Monday, March 2, 2015

The Writing Way

If you think about it, veterinarians are writers in their own right. If we practice medicine, we write medical records; if we do research, we write study protocols and publish our results. We also provide information to the public via webpages, blogs, brochures, magazine articles, and of course books.

But what about writing for pleasure? How often do we do that? (Not enough!)

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure to talk to Dr. Courtney Diehl, a veterinarian in a mixed practice (mostly horses, with some small ruminants, alpacas, and cats and dogs thrown in to keep things exciting) in Steamboat Springs, CO. A practice owner and mother of two, Courtney has found the time to write, and in fact published her first book just a year ago, in February 2014: Horse Vet: Chronicles of a Mobile Veterinarian. I wanted to catch up with Courtney and steal some of her secrets.

"I wasn't very organized at all," Courtney says of her writing process for her book. "I just sort of wrote down the stuff I would think about, or I'd have a run-in with someone and it would trigger my memory and then I would think of all the other stories that relate, so then I'd have to sit down and write them all out."

Horse Vet, in Courtney's own words, is a compilation of tales from the vet's perspective. "Good, bad, and ugly," she says. "A lot of it related to how I dealt with some of the more difficult personalities. We are all aware of the pretty high rate of suicide in our profession and I was actually struggling. Not with suicide, but I was definitely feeling down. I was just trying to feel like where I was at was OK."

Difficult personality types, whether in client (or animal!) form, colleagues, neighbors, or family, can be trying for even the most stoic of souls.

"I was giving these personalities way too much power in my life," Courtney continues. "They would not only wreck my day, but also my month and make me feel bad about myself. Finally, I was like: nobody can make me feel bad about myself. I thought maybe it would also be helpful to some of my colleagues who were dealing with the same things for me to say, hey, I struggle, too, and I still struggle, of course, but here are some of the tools I use to help cope with these people without losing my sanity."

Many scenarios that Courtney writes about contain elements of the dynamic and multifaceted vet-client-patient relationship. There are good days and there are bad days in these relationships and Courtney felt the need to express the full spectrum of what this means. "I wasn't writing to make friends," she says. "I was writing because it was real and that's what we have to deal with. It was time somebody told the story from the vet's perspective and how we make our lives work."

In the end, Courtney found the process immensely therapeutic, keying into one of the greatest benefits of writing for pleasure. On a side note, as I struggle to continue a journal, something I've done since senior year in vet school, I have to cue myself in to the known benefits to personal writing. Look here for a wonderful collection on great writers' reasons for keeping a diary.

"It was cathartic for me in so many ways, just to get it down," Courtney says. "After writing through some of the difficult parts and really looking at myself, I was like: whoa, I really have changed. I've gotten better and stronger and wow. Before, I hadn't really stopped to measure my own progress. Writing this book was instrumental in helping me do that."

After finishing the book, Courtney describes it as having a new best friend, a confidant who knew her strengths and when she faced something challenging, she knew she had faced something similar before, and documented it. The book was saying: don't worry, you got this.

Courtney's target audience was her veterinary colleagues as well as people who were thinking about going into the veterinary world. "I wrote this book to say hey, here's a cross-section of my life as a reality check."

One of the most telling aspects of my conversation with Courtney (telling about the veterinary profession, that is) was when she elaborated on her intended then omitted chapter on finances. "I had a whole chapter in there about numbers and finances," she says. "It was so grim and miserable. I couldn't find a way to make it fun or even readable and I finally gave up and took it out. It was all just lists of numbers and I was like, OK, this isn't working. Unless someone finds a fun way to write about this, no one will want to read it."

Student loan debt, often in the neighborhood of six figures, along with an average salary that isn't increasing comparatively with tuition and a mismatch between the increasing numbers of vets being produced without a workforce that can employ them all are grim realities of the industry. Are these issues that bad that we can't even find a way to express them on paper in a compelling manner?

But enough about the doom and gloom. We're here to celebrate creativity, not roll in self-pity. Go ahead, put your party hats back on.

I like to talk to veterinarians who are writers about the venerable James Herriot because I feel he is the quintessential veterinarian in literature. Read and beloved by millions in a fandom than now spans generations, is it time for a 21st century version? Is that even possible?

Courtney makes an interesting point: it may not be possible. "A modern version of James Herriot, with so many modern concerns like student loan debt, the supplement industry, crazy horse lady stuff... old Herriot would have gone: what in the world? What am I doing here?"
It's all fun and games until someone steps in the cow pie.
"We're just not the martyred figure that he was," she continues. "The man just worked around the clock, had no time off, and worked for peanuts. In this day and age, we just can't be that martyred figure anymore. We have to say: look, we have to charge more and we're worth it and here's why. I think in a firm voice, an advocate for the indebted veterinarian needs to happen."

So, maybe James Herriot did have a few crazy horse ladies to deal with (and sounds like some crazy pig owners and cattle owners and dog owners thrown in there, too) but one thing's for certain: he wasn't competing with Dr. Google. Perhaps the vets of today are to James Herriot what apples are to oranges. Yeah, we're all a little fruity, but there are now fundamental differences in the way we are cultivated and what we are exposed to.

Looking to the future is sometimes the most exciting thing to a writer, with the possibilities just multiplying on the horizon right in front of your eyes. For Courtney, oh yeah--she's got plans. A second book on her vet adventures is two-thirds written and a fiction book about anthropomorphic animals is in draft as well. Courtney has also started a monthly column in the magazine Horse Illustrated called "Vet Adventures." Of course she continues to practice as well, allowing for a continual production line of experiences to draw on for future book chapters, columns, and other venues.

Stay tuned for the next blog, Monday, March 16.

Monday, February 16, 2015

An Artist Among Us

For the first installment of the newly reinvigorated and refocused VetWrite blog, I had the privilege to chat with a wonderfully creative veterinarian, Dr. Dean Scott. Dean is the creator of, and more to the point, a cartoonist. Some of you might be familiar with his art, as it makes its way across the web.
Originally from Orlando, Dean likes to say he survived vet school at UC-Davis and graduated in 1993. A general feeling of lack of support left him and his fellow students floundering in a sea of disinterested clinicians. "I found vet school harder than it needed to be, which is the best way to say it," Dean says. "It seemed like: hey, we got you to school and now good luck."

Fortunately, some vet schools now seem to have recognized the need for support for the very students they cultivate. This and the shift in student body population from primarily male to primarily female are some of the interesting ways that make today's vet schools in the US not the vet schools of yesteryear, which would make for a fascinating retrospective commentary in and of itself, but we digress.

The good thing about Dean's vet school experience--other than it allowing him to reach his childhood dream of being a vet--was that it honed his creative skills. He had fodder for doodles which became cartoons and two books. He had material and a method of therapy. Turns out, vet school is comedic gold.

Dean actually started drawing in 1988, prior to entry into vet school, when he was working at a small animal clinic. "It was a very small practice and I decided to put together some cartoons about things that happened in the practice and they really liked it."

Once in vet school, a small handful of drawings grew into collections. "Vet school was rife with material," Dean says. "During lectures I would doodle and make jokes in the margin of the syllabus. I just sort of wrote stuff down and it went from there." During Dean's junior year, he created a list called 1000 Vet School Stresses. Picking the best off this list, Dean had his first book, From the Back Row.

The late Dr. Sophia Yin was in Dean's class. "She had Cattle Dog Publishing and she was kind enough to throw me a bone, so to speak, and she published my first book." Another reminder that the vet world is a small, delicate world, friends. Let's keep each other close and take care of each other.

This brings us to an interesting tangent into the publishing world, a theme I'd like to explore deeper as these blogs continue. Dean cuts right to the chase when he describes his struggles of finding a publisher for his comedic vet material. "It's really hard. People understand text books but people do not seem to understand humor books in the veterinary profession." The responses he received from numerous publishers for this first book were lukewarm, at best. There simply was no interest.

"A lot of publishers, even if they do veterinary books, they don't do humor. Think about how few people that you can point to that do humor in the veterinary profession. What I see in our profession is that we need to lighten up."

So it's not just a question of how to get our work published. It's a statement of need. "I think at least in part, we deal with a lot of suffering," says Dean. "We shoulder a great deal of burden and we put that burden on ourselves a lot. I think we need to give ourselves a little bit of a break. I think there's a need out there for acknowledging how difficult things are without being morose about it."

Given that, Dean has been incredibly prolific. Hundreds of his cartoons are cataloged on his website; he's recently written a sequel to From the Back Row, Vet Med Spread; published a series called The Incomplete Dog Book on Smashwords; blogs; has a YouTube channel; creates his own vet-related graphics and designs for shirts and signs on Cafepress; and he still cartoons, publishing new ones on his website regularly.

Dean speaks on how to find time for your creative outlets. "Regardless of what profession you do, I think everyone has something in them that needs some kind of expression. I would never have thought cartooning of myself. I have no training. It just grew as an outlet. I think everyone has that. You do it for yourself first and you should never look at what you do as, oh, that's not good enough. It's not a matter of whether it's good enough. It's a matter of: it's what you do, it's how you express yourself.

"You have to make time [to be creative]. As vets, we are geared to do anything and everything animal all the time and if you have something else that gives you energy, you should go do that also. You do have to put a little internal pressure on yourself, but hopefully it's not the same kind of pressure that your clients put on you. But when you sit down and do it, it's relaxing, you find your brain playing with stuff. You have to give your brain play time."

Given the amount of cartoons Dean has produced over more than two decades, it's understandably difficult for him to have a favorite. "I like a lot of them, they're like children to me," he says. Fans, however, tend to have a standout favorite. "Everyone likes what I call the Boo Boo cartoon," says Dean. "It shows a veterinarian on the phone. You can't see his face because he has his hand on his forehead and he's saying: 'No Mrs. Smith, I don't think it would be helpful to put Boo Boo on the phone. Oh, hey Boo Boo.' Everyone loves that cartoon."

Stay tuned. Monday, March 2 is the next post.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Refreshed, renewed, ready for action

Dearest readers,

I apologize. I have done one of the things I abhor in a blog. I have abandoned you. For the past six  months, this blog has been a wasteland. Maybe you were wondering if I was mad at you, or was being held for ransom somewhere, or even dead. Nope. Just being lazy. Lacking motivation. Entering that self-indulgent naval gazing that makes one ask banal questions like: what's the point?

But. I'm getting my shit together. I feel renewed.

The thing that has helped the most to get me motivated and back here typing like a mad woman (and finding loosely relevant yet fun images and/or links to accompany the madness) is alcohol.

No, I'm kidding. That was crass. I apologize again.

Seriously, the thing that really has helped get me out of a creative slump is answering the question: what do I want this blog to be? I mean, let's be honest. So far, it's been random. Like, all over the place, narcissistic ramblings with barely a shred of continuity. In other words, the ugliest patchwork quilt you've ever seen. I needed a subject and not just "Anna's favorite thoughts." Let's try to be a little more meaningful than that, shall we?

One of my favorite blogs is Maria Popova's Brain Pickings. This is a beautiful, inspiring, good-for-your-creative-soul blog that combines the wisdom of authors and artists of the past with the ingenuity and mindfulness of new writers and artists. She puts out a weekly newsletter every Sunday, which makes for some great Sunday morning reading and ruminating, if you're interested.
Me, totally ruminating on a Sunday morning.
Maria had a link last summer to a website with a blog called "4 Questions Everyone Should Themselves." The list was as follows (via Lindsey Saletta):

1. How much of your day do you spend consuming what other people have created? How often do you create?
2. How can you build a platform this year for you to stand on next year?
3. What are you doing that actually matters?
4. How can you inject more awe and wonder into your life?

I don't know about you, but this got me thinking some really heavy stuff. I thought these questions were so powerful, so soul-searching, that I wrote them down and now they live on a sticky note that sits in front of my face at my desk. I see it right now. There you are, deep sticky note. Hi.

In relation to this blog, the first question resonated. I needed to create more. But, in relation to the third question, its content should probably matter. Or at least I should try to make it matter.


Here's the deal. The new, bright and shiny VetWrite blog is open for business. And here are the details:

There will be blogs, as best as I can muster, every first and third Monday of the month. Set your calendars, clear any appointments. Wear clean underwear. Pack your overnight kit. Be generally ready for anything.

My focus will be on veterinarians (practicing, not practicing, old, new, ugly, fat, freakishly thin, tattooed, boring, wearing glasses, smelling like lavender, pimply, oval-faced, etc.) breaking into the creative world, meaning as a writer, blogger, artist, speaker, entertainer, etc. As an industry, us veterinarians are so damn scientific. And I LOVE that. But, we have a creative side, too. And, as a profession, it's important to explore and celebrate that. So, put your party hats on cuz we're gonna celebrate.

I'd like to emulate in my own way how Maria writes her blogs; taking bits and pieces of creators and putting them in her blog in bite-sized pieces for the rest of us to chew. Over the next few months, I hope you'll join me as I talk to veterinary cartoonists, authors, bloggers, and entertainers. Doesn't this sound like fun?

Come on, let's set sail.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Look, Ma, I'm doin stuff!

Ah, summer is HERE. Or, has been here for a while now. Things are BUSY and HUMID and there's just not enough time in a day to read and write and go fishing and running and flying kites and eating pizza and drinking fun summertime alcoholic fancy-pants drinks and traveling and applying bug spray and also working.
Moi kite flying at Assateague National Seashore last weekend

I'd like to share a few things I've been up to in the writer-ly realm because they are out of my comfort zone and this gives me a chance to say LOOK MA, I'M DOING IT! I'M REALLY DOING IT! And by IT I mean participating in the write-ly community, but not really doing anything productive, like, starting a novel. So.

About a month ago, I attended a three hour workshop on a Saturday morning called How To Write a Lot put on by The Writer's Center in Bethesda, MD and orchestrated by the lovely local DC writer Willona Sloan. In the class we talked about our schedules, how to find time to write, and how to write no matter where you are.  We did a few writing exercises to prove that yes, you actually CAN get a decent amount of words to paper in 20 minutes. Attendees were loosely held to a pact that we would write for one hour six days a week for four weeks.

And of course here's the thing. The following weekend was July 4 and I drove to Connecticut to visit family and eat ice cream cake. Then the next weekend was something else. And I had a Humane Society thing after that. And, so.
Pops' ice cream birthday cake. So good.

Another thing I've done, and actually continue to do, is join a local writer's group. It meets every other Monday at 730 pm at the local coffee shop. Sometimes we critique people's stories and novel chapters, sometimes we do writing exercises, sometimes a combo of both. I haven't submitted anything yet for a critique, but I plan to within the next month.

There is a danger here of the old self-help book routine: a sad sack spends all her time buying self-help books and yet doesn't actually do any of the self-helping. Someone with a writer-ly lean could easily spend time taking classes and attending writing groups but then never actually PRODUCE anything. The horror. I see this fine line and I'm trying not to walk it.

As the summer continues to unfold, I have aspirations. Let's get a short story off. Let's submit more things to McSweeney's. (Those bastards have to accept something of mine at some point--I think there's a law of physics that says a magazine/agent/website/publisher must, at some point, accept a pitch when the number of pitches approaches infinity. Something about maintaining balance in the universe.)  
56th Law of Thermodynamics: if a publisher doesn't accept your millionth query, a giant space cat gives a raspberry to the universe.

I'll end with a quote from Charles Bukowski: "Don't ever write a novel unless it hurts like a hot turd coming out." That's my favorite writing quote of all time. So I guess we could say: let's make like a hot turd and write. Or maybe don't say that in polite company. Or maybe do, and then you'll have something to write about. Whatever. Let's just write.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Holes in Our Art

We can't know everything. Everyone knows that. Even within our own profession and niche of expertise, there are crevices overlooked, notes unread, and signs missed.

For the most part, ignorance is bliss. We are perfectly capable of going about our day to day jobs in a competent manner. Every once in a while, we trip in a hole in our knowledge. Sometimes it's just a mis-step, other times it's a sprained ankle.

Of course, as we begin our careers, there are many holes and they are filled in gradually. When I first started practicing veterinary medicine, I didn't know how to surgically repair umbilical hernias. I encountered them occasionally in a show goat kid or foal. I was never taught this surgical method--not sure why--and it was a hole I had to fill.

Moving to writing, it's been said many times that the best way to learn to write is to read. Read anything, read everything. Of course, try to fit in some of the greats: Hemingway, Dickens, Chekhov, Shakespeare, Faulkner, etc. etc. Many of us receive doses of these greats in high school or college. Many more of us take them on independently as adults.

I often come along reading lists (100 BOOKS YOU MUST READ BEFORE YOU DIE, 13 GREAT BOOKS OF 2013, TOP 25 SCI-FI BOOKS EVER WRITTEN). These serve as a wake up call: I have literary holes big enough to drive a truck through.

These literary holes are more embarrassing than my ineptitude at surgically correcting an umbilical hernia. Can you believe I've never read anything by James Joyce? Virginia Woolf? Anton Chekhov? Jack Kerouac? That's just the tip of the iceberg. I didn't even know who Susan Sontag was until a few months ago. I mean, really? Pathetic.

Sometimes I get a little overwhelmed at this ineptitude and dismay that the thought that there's no way I'll ever get caught up in this reading. But I have to keep one thing in mind: we shouldn't read as though we're just checking items off a list. We should read to learn and to enjoy and it shouldn't become a burden, something we have to slog through.

I am also reminded of one of my favorite adages: how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. So, in between my devouring of current popular fiction, magazines, candy wrappers, Sunday newspapers (mostly the comics section), and other miscellany that makes it into my grubby hands, I'll be more conscientious about picking up a "great" once in a while. Because, as a writer, I have a lot to learn.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a copy of The Grapes of Wrath waiting for me. 

Saturday, May 10, 2014

It's All in the Details OR Spin Class Secrets Revealed!

Now is the time, my dear readers, to indulge you with the secrets behind my weekly spin class. A myriad of fictional (and semi-fictional) characters, motives, sub-plots, and perhaps even whole plots could come from what I've seen and heard and spun to over the past two years. My spin class is, in other words, a writer's delight.

Let it be known that I do not merely attend just any spin class. No. This is Dave the Pirate Spin Instructor's Spin Class. There is a disco ball. There is yelling. There are orders given. There are insults thrown. There are expletives in the form of "MORE TENSION!" and "PUSH!" and "ARRRRHHHHHGGGG!" fired toward the group like cannon balls. This spin class is not for the faint of heart. No. It is for only the strong willed. And hard of hearing.

The instructor's name is Dave. A man on the verge of retirement from his day job, whatever that might be, he appears quiet and polite when off the bike. But once the music starts ("We warm up on a little hill") a transformation occurs not unlike Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde. Gone is the polite older gentleman. Welcome now a spin maniac.

Although the participants change regularly, there is a set cast of characters you can always count on to be present. Firstly, Dave's wife sits in the back row. They work as a team: him shouting from the head of the room, her stirring up enthusiasm from the rear. When tension on the spin bikes is lessened she yells "Thank you, Dave!" and when tension is set high she complains loudly with a "Hey!!!!!" Others are encouraged to follow suit. I refer to Dave's wife as Mama Bear since she helps keep the group together.

Then there is The Commander, a tough-looking no-nonense woman with short blonde hair and some sort of military background. She attacks the hills mercilessly. Her husband frequently attends as well, sitting behind her quietly in the corner. He got a knee replacement over Christmas. I think his name is Malcolm but Dave calls him Rocky. This needs to be investigated further.

Dr. Elevator is another frequent spinner, although only on Friday nights. Her background is incredibly dubious and I piece together what I can, although the results are shaky at best and not to be trusted. I can conclude that perhaps she and Dave at one point in time were on a softball team together and for some reason I think she might be an anesthesiologist. Dave berates her constantly but she dishes it right back.

Pete and Jane were a retired couple that always sat in the front row. They have since left the class to go on a cross-country bike tour of the US. Just to show I'm not making this up, you can track their progress on their blog.

Although there are a handful of others that collectively make up "the gang" that sit along the back row of bikes and basically serve as the peanut gallery, I believe I've named the most memorable. Occasionally someone new will pop in for a few rides and have some characteristic that sticks out, but these people fade soon enough. I guess the dedication just isn't there. This is was happened to Gums (a guy with a beard that road like a bat out of hell and chewed gum like his life depended on it) and Migraine Woman (who demanded Dave turn off his disco ball since the flashing lights gave her headaches. Thank god she didn't stick around.)

I was inspired to write about this spin class mostly because we will be moving in a few weeks (nothing major, just to a neighboring town) and therefore will go to a different gym, leaving the realm of Dave the Pirate Spin Instructor forever. It is bitter sweet and ironic since I've attended this class for over two years and just last week did Dave finally learn my name. I've breached the Inner Circle just in time to leave it.

But does one ever truly leave Dave's Spin Class? Perhaps not. If nothing else, it will be memorialized in miniature in this blog for internet eternity. You're welcome, Dave. ARGGGGGGGGGGGGGG!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Book Club Update

Hi folks! If you're in the northern hemisphere like me, I hope you are enjoying the lovely spring weather we've been having lately (better late than never, right?). All the farm critters are busy being born into this world this time of year and things are busy, so let's all take a moment to admire this cria, which is the term for a baby llama or alpaca:
In my professional veterinary opinion, I think they look like Muppets. Cute Muppets for sure, but Muppets nonetheless.

Some of you faithful readers may remember that I started a book club at work a little less than a year ago. I'd like to take a moment and give you an update.

The book club update is: ARG! My subversive means of controlling the reading material is not going well. In fact, I'm falling out of control at a very fast rate. My reading minions are not attune to my literary whims. This is not good.

The past two meetings have only been me with one other person (a different person each time). The first time this happened, I blamed the weather, since the meeting was during one of those late winter snows. The most recent meeting, however, had no such excuse. Hmrph.

OK, so dismal attendance is a problem. This might be due to the "new" having worn off and people's incompatible schedules. But it might also be due to my book choices.

Some of the books we've read over the past few months have been animal-related books. We've recently read Temple Grandin's Animals Make Us Human (which I enjoyed) and Ted Kerasote's Merle's Door (which I did not enjoy).

Turns out, I do not particularly like most animal books. I've posted before about how I'm probably the only animal lover on the planet who doesn't like James Herriot books and I loathed Marley and Me. I suspect this book club is being pulled toward animal books because our jobs are veterinary-related and I'm trying to resist forcing this club into that button hole. But am I losing members because of this? What's more important: having members and reading crap (OK, a little harsh, but stay with me here) or losing members and reading good books?

Ah, but wait. I'm falling into a trap that I suspect many book clubs fall into: who gets to decide what a "good book" is?

I've had a member request not once, but twice for the club to read Dewey the Library Cat. No. No. No. I refuse. Don't make me shut this thing down.

I really need to read this
And so here we are. At the last meeting, we read (we being two of us) The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman. Then I sent out an email asking folks for recommendations on future books. I received a small, odd assortment of suggestions that didn't make choosing any easier. Suggestions ranged from Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman to, you guessed it, Dewey.

For next month I settled on The Goldfinch, the recent Pulitzer prize winner. Someone actually did suggest this one, it wasn't just me wielding my iron book club fist. We'll see how many people show up. In the mean time I think I need to re-think my book club strategy and maybe scout other blogs to see if anyone's complaining about a certain book club leader who is totally against Dewey that Damn Library Cat.