Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Zines as a Mean to Expression

Every late winter/early spring I get into doodling. It never fails. I don't know if it's the culmination of gloomy weather giving me cabin fever with a resultant desire to make maps or what.

Does this happen to you? This year, I got some decorated bee hives out of it, so there's definitely a perk to it all. But there's also a restlessness.

In the back of my head, I'm thinking: but what else? Is this a step to something bigger? Because tendrils of ideas have been sprouting, inspired over the past few years by various things.

Take this post by Linda Codega over at Luna Station Quarterly.

Take this article about the end of Subversive, the underground zine of downtown Frederick.

Take Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling and 50 Ways to Draw Your Beautiful Ordinary Life.

Take the monthly subscription called Zine-o-matic where you receive a collection of international zines, take Zine Fests, take the local donut shop stating they will only carry zines now as reading material . . . Take the concept of creative freedom as expressed by making something start to finish that can look and feel however you want, tell a story or not, make sense or not, be whatever media you want, and be so analog (or not) that you can freaking choose to hand stitch the binding.

Long story short: I want to make a zine. That's where this has been going all along and I recently put a name to it. 

I'm going full millennial here and searching YouTube on how to make a zine, looking for local classes, and then coming to the realization I just have to jump into the deep end, have fun, and figure some things out for myself.

Who cares right now if my T-Rex is a little mis-proportioned? Let's do it! 

Friday, April 19, 2019

Big Projects and Baby Steps

This past winter and early spring have been filled with a slow and (mostly) steady chipping away at big projects. As a planning sort of person, I love to sink my teeth into a long-term project, breaking it into smaller goals, checking boxes (oh, my love of to-do lists is fathomless), and measuring progress. But there's also that middle-of-the-project malaise when you're knee deep in something but on a day-to-day scale, feel like you're just treading water. Those days can be rough; they drain creative energy and make me crabby. However, when a major milestone has been met or -- gasp -- the entire damn thing is complete, I refuse to dampen the swell of unbridled joy that accompanies finishing something.

One major project that has recently checked the FINISHED box is something that sprouted in my mind about a year ago and I'd like to share it with you today. It starts with some exposition, so bear with me.

I have a friend I met freshman year of college. She was my biology lab partner (we sign letters "Bio 4eva") and we quickly found shared interests in jokes, Margaret Atwood, space exploration, physiology, and microscopes. Even after going our separate ways and over the years, finding ourselves on different coasts, we keep in touch. When she announced she was pregnant with her first child last spring, I knew something epic was required.

So I wrote her newborn daughter a book. A science book. Teaching the ABCs, to be exact.
Fair warning: I am not an artist by any stretch of the imagination. But, by that same argument, I can pretend to be and have a hell of a lot of fun along the way. This turned out really to be half gift and half challenge to myself: can you, Anna, think of, then actually finish, this thing you dreamed up?

This children's book takes the reader through the alphabet in sing-song rhyming fashion, matching each letter with a scientific term, accompanied by hand-drawn watercolor illustrations.

I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed sitting down on rainy, blustery autumn Saturdays last fall with Crayola watercolors in front of me, re-learning wet-on-wet technique and practicing some very sketchy calligraphy with some pens I bought at Barnes&Noble.

Perhaps as a self-fulfilling prophecy, the part that took the longest was the part I dreaded most: figuring out how the hell to get these images (done on watercolor paper) into book format. Some high resolution scans and a large amount of internet searching later, I found UBuildABook. This company was exactly what I needed in terms of easy formatting and high-quality printing. My intention was never to have this be a "book" book - no ISBN number, not looking to sell online (my only hope is the amateur-ness of the entire production is viewed as "charming" -- I'll even take the slightly more patronizing "endearing"). This was intended as a single issue dedication to someone I hope will grow to love reading and science as much as her mother (and her mother's friend) does.

Just last week, the finished project (referred to as The Super Secret Project and Sorry This is Taking So Long in letters, given that the child this is in celebration for was born in November) finally made it into the hands of the intended and I received a few texts confirming what I expected: a thank you and the knowledge that the mother was going to get more enjoyment out of it for a while before her daughter learns her ABCs. But, you're never too young to start enjoying books. And I think the glossy print pages are probably drool-proof. So I wish you many adventures in both reading and science, little one. The world is your Crassostrea gigas (oyster).

Until next time, happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting.

Monday, March 4, 2019

A Parasite a Day Helps Creativity Stay

Hello and happy 2019, folks! Among marathon training and starting a new beekeeping hobby -- oh, and a bit of fiction writing as well -- I had the recent opportunity to snag an interview with Dr. Tommy Leung, one of the primary scientists behind the blog Parasite of the Day. Capturing the vast array of biodiversity in parasites across the globe, this blog is a must for anyone even remotely interested in biology. . . or monsters, for that matter. If you ever need inspiration for a sci-fi antagonist (or maybe sympathetic anti-hero? It's not their fault they feed off others. . . ), look no further than the world of parasitology. . . but that's for another post.

Tommy not only runs the blog but is also an artist, creating graphic narratives outlining parasite life cycles as well as creating his own creatures based on knowledge of evolutionary biology.


You see now why I had to have this chat.

So let's get started.

Admittedly, I forget about evolutionary biology. I love bio but become consumed with the here and now: why is that dog barfing, why is that horse lame, why is that amphibian species doing extinct, and so on. But I think a big part of understanding why things are now comes from knowing how they used to be and where they came from (insert all historians ever: "I told you so. . . "). I asked Tommy why and how he became interested in this niche subject. "What I am really interested in is biology -- in living things," he said. "And since evolutionary biology is the modern foundation to all aspects of biology -- it is like what the periodic table is for chemistry -- becoming interested in evolutionary biology became part of the ideal, so to speak.

"I am always interested in things that are quirky or unusual and for free-living organisms like ourselves, the lives of parasites are certainly that, even though it has been estimated that parasitism is probably the most common lifestyle on this planet which makes us the unusual ones. I want to know how parasites live their lives and how they came to be the way that they are, so naturally I became interested in their evolutionary biology as well."

Tommy then explained that he writes and draws things based on topics that he finds interesting, so it's natural then that parasites are the creature feature of the Parasite of the Day blog and his artwork.

Tommy's artwork is heavily influenced by comics and cartoons. "I guess anime and the graphic novel, in particular Japanese comics, i.e., manga, are particularly suited to exploring unusual stories or narratives because their styles and topics are less constrained compared to some other media," he explained. "I have adopted this style because it allows what I create to be more expressive. Art and science was a natural fit simply because I like both activities."

Artistically, Tommy did not have any formal training but has drawn since he was a child. Interestingly, his brightly colored creations are a result of scanning his work into TIF files and colorizing with good ol' MS Paint.

If you delve into Tommy's artwork, you'll soon see creatures not quite of this world, but make sure to get your terminology straight when it comes to fantastic beings. "Cryptozoology is the search for animals that allegedly exist but no solid evidence has been recovered, so this includes things like Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and Mokele-mbembe," he explained. "Speculative biology is a particular sub-set of speculative fiction that focuses on the made-up biology of fictional organisms. It is a common background component in many stories, especially those that take place in a fantasy or science fiction setting." Tommy gave some examples of novels, however, that make the speculative biology aspect the main focus of the narrative -- After Man: A Zoology of the Future by Dougal Dixon and Evolution by Stephen Baxter.

"If you've ever thought about questions like: if fire-breathing dragons are real, how would they work or what is the internal anatomy of a Tauntaun from Star Wars or what would have evolved if the end-Cretaceous Mass Extinction Event didn't happen then you have engaged in speculative biology thinking," he said.

For someone (me) who loves anatomy and monsters, well, speculative biology is right up my alley.

Until next time, dear readers -- happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

2018: A Year in Review

Sorry, not sorry, dear readers. This vet blogger has a taste for year-in-review posts this month and shall partake in the reviewery herself. It'll be short and sweet, don't worry.

  • Best song: "100 Years" from Florence + the Machine's album High as Hope
  • Best quote: nothing new here and not even new to me this year, but felt poignant and relevant:
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasm, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and how at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat." -- Theodore Roosevelt
  • Best writing advice: from John Steinbeck: "Just set one day's work in front of the last day's work. That's the way it comes out. And that's the only way it does."
  • Best animal news: Justify winning the 2018 Triple Crown

Monday, November 12, 2018

Flash Bright: Fiction & Poetry in Bursts

Last week I was sitting on a plane coming home from a veterinary conference in Chicago. Planes have always been a
great source of writing time for me -- an imposed finite bubble of singularity where the options for distraction are so limited that it's freeing. On liftoff, along with the funny feeling in the pit of my stomach, I also have a lightness, a sense of freedom from all the clutter of life on the ground. My mind is stripped bare and I'm left to focus on my very immediate environs. I try my best to utilize this space.

On this flight I was going through back issues of Poetry. In the October 2018 issue, the editors included a section titled "The View From Here" which is an occasional addition where people from different fields comment on their experience of poetry. While there were two fantastic essays from teens about how poetry has impacted them (do yourself a favor and read "Teenagers Are Not Exempt from Poetry" and "Smells like Teen Poetry" when you get a chance), Greg Pak's "Thanks, Poetry!" rang true to certain aspects I've been chewing on as they relate to flash fiction recently.

Enter my primary thesis of this month's post, dear readers: for me, the similarities between flash fiction and poetry are so intertwined that their creative processes are the same. Greg makes the point for me in a more coherent manner. Here, look:

  • Just writing. Greg writes, "One of the hardest things for many writers and would-be writers is simply beginning the physical act of writing. But when I was a kid, poetry gave me permission to start writing instinctively, with almost nothing in my head. The stakes were low -- how much trouble could I get myself into in a single page of writing?"
The stakes are low -- that struck me, big time. Writing a novel is intimidating to me. I have a fear of commitment; what if I'm 40,000 words in and discover a massive plot hole? What if I write myself into a corner? What if it's boring? The stakes are high for that sort of length; imagine the time lost to that many words. I shudder.

But a piece of flash that's 1,000 words? Now we're talking. No plot holes, no corners to find yourself in. There's not enough room to be boring. At 1,000 words, the stakes are low. If it sucks, so what? A handful of stinky flash pieces feels more like practice writing than a few attempts at a novel. Maybe it's something about the finish-ability of a flash piece. This is not at all meant to downgrade flash fiction in the eyes of other lengths of work. Flash is serious business; it's raw, honest, emotional, weighty, and tricky. Writing good flash is hard. Writing great flash is very hard. But the stakes? Somehow the blank page isn't so intimidating when my intention is 1,000 words, not 60,000.

  • Love of language. "Poetry gave me permission to put words together in any way that felt true and sounded right -- or even just sounded interesting." Greg writes comics and says "Comics letterers play with type and punctuation and sizes and fonts, separating dialogue into balloons and captions, spacing them across the page in specific ways to create specific rhythms and emotions in a reader's mind and heart. If that's not poetry, I don't know what is."
I love language; most writers do. I find the ability to write more lyrical, highly descriptive language in flash more welcoming than in a longer piece. That's not to say that beautiful words don't belong in longer pieces. But I think they're framed especially well in a short piece of flash--their shine is brighter because they're not drowned out by all the other words. I think what I'm trying to say segues into Greg's next point:
  • Concision. Greg mentions the old cliche: a good poem doesn't waste a single word. He casts  reflection on the dubiousness of the word "waste" and I tend to agree. "Still, writing poetry as a teenager challenged me to explore a single idea in a concentrated way, building each element of the work toward a final effect." 
In flash, you are granted the superpower to face the challenge of writing beautifully but in the period of a heartbeat, nothing more. Peel back the oyster because we want to gaze at the pearl. 
  • Heart. " . . . I learned that poetry was a safe place to express all of those confusing, painful, earnest emotions." 
I read somewhere recently on Twitter about how an author finally acknowledged her internal anger on various subjects and started letting this rage onto the page. Since then, she stated her writing has been
more visceral and genuine. I am slowly starting to learn this, too. It's hard to write from the true gut--I'm talking accessing those dark corners. It's scary and makes you feel really vulnerable. But sometimes it brings out the best writing. That's true for every form of writing, be it flash or poetry or graphic novels or YA books -- the list includes all genres. But that's also exhausting to write like that, so why not train in short bursts?

I am slowly working toward the idea of starting a novel, but it's going to take quite a while and I have a ton to learn and practice in the meantime. When gearing up for a big project, I'm reminded of the saying: "How does one eat an elephant? One bite at a time." (I used this mantra to help me study for the national veterinary board exam.) If a novel is the elephant, let me cut my teeth on a few mice first.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Found in Translation

I focus somewhat on creative writing on this blog, but let's not forget about our scientific writers and editors. I recall when chatting with Dr. Laurie Anne Walden last year, she mentioned editing scientific articles written by authors whose native language was not English. Today we get to see another variation of working with linguistic challenges from a scientific perspective as we chat with Dr. Nathalie Fernandez Cubas: veterinarian, writer, translator, and founder of NFC Linguistic Services which she says is, "one of the best decisions I've ever made in my career."

Nathalie received her veterinary degree in Spain in 2007 and after graduation, moved to France where she focused on equine medicine and became fluent in French. After a year, she returned to Spain and, she says, struggled to find professional and personal stability.

"I did not know it yet, but I was about to discover a new passion."

"I gave myself some months to think about my future," she says. "During that period, I met a professional translator by coincidence who told me how difficult it was sometimes to find translators for highly specialized, scientific texts." It was then that something clicked. Given Nathalie's love of English and her bilingual skills in Spanish and French, she developed a plan. "I would study translation and interpreting at university and try to make a living from veterinary editing and translation. I did not know it yet, but I was about to discover a new passion."

On a typical workday, Nathalie spends a majority of her time translating veterinary texts from English and French into Spanish. She covers a wide range of subjects, including texts ranging from ophthalmology and parasitology to swine and poultry production, with occasional translations on topics like tourism or cosmetics. "It pushes me a little beyond my comfort zone," she says of these non-veterinary topics.

Given that veterinary medicine is highly specialized with its own terminology, it might not come as a surprise that the most common issues Nathalie encounters in her translating involve vocabulary due to the author either having scant scientific background or a human medical background, which does not necessarily cross over to the veterinary world. "As we usually say in the veterinary community, 'a cat is not a small dog' and a dog or any animal is not a human on all fours!"

It's hard to deny Nathalie's enthusiasm for her work. "Translators are not merely readers," she says "They are the best readers. They need to read between the lines, they break the texts down in pieces, they strive to understand every word, every nuance, every concept and then transfer the overall meaning to another language. Isn't that magic?"

"Translators are not merely readers. They are the best readers."

Being a linguist, Nathalie has a unique perspective on the differences in veterinary medicine, animal health, and animal welfare across many different cultures. Before she began freelance work, Nathalie was an editor in a veterinary publishing house which allowed her to work with veterinary authors across the world. "This allowed me to learn a lot about the reality of the veterinary profession in other countries," she says. "In Latin America, for example, they are now more concerned about animal welfare in production animals." This has resulted in an increase in the number of publications on that topic from those countries. "In Turkey and India, the poultry sector is a leading edge industry," she continues. "In Europe, the pet sector is very dynamic, particularly in the fields of prevention, feline medicine, nutrition, and senior medicine."

Being fluent in a language other than your mother tongue is a skill that is typically lauded by those who have it
and with today's growing global network in terms of everything from tourism to IT to yep, vet med, learning a new language in some ways can seem essential. "Languages give you an incredible opportunity of discovering other cultures and other ways of thinking," says Nathalie. "I believe it is essential to transmit to the youngsters the important of learning languages." Apart from Spanish, French, and English, Nathalie speaks a little Portuguese and says she would love to learn a Nordic language, too.

"What I like most about my job is that I learn new things every day," she says. "I am always studying, deepening, and perfecting myself on the most varied subjects. Every day is a new adventure!"

You can't argue that level of enthusiasm. Until next time, happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Degrees of Learning & Writing

I'm not one to believe that things happen for a reason but it is tempting to think of serendipity as a helpful nudge in the right direction every once in a while. This past spring, I was perusing the shelves at my local Barnes & Noble, as I'm known to do on any given Friday evening prior to diving into a cupcake at their cafe to celebrate the end of the week.
A recent release caught my eye: My Patients and Other Animals by Suzy Fincham-Gray. Flipping straight to the author bio, I found what I needed to know: veterinarian, author, and holder of an MFA, a degree I've been pondering for several years now. You see where this is heading.

Dear readers, I present to you my interview with Dr. Fincham-Gray.

Suzy graduated from the Royal Veterinary College in London in 2000, after which she came to the US and became board-certified in small animal internal medicine. "After almost a decade as a small animal internal medicine specialist in private practice, I was struggling to find balance in a life that was increasingly centered on my career," she says. "I made a decision to step back from practice and at that time I rediscovered writing, initially as a form of expression and then in a more structured way through the MFA program."

To get or not to get an MFA (that is, a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing): that is the question for many writers, including me. What does it "get" you? Or, more bluntly: what's it good for? Is this a career move? Is it for people who want to further hone their craft in literary writing? Is it just for the literary types or is there room for those interested in genre writing? Is it a bunch of navel gazing or a gate keeper to secret literary clubs and opportunities or a way of surrounding yourself with like-minded familiars for support and creative growth? So. Many Questions.

Suzy applied to low residency MFA programs across the US and accepted an offer from the University of California, Riverside-Palm Desert which, she says, was a top choice due to the school's emphasis on the practical aspects of writing and publishing as opposed to an academic focus on literature studies. She chose non-fiction as her focused genre.

"The benefits of studying for and obtaining my MFA were many," she explains. "Expert input on my writing from professors; residencies that gave me the opportunity to meet literary agents, editors, and successful authors; and the support from the program, even following graduation, has been excellent."

Although Suzy's first published book is a veterinary memoir, she says when she began the MFA program she had no intention of writing a memoir. "My initial goal was to explore my writing and gain understanding of the craft, rather than to write a specific piece," she says. "However, in the first few months of the program I realized that most of my work swirled around my experience as a veterinarian." The first ideas of a memoir surfaced during a chat with an editor and aspects of the book evolved from there. "I wrote a proposal and sample chapters and acquired a literary agent," she explains. "We worked on the proposal for around six months and the finished proposal was purchased by Spiegel and Grau. I then began work on the final manuscript with input from my editor. The project took around five years from starting the proposal to the book arriving at booksellers."

"Those rare glimpses of the fluid perfection of writing are the reason I keep sitting in front of a blank page."

Having read several veterinary memoirs, I'm interested in how an author chooses which stories to tell. In Suzy's case she mentions having some patients that have remained etched in her memory years after seeing them; those were cases she was compelled to write about and include. "Writing was alternately frustrating and rewarding," she admits. "There were moments when I was certain the book would never be finished and others when I was surprised how the writing shaped an idea I'd not consciously formed. Those rare glimpses of the fluid perfection of writing are the reason I keep sitting in front of a blank page."

Suzy says she has cut back her days in the hospital to protect and dedicate regular time for her writing. As always, I'm interested in how a veterinarian's scientific and creative sides mesh. Suzy says for her, these two sides complement one another. "Although I sometimes dream about giving up my 'day job' to focus my energy solely on writing, I know that to do this I would also be giving up my inspiration," she says. 

Creating an overall "message" in a veterinary memoir is also something I find interesting. Some books lack one completely and read as a laundry list of memorable cases and you-wouldn't-believe-it stories, while others try to mold an overarching narrative from a life's worth of experiences. In Suzy's case, she wanted to portray veterinary life in the truest way possible in an effort to counter what is sometimes portrayed by the media. "I wanted to explore the many dilemmas--the philosophical, ethical, social and economic--that veterinarians face in their daily practice," she says. "In particular, by finding the universal narrative of caring for our loved ones who cannot advocate for themselves. I hoped to draw out a new perspective."

"Creative outlets could provide an avenue to draw our [veterinary] community together."

On Suzy's blog, she states her writing explores the role veterinarians play in the human-animal bond and in the narrative of caring for those we love when they are sick. This hits home alongside the concept of narrative medicine which is sometimes defined as the narrative between the caregiver and the patient. Used mostly with human medicine, I asked Suzy how she applies this to veterinary medicine. "I took inspiration from Atul Gawande, Abraham Verghese, and Danielle Ofri, all of whom are human doctors writing about the challenges of practicing medicine," she says. "I found when reading their work that many of their dilemmas were similar to those we face as veterinarians, in particular when approaching end of life care in patients who cannot advocate for themselves."

Suzy points out that the relationship between humans and animals continues to evolve and this relationship is arguably deeper and more significant now than it has ever been. "I think it is essential that as a community, veterinarians explore ways to discuss and express the many frustrations, challenges, and difficulties we face in practice." She points to the relatively recent revelations on the high suicide rate in the vet med profession that highlights in a way the challenges we deal with. "Creative outlets could provide an avenue to draw our community together," she says.

While still working on promoting her current book, Suzy says she is starting to gather ideas for a second. "I'm also continuing to write shorter pieces that expand on the concept of narrative medicine within the veterinary field," she says. "I would love to see my writing in the literary canon of narrative medicine alongside Atul Gawande and Siddhartha Mukherjee. There are so many areas I've yet to explore through my writing and I'm excited to see where my writing takes me over the next ten years."

And on that uplifting note, I'll leave you to it, dear readers. Until next time, happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting.