March 7, 2016

Cracking Skulls: On Making A Writer

By Edison McDaniels

My day job is a fairly severe mistress, consuming my time with a vengeance matched only by the concentration required to complete many of my daily tasks. That may not sound like much, until I tell you that what I do between 9 and 5—well, more like 7 and 7 most days—is crack skulls.

No, I am not a bouncer at some hellishly belligerent bar, though I do have occasion to interact with some of their more unfortunate patrons from time to time. You see, I not only crack skulls—I put them back together again. What I mean to say, in plain terms, is that I am a brain surgeon. I spend my days bent over a quarter-million dollar microscope roaming the nether regions of the central nervous system, chasing tumors, clipping blood vessels, and generally making sure the many and various nerves are happy.

Yes, this requires concentration. Yes, this requires persistence and dedication to the task. Yes, this requires years of schooling and study to achieve any modicum of success. And yes, it requires a certain degree of passion.

All things, which you, fellow writer, will recognize as being necessary to the success of the craft.
Which brings me to this little exchange between two partygoers:

“So what do you do for a living?” the first one asks.

“I'm a writer. A novelist actually,” the second one says.

“Wow, what a coincidence. When I retire I intend to write a novel.”

“What do you do now?"

“I'm a physician, a surgeon actually.”

“Well then, that is a coincidence. When I retire, I intend to practice medicine.”

Preposterous? Maybe, but not in the vein you might think. As someone who does both—with a fair amount of success in each—either endeavor requires a combination of attention to detail, perseverance, and passion most folks lack. Writing a novel is no less daunting than cutting out a brain tumor. Both require a certain frame of mind. A surgeon has to want to be in the OR more than the bedroom. The only time a writer enters the bedroom is to sleep or for new source material, to paraphrase Betsy Lerner, The Forest For The Trees.

When I am writing, my mind is singularly focused in a quest to tell a story. I want the reader to journey with me, but not just come along for the ride. I ultimately want him or her to take the wheel, to feel the bumps and bruises for themselves, to laugh, cry, squirm, or grimace despite themselves. It's not just finding the right word, but also the correct point of view, the proper voice, the right sentence make-up, the appropriate story structure, building the best and most telling fictive world to give life to the characters—in short, making a myriad of critical decisions, upon which the ultimate result depends. I agree with Stephen King that stories are found things, like fossils, and getting them out of the ground in one piece—or at least as intact as possible—is both the substance and the art of the craft.

For me, writing is an intimate act, and I leave a piece of myself in each story.

When I am operating, I am of a similar mind, honed into a world just a few inches in diameter. I go hours without needing—or even thinking—to eat, drink, or piss. Time condenses and hours pass like minutes. Everything becomes about the cut, about when, where, and what to cut, about creating a path in and out, and about doing it all—completing the task—with as little trauma as possible to my patient. Critical thinking skills rise to the forefront. A knowledge of anatomy replaces a knowledge of grammar. It is the opposite of sculpting. Here, I am not so much trying to gather the fossil as protect the ground around it.

When operating, I am writing my signature in the flesh.

Both the task and the craft are goal directed, cerebral undertakings, but surgery is a left brain, concrete, get it done right now thing and writing is a right brain, creative, take your time thing. Surgery requires a rote knowledge of anatomy, writing calls up an esoteric awareness of words and grammar. Surgery is relatively quick and mentally (and often physically) exhausting; writing is time-consuming and brain building. Surgery involves a team (no surgeon operates alone), though it is an intensely isolating feeling to be deep inside somebody's brain and know his or her entire future depends on your next move, and your next, and your next...; writing may be one of the most solitary things we humans do routinely, yet when done well it yields a community like few other pursuits.

No one would expect a surgeon to be made overnight—the idea is not only ludicrous, but might well prove fatal. The novice writer's craft is benign in execution, but no less grotesque. Writing, like surgery, gains much from experience. The best writing—mastering the craft—takes years of study. A professor of neurosurgery once told me it takes five years after residency to make a brain surgeon tolerably good. The same might be said of writing, paraphrased thus: it takes a million words on the page to make a writer readable.

That's about ten novels folks, and they ain't gonna write themselves. Best to get writing.
Edison McDaniels is a novelist and physician living in the American South. His intense stories tend to involve ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, often informed by medicine. Read Not One Among Them Whole, a heartbreakingly tragic novel of the surgeons at Gettysburg; and The Matriarch of Ruins, which Kirkus Reviews recently called “A dark, artistically rendered, and historically edifying tale.” Social Media contacts; @surgeonwriter Also on

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