers and putting words on the screen with going overboard on the other aspects of writing a paper - in other words, everything except the actual writing part.

Oh sure, I spend a great deal of time researching the background information, the previous studies, collecting the data, and running the analyses. I make the pretty graphs. I study the pretty graphs until I am confident in what they are telling me about the data. I rerun the analyses (and make the pretty graphs as a result of said analyses) to make sure I'm not missing an angle. I know what I know, and I know that I know it well.


The blunt truth of the issue is that I, a die-hard field researcher for whom encountering (mountain) lions and tigers (do bad field tans count?) and bears (oh my!) is just part of the job, and thinks nothing of flinging herself (safely) down a 60 degree slope to study dinosaur footprints, am nothing more than a highly derived theropod belonging to the genus Gallus (I'm chicken).

I will never be as cool as these chickens from Grossi et al. 2014. Walking like dinosaurs: chickens with artificial tails provide clues about non-avian theropod locomotion. PLoS ONE 9(2): e88458. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0088458.

Are my observations original enough? If they are not original, do they at least offer a fresh perspective? Am I interpreting the data logically? Am I interpreting the previous work correctly? I imagine those concerns are relatively normal for academic writing, and if nothing else, they keep me vigilant. Still, those are the logical concerns, and my paper-writing trepidation is full of all kinds of non-logic.

On a deeper emotional level, The Idea that I plan to write is safe, snug, and tame in my head until I release It on the page with all of the intellectual equivalent of placenta and blood (and sweat, and tears, and frustration). Once The Idea is released, It begins to take on a life of its own. Sure, I guide It, shape It, and direct It, but The Idea grows to become a demanding force that can't be ignored or set aside. The Idea contains its own brand of strengths and weaknesses, all of which display my personal intellectual strengths and weaknesses. The Idea must be seen to its conclusion, for better (happily published) or worse (horribly rejected). Every Idea that is published has a potential to change the course of science from the smallest tweak to one of those papers that makes you sit back and think "Well, I'll be..."

Now that this swirling bit of illogical emotion is out of my head, I hear the incessant call of the The Idea that cannot be ignored.

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