Tuesday, May 24, 2016

JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: Channeling Benjamin-The Data Made Me Do It

by Linda Wastila

On January 2, 2016, I marked my ten-year anniversary ofwriting. How do I recall so clearly when I began writing? And, after a decade of pen to paper, much of it devoted to two-and-a-half novels that remain unpublished, why do I even bother?

Let’s back up. By day, I’m a scientist, first trained as a pharmacist in the bucolic kingdom of Chapel Hill. I started down the pharmacy path as a means to medical school but discovered I didn’t want to deal with warts, ear infections, and patients’ poor lifestyle choices. I turned to public health, where I learned a lot, including the sad fact that after five years of an undergraduate curriculum studded with science classes and multiple choice exams, I didn’t know how to string together a sentence. My thesis advisor mandated I get a writing tutor. Which I did.

My first job was at a Boston think tank. My office overlooked the entrance to the emergency room at New England Medical Center. It was loud, distracting, fascinating existence. There, I wrote nothing you’d be interested in: passive voice, peer-reviewed manuscripts filled with science jargon. Shortly into my first gig, I realized I wanted to run my own studies, which meant I needed a Piled Higher and Deeper. I returned to another bucolic campus—Brandeis University. It was there I fell in love with… numbers.

Fast forward to Baltimore, 2005. As a Research Professor at the University of Maryland, my job was to grow our department’s research endeavor. My salary was 100% covered by me. Which meant a LOT of grant writing. Fortunately, I was good at grant writing and had several studies, almost all involving gigabytes of data that required massage and analysis using sexy techniques like negative binomial regression. But I acquired one unusual project that required me to look both back in time and into the future regarding psychiatric medication development. The study required both analysis and reading about drug discovery, theories on illness manifestation, and how chemicals alter psychiatric maladies.

I read at night, crunched numbers by day. One afternoon, while studying data on health care costs among mentally ill people, I noticed several individual points scattered far from the bulk of the others. The outliers. And it occurred to me, for the first time, that those data points were people. Real people. Individuals with serious and expensive mental and physical health problems. Which made me ponder those dots of data, ponderings that didn’t make themselves known to me until…

I woke up one morning and my first thought was, “Who is Benjamin Michael Taylor and why is he in trouble?”

I got out of bed, went to my computer, and wrote a short, incoherent paragraph about Benjamin. I shut the file, went to work, and forgot about him.

Until six months later when, in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I stumbled across the file I’d named ‘benmich’. As I read my notes, his entire story tumbled before me.

Benjamin consumed me during the holidays—What did he look like? Did he believe in God? What music did he listen to? I didn’t know what to do with the information. I believed myself mad—crazy mad—because Benjamin became an obsession: I saw him in the streets, I dreamt about his tattoo, I woke at night and worried about him locked up in the loony bin.

On January 2, 2006, after not listing ‘writing a book’ on my list of New Year’s resolutions, I began to type out the words stuck in my head. At first, I wrote tentatively—what if I got stuck? What if my words sounded ridiculous? But the writing came easily—I was in ‘flow’—and continued until I finished Ben’s story five months and 183,000 words later.

During those five months, it felt as though I was a medium and someone else channeled words through my hands onto the keyboard and onto the screen. I worried my protagonist and I shared a common malady—bipolar disorder. What else explained my extreme focus and productivity? Much later, I found out frenzied writing is a medical condition called hypergraphia, a compulsion to write. An incredibly heady and empowering experience. I believe if my first foray into writing had been ponderous and tedious whether I’d still be at it because, as I’ve since discovered, writing IS hard. Damn hard.

I continue to spend every morning, often in the dark, writing for 30-40 minutes before my family wakes and the day swallows me. I pluck away minute by minute, word by word, because in those blessed hypergraphic months I discovered I love the journey of creating with words almost more than the creation itself.

Ten years later, my sad-lad literary creation BRIGHTER THAN BRIGHT is exactly half as long as the first draft. I’ve continued Benjamin’s adventures in PURE, a novel of academic malfeasance. I’m marketing my novels in hopes of finding a sympathetic agent or editor who wishes to help me launch my babies into the world. My third novel, THE MINISTER’S WIFE, started three years ago for my Master’s thesis, remains a glorious mess.

As it should be—novels are beasts. And it’s this challenge—and pleasure—that compel me to write.

In the end, data drove me to write. I wrote what “I knew” and discovered the people behind the data points have stories to tell. So I try to tell them. Over the decade, these problems have become personal, affecting friends and family, but these experiences only fuel my need to write their stories, to bring to light my take on my world.  


LJ Wastila writes from Baltimore, where she professes, mothers, and gives a damn. Her Pushcart- and Best-of-the-Net stories and poems have been published at Smokelong Quarterly, Monkeybicycle, Flash Frontier, Scissors and Spackle, MiCrow, The Sun, Blue Five Notebook, The Poet’s Market 2013, Hoot, Camroc Press Review, Every Day Fiction, and Nanoism, among others. In 2015, she received her MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins. She currently serves as Senior Fiction Editor at jmww. In between sentences, she blogs at Leftbrainwrite.


pincusb said...

Fascinating story. So glad there's a venue for your "Journey" and others.

Gay Degani said...

Thanks Paul for commenting and thank you Linda for sharing your intriguing journey.

Barry Basden said...

Linda is a wonderful writer. Camroc Press Review was glad to publish her work. I just went back and read all of it there. Yep. Wonderful. Best of luck with the novels. They sound fascinating.

Linda said...

Thanks Paul and Barry for commenting. And wow, Barry, you re-read my pieces? Thank you. You published one of my favorite poems every, the one commemorating my father.

Gay, keep on with this great blog--I've been reading other writers' paths to writing, and it fascinates how our tribe comes to the word. Peace...