Writing

George Mallory had similar thoughts, standing at the foot of Mount Everest.

One year to write 20 pages! That is how long they took. Even for me — the slowest of the slow, the latest of the late — this is a personal best. How did it take so long?

Easier question: why didn’t it take longer? Answer: because there was a time limit imposed by somebody else. A timer was set in April 2019, giving me no more than one year to finish or be damned. Not liking the eternal-infernal option, I finished my writing with precisely four days to spare (phew).

Same sort of thing happened in 1975, when I “finished” (i.e. stopped) my doctoral dissertation in English Letters at the end of a fifth year living in the UK. There is evidently something about limits that makes me want to exceed or at least ignore them, as long and as much as possible.

My recent year of writing was an NSF SBIR Phase 1 proposal. Together with documentation it turned out to be 10 x 20 pages, but the Pareto principle applies to just those measly 20 pages comprising the Project Description and Technical Discussion of a game changer known as Diabetes Agonistes.

The National Science Foundation does very nice things for aspirants and martyrs who want to cross the chasms of technical innovation. They carefully publish an explicit Solicitation telling applicants how to write a proposal; and they reinforce the Solicitation with a Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide that kind of “tells ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em” — with more detail in different words. They further reinforce those helpful documents with myriad web pages of procedural, referential, social and historical information that strikes aspirants with awe and turns some of them into martyrs. Reading this stuff feels a bit like gazing at a Himalayan summit from a safe distance and thinking, “it’s not that tall after all.” All told, there are hundreds of fact-packed government pages that are not only helpful, but also debilitating. Even for me, a person who loves reading for its own sake, that textual mountain was a lot to take in. Consequently much of my year spent writing was actually devoted to getting ready to write and then afterwards checking to make sure that my text was complete and compliant with standards. Even now I’m not sure that it is. The summit is shrouded in mist, and there is a throbbing red glow within it.

As usual with anything related to health care (e.g. Diabetes Agonistes), there is a way to leapfrog the labor by delegating it, with cash. You can hire a consultant, one who is well versed in government documents, as your sherpa. The consultant tells you what to write, and when to write it, and how to revise it until it is ready for primetime. Alternatively, you can hire a consultant as your ghostwriter and project manager: a magus who will use you as a subject-matter expert, write a splendid proposal for you to sign, and afterwards (if successful) manage the entire project for a reasonable fee.

I considered consultants. I attended a two-day workshop hosted by one of the best, and interviewed four others who came highly recommended. I chose not to engage one because (idiot that I am) I wanted to learn and master this writing process myself. I felt there is no text in the English language that I can’t wrestle to the mat (hubris), and if I don’t do the heavy lifting myself, I won’t do all the necessary thinking either. Then I would lose an ineffable chance to experience something new: crossing one of the wider chasms of technical innovation. I’m sure that George Mallory had similar thoughts, standing at the foot of Mount Everest.

Apart from reading and processing freight cars full of documentation, another cause of my slowness was poetics (so-called). Hard as it may be for readers of this blog to believe, I am very careful about every word I write, often writing them over and over in different ways until they sort of chime in my ear and look good to my eye. For this reason, what I want to express is perhaps 30% of my writing. Wordsmithing is 70%. The nutty thing about that is, my subject matter here for the most part is technology, and literary style is certainly not one of the criteria for evaluation of my proposal. Nonetheless, I can’t help myself. My muse insists.

As soon as my writing job was done a few days ago, I turned to (what else?) more writing. I quickly wrote a Project Pitch for educational technology that may bend the curve of COVID-19. Fascinating proposal which will go nowhere, of course, but deserved to be written. Then I started writing an SBIR Phase 1 proposal for the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, one of the National Institutes of Health. And also began writing a series of briefs for the NSF project team, in case that proposal isn’t kicked out like a stray dog.

Will I set a new record for slowness with NIH? I think not. Having practiced and sort of mastered the process of parsing technical documentation with NSF, I am likely to cross the next chasm like a hare rather than a tortoise. I will certainly let you know when that happens.

Scientific entertainment. Female nude, back view (1831), by Alexandre-Jean Dubois-Drahonet. Pictured with coronavirus on the prowl.