Once upon a time, I was a reporter. I had a full-time job writing news stories about environmental and health policy issues, and I moonlighted as a freelancer writing about everything from antiques to breweries.
Then that changed. Over the course of a few years I stopped being a reporter and had one, two and ultimately three children. I became a science writer for a university, so I still get to write — primarily news releases and blog posts about research done at the university. But work and family commitments kept me from doing any freelancing.
A few months ago, my friend Rob Dunn asked me if I’d like to take on a writing assignment for him. He was assembling a collection of essays called Invisible Life that would essentially serve as biographies for various microbial organisms, and he wanted me to write one. I had a laundry list to choose from, and I selected Salmonella. I’d written about Salmonella in the past and had some familiarity with the subject. I picked the low-hanging fruit.
I did some homework, talked with a food safety researcher and knocked the piece out pretty quickly. I didn’t learn much new (other than some scary facts about hedgehogs), but I enjoyed compiling a significant amount of information in a short, accessible format. It was also nice to write something that presented no new research findings and had no news angle. In short, it was nice to write in a different style, with different goals in mind.
Rob contacted me again a few weeks ago, asking if I’d like to profile another microbe. I asked him to assign me one this time, and he told me to write something up on Clostridium.
If you’ve never looked at the Wikipedia entry for Clostridium (and, let’s be honest, you haven’t), you may not know that it is a genus of bacteria that includes a rogue’s gallery of killers. Botulism, gas gangrene and tetanus can all be laid at the doorstep of various Clostridium members.
The more I read about Clostridium, the more I found myself at sea. I was supposed to be writing a shortish overview, but instead I was looking at the makings of a textbook.
It was wonderful.
When you’re faced with an overwhelming variety of options, you can choose to gnash your teeth and fret over the fact that there’s no clear place to start. But you can also choose to be grateful that there’s no clear place to start — because that gives you the freedom to start wherever you want.
I opted to breeze through the rogue’s gallery and focus on Clostridium difficile, which Rob was particularly interested in. I knew nothing about it. I knew nothing about any of the Clostridium species. But, as hours passed, I learned a lot about C. difficile and its cousins while perusing papers on prevalence, mortality and fecal transplants.
By the time I was done, I could have written several chapters on the genus. Instead, I wrote 1,000 words on C. difficile and its most infamous relatives. I’m not Shakespeare, and it’s no masterpiece, but I think it offers a clear overview to anyone interested.
The Salmonella piece was easy, and I enjoyed writing it. But the Clostridium piece took a lot more work. I had to take an enormous, amorphous amount of unfamiliar information and shape it into something coherent. And that’s why it made me happy.
That assignment was a reminder that writing is not only my job; it’s something I love to do, in all its variety. It is fun. I love my job as a university science writer, and I take enough pride in what I do to think that I’m pretty good at it. But I’d forgotten that taking on outside writing assignments gives me a chance to stretch my legs a little. I missed that.
Writing is work, but it is fun work. And I’m hoping to do more of it.