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.