Insomnia, Marriage, Writing, Returns on Investment, and Gratitude

It is the middle of the night and I am awake. I’m frequently awake in the middle of the night, and have had middle of the night insomnia for years. My insomnia is the worst when there is something weighing on my mind and lately there is a lot weighing on my mind. Over the last year, I’ve spent a lot of nights awake. I really love this country, but recent political events remind me of the South American dictatorships my grandmother used to tell me about.

[From here, about  1960s Ecuador] Even Velasco’s own vice president, a Guayaquileño Liberal named Jorge Zavala Baquerizo, turned into a strident and vocal critic. Cabinet ministers came and went with astonishing frequency. This political impasse soon combined with the fiscal and balance-of- payments crises, which by now had become customary under the spendthrift habits and administrative mismanagement associated with each of Velasco’s terms in office, to spawn a major political crisis. The turning point came on June 22, 1970, when Velasco, in an action known as an autogolpe (self-seizure of power), dismissed Congress and the Supreme Court and assumed dictatorial powers.

Velasco subsequently decreed a number of necessary, though extremely unpopular, economic measures. After devaluing the sucre for the first time since 1961, he placed tight controls on foreign exchange transactions and then decreed a number of new tax measures, the most controversial of which raised import tariffs considerably. Velasco attempted to compensate for his lost prestige by baiting the United States, seizing and fining United States fishing boats found within 200 nautical miles (370 km) of the Ecuadorian coast. The intensification of the “tuna war” inflamed tempers in both countries; Ecuador dismissed United States military advisers, and the United States withdrew almost all economic and military aid to Ecuador. Such nationalistic adventures were of only momentary value to Velasco, however. In 1971, amid mounting civic unrest that verified the extent of the opposition, he was forced to cancel a scheduled national plebiscite in which he hoped to replace the 1967 constitution, with the charter written under his own auspices in 1946 the Constitution, Velasco argued, made the president too weak to be effective.

The president’s autogolpe and his continuance in power were possible because of support from the armed forces.

These self-interested dictators come into power on the wave of populist movements, and then destroy the people that lifted them up.  It makes me feel afraid for our country because so many around me truly believe that these sorts of things can’t happen here. So many more truly believe our new orange overlord is going to make their lives better. Our new leader is a bully and a tyrant. He cares little for policy and law and I am literally losing sleep over the future of the country that I love.

But my fear of the future is counterbalanced by a sense of security in what’s to come. Last week Strange and I gathered our 5 children and ran off to Belize to get married.  We had a lovely little ceremony on the beach and then some of the kids (and Strange and me, let’s not kid ourselves) jumped in the nearby pool in their wedding clothes to get drinks from the pool bar. It’s strange to be Mrs. Strange, and yet not at all strange at the same time. We’ve both been married before, so co-habitation is nothing new. We’ve also been slowly merging our lives over the last six months. Coming back, I don’t feel like a newlywed, but I do feel happy. Basking in the glow of a new marriage is different when you are chasing children and trying to keep up with a busy career.

When I woke up at about 2 am, I took down the decorations from the Christmas tree (a chore which had been nagging at me) and then sat down with my computer to work on a grant. I opened a previous application to snag an aim I had written last year and was really struck by it. Not because of how good it was, but because of how different the voice in the writing was. It was really amazing to me how much and how quickly my own writing has evolved.

Last night I got an email from one of my clinical collaborators about a manuscript we have in the works. I really adore this guy. He’s smart, funny, kind, works like a machine and collaborating with him is  one of the highlights of my career. As an aside, I am very lucky to have some amazing collaborators. My collaborator lamented in his email about how much he hates writing, and he doesn’t understand how scientists do it regularly. I wrote back that I love it, and I think I really meant it. When I left graduate school, I hadn’t publishing and I was painfully aware of my “poor productivity.” I received a postdoc fellowship my first year, but was reminded by the reviewers that my productivity was poor. I wrote a paper from my graduate work in the first few months of my postdoc and it was an unbearably painful process. I had no idea what I was doing. I have no doubt that I abused some overly kind reviewers who took pity upon me and told me how horrible my writing was, but still let me revise my submission. I started my science blog at about this time, still feeling incredibly overwhelmed by the process. I was terrified of writing.

The real message came when I wrote my K99 application.  I got the reviews back and had 1’s and 2’s in most of the major categories – except the investigator. In that category, I got 9’s.   I met with one of my mentors at my postdoc institution about the grant and he told me that the reviewers were sending me a very clear message – my ideas were good, but I wasn’t productive in the ways that mattered. I had no scientific currency and I needed to write some damned papers. I told him how much I dreaded it, and we talked about ways to improve my writing. He asked me a question that, at the time, I didn’t understand. He asked me who my favorite writers were. I rattled off a list of some big name scientists in our field and he responded, “No, not scientists. Who are the people whose writing you admire?” He told me to look at what they do and write like them.  He was telling me that I needed to read more, for both content and style, and that I needed to write more. It changed everything for me. Another mentor told me to write like a blog. That helped too many made me wonder why the blog was so easy, but manuscripts gave me night sweats.

Everything I read – fiction, non-fiction, blogs, journalism, etc – became a lesson in style for me. The message the universe was sending me was, stop developing anxiety about the minutiae of the process and just tell a story. I started asking everyone I knew about their writing process. I had a couple of mentors who let me watch how watch how they wrote their papers, and I wrote a now defunct blog post about how to craft a scientific paper. Perhaps some day, I’ll re-write and re-post it. I  harassed everyone I knew for help. The techniques I learned were solid. I also got really angry about being called “not productive” and made a goal to stamp out that perception. I locked myself in my office and wrote everything I could get my hands on.  If you look at my publication record (said as non-douchily as one can say that), it’s obvious exactly when this all went down because, in the following 12 months, I published 12 papers and have kept up a decent pace since. Immersing myself so completely in writing is one of the most valuable things I have done for my career. It’s the area I have seen the most improvement, in relation to the amount of work I have put in.  I received the reviews for a grant that was funded yesterday and both reviewers remarked that I was a “highly productive” investigator. My challenge as a mentor now is, how to convince my students that writing is their currency and that it pays dividends. I’m grateful for the lessons I’ve learned, but not how painfully they came.

The alarm in our bedroom just went off. Strange didn’t even flinch and I’ve been awake for hours. I’m realizing that I need to find some sort of strategy to survive the next four years. There has to be a way to counter-balance the sadness I feel for what’s going on around me. My next investment may need to be in gratitude. For now, I am going to try to be grateful for these sleepless nights that give me time to meditate and write in peace. And, I am going to be grateful for all the people that taught me to write, whether they know they helped me or not.


2 thoughts on “Insomnia, Marriage, Writing, Returns on Investment, and Gratitude

  1. Pingback: Links 1/12/17 | Mike the Mad Biologist

  2. Pingback: Some peace for your mind in these tumultuous times | In Baby Attach Mode

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