Am I A Writer?


What does it mean to be a writer?  There a mil­lion answers for that ques­tion.  Well…  Not a mil­lion but I think you know what I mean.  Right?  For me, the answer is pret­ty sim­ple.  A writer is a per­son who writes.  So if you want to get intel­lec­tu­al about it, we can delve deep­er and ask, “If a writer is a per­son who writes, then how much must they write to qual­i­fy?”  At the risk of sound­ing con­trary, I could ask, “If I write one word a day, is that enough to be con­sid­ered a writer?”


eelke dekker via Comp­fight

I’ve been giv­ing this sig­nif­i­cant thought late­ly because I have not been feel­ing par­tic­u­lar­ly writer­ly. I’ve been look­ing at old writ­ing.  I’ve been tweak­ing and edit­ing.  I’ve been think­ing and have inter­nal con­ver­sa­tions with char­ac­ters.  But, I have not been putting any­thing new down onto paper.  The longer I go with­out actu­al­ly cre­at­ing any­thing new the more com­fort­able I become being a pas­sive writer.  The more guilt.  The less I actu­al­ly do. Bad bad cycle.  Right?

Maybe not.

I work as a breast oncol­o­gy nurse.  I’m good at what I do, if I do say so myself.  I work five days a week for any­where from 8–12 hours a day depend­ing on the state of my clin­ics.  I inter­view and com­mu­ni­cate with 70–140 patients a week either in per­son, by phone, or via email. I try to treat each patient as if they are my only patient.  I like what I do.  And yet, every three months or so, I am so cooked that I require a break.  I take a few days off dur­ing which my mind very infre­quent­ly wan­ders to any­thing remote­ly relat­ed to my work.  As a mat­ter of fact, after a long day at work, I’m usu­al­ly able to leave the job behind me until the next day.  I call it selec­tive engage­ment.

I don’t think it should be any dif­fer­ent with my writ­ing.

There are times when I am in a writ­ing roll.  Char­ac­ters live with me.  Prod and poke me. Cry out to me.  And in lis­ten and I chron­i­cle their sto­ries. I give in to their need of me. I sub­mit.  Then, there are times when though I may wish to, I sim­ply can not muster the ener­gy for them.  I close the door on them.  I play games.  I read more or less.  I watch old episodes of Star Trek.  I med­i­tate and pray more fer­vent­ly.  I turn inward.  Dur­ing that time I may not write a sin­gle cre­ative word.  Why should in feel guilty about that?  Why should I feel the need to turn in my “writer’s mem­ber­ship” card?

I don’t think I should.

At the end of then day I think that only I can decide if I am a writer, and only I can define that for myself.

So… What is the def­i­n­i­tion of a writer?  A per­son who writes.

How much does an writer have to write to be con­sid­ered a writer?  As much as they can.

Am I a writer?  Absolute­ly, yes.

Are you?

It’s All in the Details


Fábio Alves via Comp­fight

I’m that per­son who rolls her eyes in dis­gust when I watch a movie where the doc­tor checks for the patient’s pulse using his thumb.  I groan when a labor­ing woman gives birth to a baby with no umbil­i­cal cord who already looks mature enough to get up and walk away.  I hate when movie char­ac­ters wake up with per­fect make-up and hair.  I yell at the screen when a char­ac­ter doing CPR has his arms bent while giv­ing chest compressions…way too slow­ly.  And for the life of me, and don’t get me wrong, I love the Walk­ing Dead, but shouldn’t all those walk­ing dead, empha­sis on the word dead, have melt­ed into pud­dles of rot­ten goop in the sum­mer heat by now?

But that’s tele­vi­sion.  In books, we get it right.  Right?  Not so much.

Who would ever notice?  Who cares?  I do.  While there are few things about which I can claim being an expert, believe me when I say that I am pay­ing atten­tion to every­thing.  If I’m pay­ing atten­tion then rest assured that there is some nit­pick­ing pick­er who is scan­ning your prose with a mag­ni­fy­ing glass.  If you don’t get the facts right, those lit­tle details, you’re like­ly to lose cred­i­bil­i­ty.  Check out 5 Com­mon Med­ical Errors in Movies.

When I wrote An Unpro­duc­tive Woman almost fif­teen years ago, I includ­ed a char­ac­ter named Khadi­jah who had recur­rent breast can­cer.  While I didn’t give hard details or facts about her dis­ease or treat­ment, I did say enough to get it wrong.  After com­plet­ing AUW, the man­u­script spent the next ten or so years in a box in my garage.  Who would have thought that in the inter­im, as I raised my two eldest chil­dren, I would even­tu­al­ly go to nurs­ing school and become a reg­is­tered and cer­ti­fied breast oncol­o­gy nurse?  Not me, that’s for sure.

When the oppor­tu­ni­ty to self-pub­lish AUW pre­sent­ed itself, I grabbed it with both hands.  I imme­di­ate­ly got to work re-read­ing and re-edit­ing.  It is while doing the final edit that I real­ized how wrong I had been.  Chemother­a­py typ­i­cal­ly lasts six months, not nine.  Radi­a­tion may burn the skin but does not cause the hair of the head to fall out, unless that is the area being radi­at­ed.  Not all chemother­a­py caus­es nau­sea and weight loss.

Wikipedia is a ter­rif­ic source of infor­ma­tion for some things, but some­times, it’s the small details that count.  Per­son­al­ly, I am impressed when I read about a char­ac­ter who’s received an intra­mus­cu­lar injec­tion in the right hip as opposed to a shot in the butt.  I’m not talk­ing info dumps here, nor am I look­ing for any House-like rare con­di­tions with cures that are even more off the wall, but the basics should always be spot on if we are to earn our reader’s con­fi­dence.  Unless we’re writ­ing fan­ta­sy, we can’t just make it up as we go along.  Actu­al­ly, you can’t always make it up with fan­ta­sy either.

For an accu­rate and up to date med­ical ref­er­ence, Med­scape is a ter­rif­ic online resource.  Look up any med­ical con­di­tion and you’ll get an expla­na­tion about dis­ease pre­sen­ta­tion, diag­nos­tic pro­ce­dures, and pos­si­ble treat­ments.  PubMed, while a tad schol­ar­ly, is a pret­ty good resource as well.  The reg­u­lar old Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol also pro­vides infor­ma­tion that’s easy for the lay per­son to under­stand.  When in absolute doubt, just ask an expert.  If you’re the shy type, send an email.

Ah, so, it’s not med­ical infor­ma­tion you need?  For more gen­er­al knowl­edge try The Order of Things: Hier­ar­chies, Struc­tures, and Peck­ing Orders by Bar­bara Ann Kipfer.  This book is a fan­tas­tic orga­nized ref­er­ence book with dozens of lists about every­thing from reli­gion, to phi­los­o­phy, to eco­nom­ics and more.

The long and short of it is, it’s all in the details, and as a writer, you need to pay atten­tion to them.  If you don’t, your read­er will.

And for the record, if you want to take out a zom­bie, a gun­shot to the frontal lobe isn’t like­ly to do the trick.  You’ve got to destroy or sev­er the brain stem.  Just say­ing.


(Orig­i­nal­ly guest-post­ed 02/2012 at

How I Got Schooled


I had an inter­est­ing expe­ri­ence recent­ly that brought me abrupt­ly back to the sub­ject of cul­tur­al (mis)appropriation. It was one of those moments when an out­sider pre­sumed to school me about my own reli­gious and  cul­tur­al tra­di­tions.

The woman was a patient, some­one I haven’t met before. She seemed appre­hen­sive when I entered the exam room. I inter­viewed her about the side effects she’s been expe­ri­enc­ing with her cur­rent chemo reg­i­men. I tried to ease her appre­hen­sion by ask­ing about her fam­i­ly.  She showed me pic­tures on her iPad of her home in the coun­try, her kids, a sun­set.  Then she asked me about my fam­i­ly. Specif­i­cal­ly, she want­ed to know if my daugh­ters cov­er their hair as well. I answered in the affir­ma­tive, offer­ing eye con­tact and an hon­est easy smile as it is at this point that peo­ple often become uncom­fort­able because they think that per­haps I might be. I’m not…ever.  My years of apolo­get­ics are long past.  The rest of the con­ver­sa­tion pro­ceed­ed like this:

So the scarf is part of your cul­ture?”

I shook my head. “No. My scarf is a req­ui­site of my reli­gion.”  I didn’t expound and say that as a fel­low born and raised Amer­i­can my cul­ture and hers are essen­tial­ly the same.

There are a lot (I assumed she meant Mus­lims) who come here for treat­ment.”

Oh yes.  This is true. This being an inter­na­tion­al­ly renown can­cer cen­ter peo­ple from all over the world come here to receive what they believe will be the best pos­si­ble treat­ment.”

Well you know, the thing that I find so sur­pris­ing is that you’ll see these men push­ing their wives in wheel­chairs.”

At this point I no longer had to assume. I knew she was refer­ring to Mus­lims. I knew where she was head­ed, and despite the warn­ing voice in my head, I asked her to elab­o­rate. So I said, “Oh? Why is that sur­pris­ing?”

Well, usu­al­ly the women walk ten feet behind the men.”

Exact­ly ten feet? I thought is was six. Just kid­ding.  


Sté­fan via Comp­fight

I was dumb­found­ed and shook my head. “Uh, that’s not true.”

Yes it is and I see it all the time.”

Are we liv­ing in the same world? Why is it that I nev­er see this? And since I’m an obser­vant Mus­lim, I sup­pose I’m break­ing some age old law because I walk where I please with­out fear of an hon­or killing (I am being face­tious) or being sent to hell by Allah. I want­ed to ask her if she thinks that these men love their wives any less than Amer­i­can or non-Mus­lim men love their wives, if she believes that even rid­dled with can­cer these women would be expect­ed to trun­dle along exact­ly ten feet behind their hus­bands even after the expense and time of being flown to the USA for expen­sive can­cer treat­ments.

This was not the appro­pri­ate venue for me to school her about the dif­fer­ence between cul­ture and reli­gion, to divorce her of a stereo­type as old as dirt and as wrong as sin. She was my patient and it would be inap­pro­pri­ate and unpro­fes­sion­al for me to enter into a debate. So I said in a way that I hope sound­ed light-heart­ed, “Well if you see this, it’s not a pre­cept of the reli­gion (my reli­gion), but more like­ly a cul­tur­al prac­tice.”

The look she gave me, this pity­ing poor fool­ish igno­rant girl look, made me want to scream. Of course I didn’t though. Not out loud, in any case, but there was def­i­nite­ly tight ten­sion in the room until I left.

But hon­est­ly, where does she get off school­ing me about ME? I know where she gets off, because as I’ve already men­tioned, she and I do come from the same cul­ture.

There is this thing we west­ern­ers are guilty of… think­ing we know bet­ter, that we are the benev­o­lent teach­ers of right, that we mere­ly tol­er­ate the rest of the world’s back­ward cul­tur­al prac­tices. This is an unfor­giv­ably arro­gant atti­tude and it’s ram­pant.

But even deep­er and more sig­nif­i­cant, and per­haps this is my igno­rance here, how can any­one with access to tech­nol­o­gy liv­ing in this glob­al world be so incred­i­bly out of touch? Okay I sup­pose she can be. I mean as glob­al­ly savvy as we in the west like to think we are, we’re often just about as provin­cial and insu­lat­ed as we can get, as evi­denced by her obvi­ous igno­rance. The most aggra­vat­ing part though was her arro­gant per­sis­tence that she was cor­rect, that she knew bet­ter than me.

I believe there is an old no longer prac­ticed Japan­ese cul­tur­al tra­di­tion where the men walk ahead of the women.  Tra­di­tion­al­ly this was so that the men could serve as pro­tec­tion. This was not intend­ed as a means to sup­press or oppress the women. I have nev­er met a Mus­lim woman, who because of her faith, walks behind her hus­band unless she just hap­pened to end up there.

But that is all beside the point. I real­ly want­ed to talk about writ­ing. I want­ed to impress how impor­tant it is for writ­ers to be tru­ly glob­al thinkers. We can not afford, if we care about our craft and our read­ers, to lose the oppor­tu­ni­ty to learn. We all make errors and assump­tions, but when faced with the oppor­tu­ni­ty to learn the truth from the source, unlike my patient, we don’t have the lux­u­ry of shak­ing our heads and shak­ing off infor­ma­tion in favor of hold­ing on to erro­neous pre­con­ceived ideas.

This woman is not a writer, her words won’t like­ly be dis­sem­i­nat­ed via the inter­net or some oth­er form of media, but let’s pre­tend she is a writer, a very pop­u­lar writer… Imag­ine the affect.