Breaking Mental Barriers

The short version: Hey!  I wrote my first article!  Check it out on page 27 of the October 2015 issue of Zocalo Magazine.

Have you ever submitted an essay more than a day before it’s due?

Me neither.

This usually happens because 1) I’m a procrastinator, and 2) I’m a perfectionist.  The result?  I usually begin an essay the day before it’s due, and continually fret over it until 11:59PM forces me to hit the “send” button.

Real-world writing assignments are the same way: I’m convinced that, given no time constraints, no writer would finish anything.  Ever.  At some point, though, our ancestors decided they really needed to count pigs and record stories and stuff, and so invented deadlines – dates with the sole purpose of prying manuscripts from writers’ cold, dead, over-caffeinated hands.

So, the prospect of writing for public audiences hits me in two ways: as a procrastinator, I want to avoid this for as long as possible, and as a perfectionist, I want to do it well.

This dilemma turns the idea of publication into a solid, insurmountable wall. It creates a mental barrier that stops the writer from actually writing.  Maybe that’s where writer’s block stems from.

That’s where the deadline comes in handy.  It forces you to say, “I know this will absolutely suck, but I’ll get something down on paper and address the sucky-ness later.”

This semester, I’m taking a class on Science Journalism, and it’s been the deadline that forces me to write something – no matter how sucky – and submit it.

My assignment: interviewing speakers for an upcoming lecture series on immortality.  So, armed with a pen, notebook, voice recording app and considerable inexperience, I hunted down five professors and asked them what they thought about death.

I was the kid who feared phones so much that I’d rather starve than order pizza.  The prospect of interviewing strangers elicited that same feeling.  My first interview began awkwardly – “Hi, my name is Definitely-Not-A-Journalist, I’m here to do a story on Something-I-Know-Nothing-About, and do you mind if I record this because I’ll-Forget-Most-of-this-Conversation?”

But I’d forgotten one thing: Professors love discussing their research.  So, after the clumsy first minute, the my interviewee would take over.  I made a list of questions to ask, and never used them; these professors seized the conversation and carried it away to places I would never have imagined, and answered questions I never thought to ask.

Then I went home, wrote the article, and sent it off.  A week later, it was published (page 27 for the curious).  And, just like that, the barrier was broken.

I doubt publishing a scientific paper will be half as straightforward.  But that’s a problem for tomorrow…