Thursday, July 09, 2009

An Issue of Scope

It’s been a more eventful few weeks than normal, what with last-minute
trips to New York
, visiting old haunts in Dublin, dealing with epic technology fails, and the assorted messiness and unpredictability of daily life.

Still, no matter how wonderful or frustrating these distractions are, they haven’t supplanted the main thing looming in my mind right now:

I’m having a bit of scope issue these days (and yes, here’s where the “writing” part of the writing blog comes in). For a huge project I’m working on, I’m asking a lot of questions I don’t know the answers to yet, questions I am not even sure have resolute answers…which is of course a great thing. After all, questions with known answers aren’t exactly intellectually stimulating.

However, the flipside to being really interested in something and asking lots of questions means that as soon as you locate research and information and begin to understand something, you realize how much more you need to know. And then when you find that next piece of the story, yet more doors open. It’s an exhilarating, exhausting cycle. I’ve gathered thousands of pages of journal articles, newspaper/magazine articles, essays, and statistics. I’ve read and annotated dozens of books, and am in the middle of several rounds of interviews with people all of all persuasions—patients, doctors, researchers, activists, policymakers, etc.

I can sit at my desk and quite literally be surrounded by mounds of resources, fully organized and categorized, and still not know exactly what I am doing. I know this is part of the process, I know this is how it should be, but sometimes I am overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information I have. Some of the research articles or carefully annotated passages from books I know I won’t end up using, some of it I know is still out there and is information I will need, I just don’t know it yet. How much context do I need, how much background is appropriate, how can I possibly touch on the surface of topics that are so big each could warrant a book on its own?

To talk myself of the ledge of information overload, I’ve had to remind myself that all of it matters, that it’s all shaping something bigger and eventually it will become clear to me how the pieces fit. None of the knowledge will be in vain. Seriously, I’ve actually said this to myself in my head. (What can I say? Writing can be an isolating existence at times. I’m lucky I don’t say it to dogs.)

It reminds me a little of one of my early experiences freelancing. I pitched Idea A to a newspaper editor, who teased out a smaller thread from my original idea and assigned me Idea B as the story. I jumped in, reading multiple books, wading through research, interviewing national experts, revising draft after draft. I became truly engrossed in the topic, and rattled off statistics and factoids without ceasing to anyone unfortunate enough to ask me about it. I’m fairly certain my neck flushed and I talked with my hands, which happens when I’m either nervous or really animated.

Then the editor decided it wasn’t the right fit for her page after all. Of course I was upset; no byline, no paycheck, no recompense for hours and hours of work. But I don’t regret the experience at all. I now know so much about direct-to-consumer advertising of pharmaceuticals, and I still have strong feelings about it. The foundation I got from that story comes in handy when I’m interviewing people for other stories, when I’m doing research for my book, when I’m reading and responding to other blogs and essays, when I’m thinking about health reform, when I’m watching television or flipping through a magazine and am inundated with bouncing balls, buzzing bees, or luminous butterflies.

And when I have classes full of pharmacy students? I don’t regret for a second all the knowledge I gained because it allows me to engage in a more meaningful dialogue with them.

So yes, I sometimes need to remind myself that all of this data that is flying around will settle, and that none of it will be in vain. In a way, it’s also similar to all the researching and trial and error we do when we’re narrowing down diagnoses or testing different treatments. Not everything is going to yield the exact answer you’re looking for in that moment, but eventually you find it will answer other important questions, too.

While I prefer concrete answers when it comes to diagnoses and treatments, despite its stresses I see the value in unraveling questions. When it comes to writing, I wouldn't want it a different way.


Kairol Rosenthal said...

I'm an information whore. I love gathering, foraging, notating, cataloging. Prior to writing my recent first book, I had spent my entire career as a choreographer. I could spend weeks, months in the studio creating phrases that I would ultimately throw away. I think that leaving no stone unturned is all part of what goes into make informed work. I cannot wait to read what you are working on.

Happy hunting,


jennie said...

Ah the beauty of research and writing. I am lucky if I use two-third of my research in any piece I write. But I agree, none of the information you absorbed will go to waste. The thing about knowledge is that once it is yours, it will always be yours. It's never a waste.


britta said...

I love reading about health stuff...ever since I started my own health journey. It just sucks me all in...but I never seem to need it for least not yet!

anysia said...

Maybe it's my age (49, if you must know) or my condition (post-chemo brain) showing, but I forget so much of what I read now. I used to write on medical topics, but now I get surprised by information I thought I had already assimilated, when I come across it again. Have any of you been affected by your illnesses in this fashion, and if so, how have you coped?

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