Timestamps, Details & Transcript

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Timestamps

  • 00:00 - Introduction

  • 00:48 - Segment 1: The Novel Idea (Short Story)

  • 08:50 - Segment 2: The Origin of "Writer's Block" (Metaphor History)

  • 19:31 - Segment 3: Academic Ghostwriting (Communication Topic)

  • 30:28 - Segment 4: Talk With Sarah Laframboise (Guest Interview)

References

Theme Music​

Transcript

To my outstanding family and friends. Near and far. Old and new. This is Kevin Mercurio on the mic. And welcome to the 22nd episode of the Metaphorigins podcast.

 

Now, to show support if you like this sort of content, please make sure to rate and subscribe to the podcast on Apple or Spotify or Google Podcasts or whatever platform you are listening to this on, and follow @metaphorigins on Instagram, that’s @metaphorigins, where I will be posting most of my updates, as well as on my personal website: kjbmercurio.com/metaphorigins. Just a reminder, I will hold another draw on my 30th episode for the elegant, butterfly-printed, custom Metaphorigins shirt, so follow the Instagram page to be placed into the draw.

 

Okay. So for today’s episode, I’m going to discuss an unusual idiom that I personally encounter very often in the creation of podcast episodes, and academics encounter universally when putting together scientific publications.

 

Let’s establish the setting: you recently just moved into a new apartment complex on one of the busiest streets in Toronto. Coming from a small town in Northern Ontario, you decided to move there in the hopes of pursuing your dream of becoming a world-renowned novelist. With the great inspiration of art shows, lively performances and bustling crowds, you acquire the notion that the city’s energy would spark a flow of ideas that can be webbed together into the 21st Century’s Moby Dick.

 

With the last box of remaining belongings in your arms, you press the elevator call button in the downstairs lobby. You catch a glimpse of the bulletin board above the call button and look at the many advertisements for petsitting, high school tutoring, and car sales, each having those tear-one tags with the service provider’s contact information. On the top right of the board is a colourful poster with large font and cartoon depictions of books and pencils. It reads: “Block Party for local writers, right outside the complex! This Friday from 8pm to indefinite. New writers are encouraged to attend!”

 

“Wow!” You say out loud, “What a great opportunity to meet the local writing community. Hopefully I have a few ideas down that I can bounce off experienced writers at the block party.”

 

Upon entry into your new apartment, you immediately make space on your desk and place yourself there with your MacBook Pro. For the next three days, you make it your mission to come up with several ideas for your novel that you can share, vaguely of course, while networking at the block party. What genre are you going to claim your throne? You think about thrones, medieval lore, kings and queens, royalty, dragons, gold, knights and dwarves and wizards and magic, enchanted forests, spells. Ahhhh, they’ve all been exhausted beyond capacity. Capacity? Electricity, lightning, flash, power, superpowers, superheroes, villains, morality and justice, law and order, criminal investigations, mysteries, homicides, serial killers, halloween, clowns, comedy, and tragedy. Dammit, so unoriginal. Original? Genuine, one-of-a-kind, sympathetic, emotions, feelings, touch, sensing, vision, eye sight, soreness, aching, relaxing, chair, thrones. Fuck.

 

On the day of the block party, you’re best idea is an enchanted chair that gives sitters the capacity of superpowers of heightened sensing to investigate serial killers. Hey, it’s original, so you go ahead and pat yourself on the back.

 

It finally reaches 8pm. You head down to the elevator and exit the complex. The block party is massive and incredibly lively, blocked off on each end of the street. In the middle of the street, there’s a large white tent with enormous speakers at each corner, amplifying loud, uproarious jazz music down all sides. To the left, tables and tables of various or d’ouerves and drinks, drinks being alcoholic to extra-alcoholic, designated by poster signs of various colours. On the right, stand-up tables for people to network and chat about writing, current events, local or global, and life.

 

You grab a few pigs in a blanket, a term you’re ready to discuss, an extra-alcoholic red wine and approach the nearest table of writers. There’s an elderly gentleman seemingly dressed in 18th century attire, with a top hat and monocle, next to a short brunette woman in a tiger-print dress. Across from them are two other women, one with an absurdly large sunhat and the other, with tape across her mouth. 

 

“Hello all, can I join?”

 

“Absolutely affirmative,” the gentlemen says, “We were just contemplating our latest pieces. Well, three of us were, the other is currently incapable of any verbal communication whatsoever.” The woman with tape across her mouth glares at him.

 

“Awesome,” you say, “I was hoping to bounce some novel ideas off experienced writers like yourselves.”

 

“Well do go on,” the woman in the tiger dress says, “Tell us of your latest endeavour.”

 

“Right. Well, you see, it still needs a bit of work. I was brainstorming off word clouds like we’re taught in our writing class, you see. And, well, I came up with this idea, you see, about a, well, throne, or chair, that gives those who sit on said chair, the ability, or superability, to vastly improve their senses and, oh, their capacity of critical thinking, in order to investigate, well, the mysteries of serial killers,” you gulp the lump in the back of your throat, “You see, its like a mystery mixed with fantasy, themes of exploring morality and justice, those sorts of things.”

 

After a few seconds of silence, the woman in the enormous sunhat says, “My my my”.

 

You break the silence again, “So, well, what do you think?”

 

“I think it’s bloody brilliant,” the 18th century gentleman says.

 

“Just dazzling dichotomy darling,” the woman in the tiger dress says.

 

“I agree, very original,” the woman in the sunhat says.

 

“Mmdfsjbvm,” the woman with the tape over her mouth noises, with a thumbs up.

 

“Wow, really? Thanks so much! I’m glad these past few days of thinking really paid off! I’m going to start writing it now!”

 

You rush back to the complex, ride the elevator up to your unit and plant yourself at your desk. You open up Scrivner and excitedly wait for the words to flow into your fingers. However, there is such loud noise from the writer’s block party that it makes it almost impossible to concentrate on your novel. Even closing all the windows doesn’t help. You head back down and find the unusual quartet at the same standing table you left them at.

 

“Hi again! Just wondering when this party will end at? Because of this writer’s block, I’m finding it difficult to work on my novel.”

 

“Did you just use a preposition at the end of your question?” the woman in the tiger dress asks.

 

“Maleficent malarkey,” the gentleman with the tophat says.

 

“My my my,” the woman with the giant sunhat says.

 

“Eeuck,” the woman with tape across her mouth noises.

 

Finally, your teacher looks up from your writing assignment and says, “So I gave you an exercise to help encourage a flow of ideas for your novel, by writing about yourself in a story about you writing a novel, and in your story about yourself, you end up not writing anything.”

 

“I suppose,” you say.

 

“You know normally most of my students end their assignments with the first few pages of their novel.”

 

“I know,” you say.

 

“Try again,” your teacher says, “and this time, create a cast of supporting characters, not non-supporting characters.”

 

Saddened, you take your writing assignment from your teacher’s hands and head back to your apartment complex, hoping that it wasn’t such a mistake to move to the big city after all.

 

Whoa whoa, which reality are we in?! Hah, jokes aside, this concept of an inability to write plagues many of us from career writers, to academic manuscript authors, to those who have to devise government reports. But how did such a quintessential name for this word dam sprout?

 

What’s the origin to the expression, “writer’s block”?

 

*Theme Music*

 

 

Most of this information was obtained from different articles and writer’s opinions, about the meaning, origin and tactics against this idiom. All sources will be mentioned in the description.

 

Writing about writer’s block seems like a writing exercise for the prolific writer, the best of the best, like Stephen King or J.K. Rowling (who apparently I’m supposed to hate now?). But speaking about what I wrote about writer’s block, that’s definitely something I can accomplish.

 

We continue a series of an unplanned theme, that being procrastination, with the experience most people have claimed to encountered. The anxiety-induced panic of a blankness within the first page or the end of a collection of pages. The extremely gruelling quest for motivation or self-confidence in one’s own creativity. The debilitating horror of stiff dexterity followed by the dread of unproductiveness. Like carpel tunnel, we firmly grasp the pencil or pen, form an enclosed claw to slam on keystrokes as soon as they finally come to fruition.

 

Yes, writer’s block. The term. The myth. The legend. If your writing project intentionally killed the creative dog in your brain and stole the car guiding your concentration, it would be its John Wick. But before we get to its origin, let’s expand a bit on this concept.

 

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines writer’s block as, “a psychological inhibition preventing a writer from providing with a piece”. However, the agreement of its very existence seems to be controversial amongst writers of all genres. Editor in chief Stefanie Flaxman of Copyblogger and author Rae Eliiot of The Write Life tend to side in favour of the phenomenon being real, while historian Susan Reynolds believes that writer’s block is the unconscious realization of “not being prepared to move on to the next level”. 

 

And researching writer’s block had in itself, some challenges. Let’s agree that writer’s block does exist, whether that be a truly psychological hindrance or whether it’s some other entity entirely. Article after article from magnanimous novelists, bloggers and writing coaches offered the state of the art tips and tricks to get you, a potential writer, often in their beginner stages, out of your word void. Academic institutes like Purdue University and the Founding College of the University of Toronto dedicates website space to address the concern about writer’s block experienced by their students.  “The 9 tips on how to totally crush writer’s block” by Bryan Hutcinson on Positive Writer, or my favourite article title: “Writer’s Block, 30 ways to roundhouse kick it in the face” by Henneke Duistermaat of Smart Blogger. Yes, even podcasts solely dedicated to writing have debated on it, like writing coach Dave Ursillo’s Podcast Written, Spoken (although he ruined the episode ending with basically an advertisement to his courses). I’ll summarize everything these writing experts suggested: 1) Get rid of distractions, 2) Try tinkering the process of how you write, 3) Try doing anything else in the meantime, and 4) Ask yourself, why the hell are you even writing to begin with?. I promise you, by focusing on these 4 points, especially the latter question, will have your either writing in no time, or have you doing something much better suited to your interests.

 

The problem doesn’t lie in whether it exists or not. Some common experience like writer’s block has been lived by thousands of writers from beginner to legendary level. The problem also doesn’t seem to be in the techniques to lift that barrier impeding one from writing the next great novel. The problem in writer’s block, seems to be how writers describe and cope with it.

 

The most interesting information, to me, of this topic were quotes from writers that have experienced writer’s block. Before the term was coined (and yes we’ll get to that origin, don’t you fret), famous 19th century English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge described it as “an indefinite indescribable terror” to which he continued lamenting in a record of his notebook, “So completely has a whole year passed, with scarcely the fruits of a month. O sorrow and shame, I have done nothing!”. He lived the rest of his life after publishing his most famous work in his mid-20s, succumbing to opium addiction. 

 

Sadly, this isn’t the only victim to what historian Lawrence Samuel says is “the cruelest [thing] about writer’s block”. Tom Dardis, in his 1989 book The Thirsty Muse: Alcohol and the American Writer, notes the following 5 winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature being American authors we deem as legendary level in modern day, but were also alcoholics: Sinclair Lewis (the author of Arrowsmith), Eugene O’Neill (the screenwriter of Long Day’s Journey Into Night), William Faulkner (the author of the Sound and the Fury), Ernest Hemingway (the author of a plethora of novels like the Old Man And the Sea), and John Steinbeck (the author of the Grapes of Wrath). And this list doesn’t scratch the surface of other successful writers who also attribute alcohol to their writing process, like Thomas Wolfe, Tennesssee Williams and Truman Capote.

 

And these examples pale in comparison to the archetype of writer’s block, and the quintessential representative of unimaginable success from an early age, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Described in an amazing 2004 article on writer’s block by The New Yorker, “the artistic flameout” was “famous at 23, washed up at 40 and dead by a heart attack at 44”. In his own words, Fitzgerald famously said “There is no second acts in American lives”. In 1947, Editor of the partisan review, William Barrett, claims that “the modern writer was by definition an “estranged neurotic,” because the difficulty of being authentic in a false-faced world forced him to go deeper and deeper into the unconscious, thus pushing him toward madness: “The game is to go as close as possible without crossing over.” Fitzgerald was our generation’s Macaulay Caulkin.

 

There are so many stories, amazing stories, about great writers who are known for their long break periods between pieces, like Fran Lebowitz and Harper Lee, or one hit wonders like Moby Dick author Herman Melville. But perhaps this escapes the crux of this podcast, which is to talk about the origin of terms and expressions. We find ourselves there now, as writer’s block is a term coined by American psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler in the 1940s. It’s cause, he claimed? Paraphrased by The New Yorker Article, “oral masochism, entrapment in rage over the milk-denying pre-Oedipal mother. Starved before, the writer chose to become starved again—that is, blocked.” It is with this knowledge that Bergler is known to have treated 40 writers dealing with writer’s block, with a 100% success rate. As a final say towards the end of his work, he states “the megalomaniac pleasure of creation . . . produces a type of elation which cannot be compared with that experienced by other mortals”.

 

So where do we go from here? Is it a choice to be inhibited in the art of storytelling? From personal experience, through what I believed to be writer’s block over my own long story Oblivion, might have simply been a matter of prioritization, what I had to do at the time versus what I wanted to do at the time. Sure I wanted to write, but how could plots reveal themselves to a mind clouded by other tasks? So therefore, despite my hesitation to agree with Bergler’s theory of “entrapment in rage over the milk-denying pre-Oedipal mother”, choice does seem to play a major factor. But what do you think? Could calm awareness and prioritization fix your writer’s block, or general creative hindrance?

 

I end this segment with one final quote, one final writer’s experience, or rather inexperience, with the topic at hand. In the keynote address of the Sixth Annual Writer’s symposium by the sea, author of Farenhiet 451 Ray Bradbury states, “I’ve never worked a day in my life. I’ve never worked a day in my life. The joy of writing has propelled me from day to day and year to year. I want you to envy me, my joy. Get out of here tonight and say: ‘Am I being joyful?’ And if you’ve got a writer’s block, you can cure it this evening by stopping whatever you’re writing and doing something else. You picked the wrong subject.”. Perhaps you’re right, Bradbury. But perhaps you meant “wrong platform”. I hope this podcast proves him wrong.

 

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For my communication segment, I would like to talk about something that I have just recently heard about and that may be of interest to the average Metaphorigins listener. Actually, the core concept behind it can be expanded to include multiple genres. That topic, is academic ghostwriting.

 

Ghostwriting has been around for a long time. I actually first heard about it in the music industry. Many top artists have been supported by other artists who wrote some songs for them. Ariana Grande had Harry Styles, Beyonce had Sia, Elton John had Bernie Taupin, even Elvis Presley had Jerry Lieber. In these cases, ghostwriters are often ecstatic to offer their services to friends, or even their idols.

 

Let’s define it first so we’re on the same page. Most definitions are in the context of producing a large body of written work. MasterClass, an online educational platform that hosts a magnificent array of the most successful people in specific lines of work, defines ghostwriting as “when another writer takes on the book writing responsibility of an author or client. Many times this is done when a person cannot or does not want to write their own book, but has a strong idea for one.” Most of the time, ghostwriters will write in the voice of the idea originator, and mildly include the client in outlining the work and reviewing final drafts. Now, this is different from co-writing or co-authoring, which is when a writer and idea originator actively collaborate together to complete the piece. For example, for a novel, perhaps you would be in charge of the introductory chapters, while your partner could take over setting up the conflict in subsequent chapters.

 

But academic ghostwriting is a whole other monster. For this, I turn to the story of Ed Dante, a pseudonym for the real-life academic ghostwriter Dave Tomar. Back in 2010 (scarily already 11 years ago), the Chronicle for Higher Education published an essay about a “student paper mill”, a business of completing college or university students’ writing assignments. This, already somewhat surprising, is minuscule compared to the confirmed jobs Tomar was tasked to do over the decade of his career as an academic ghostwriter. In addition to simple written assignments, Tomar states “[I’ve] written toward a master's degree in cognitive psychology, a Ph.D. in sociology, and a handful of postgraduate credits in international diplomacy. I've worked on bachelor's degrees in hospitality, business administration, and accounting. I've written for courses in history, cinema, labor relations, pharmacology, theology, sports management, maritime security, airline services, sustainability, municipal budgeting, marketing, philosophy, ethics, Eastern religion, postmodern architecture, anthropology, literature, and public administration. I've attended three dozen online universities. I've completed 12 graduate theses of 50 pages or more. All for someone else.”

 

In his essay, Tomar has made a salary upwards of “$66,000 USD” in one year, that’s double the annual median personal income given by the US Census Bureau for 2019. Those who seeked out his services were of three demographics “English-as-a-second-language student; the hopelessly deficient student; and the lazy rich kid”.   Despite being unable to rationalize the unethical behaviour of how he made a living, he explains his reasoning in a follow-up interview by the Chronicle, “We are so deeply entrenched for a lot of economic reasons in this cost structure where colleges have inflated their costs so dramatically, but the return on it is completely static”. Tomar wrote a book about his decade of helping America’s college youth cheat, titled, “The Shadow Scholar”.

 

The craziness about academic ghostwriting is that it is not old news, and it’s not breaking any laws or academic rules. Yes, there’s the obvious very serious offence of plagiarism, which the University of Oxford defines as “presenting someone else’s work or ideas as your own, with or without their consent, by incorporating it into your work without full acknowledgement”. Think about that. What academic ghostwriters do are completely original work, no copy-paste shenanigans occurring. Sure, clients are presenting someone else’s work or ideas as their own (with the consent of ghostwriters), but what are clients incorporating it into? That piece of work did not exist prior to them handing it in at the end of the semester.

 

It’s also not exactly hard to find these student paper mills either. Tomar originally started as a freelancer before joining an online company, and these online companies are freely marketed, academicghostwriter.org and acad-write.org being the most prominent companies. It’s in demand. Another freelance academic ghostwriter under the pseudonym Ghost Wizard, posted an article on medium describing the effort of said lifestyle, “The time it takes for Spirituality and Health or National Geographic to return my query letter about an article idea (if they ever do), I can get at a minimum ten to fifteen customers willing to pay me at least 120 dollars each to write their papers for them. That’s enough to keep the heat on for a few months, make a car payment, buy enough kombucha and avocados to satiate my needs, support my LA Fitness, Hulu, and Spotify memberships, and take care of my evermore hungry cats needs.” Ghost Wizard also mentions “One writer, according to Juwon Park at Qz.com, charges $5,000 for a 50-page graduate thesis and $12,000 for a 100-page doctorate dissertation. One customer at 12k is enough to make that individual’s half a year fairly comfortable, depending on their bills and debts.” The article’s title, the shady business of academic ghostwriting, is truly an understatement. It’s the American freakin’ goldrush leading to the delivery of undeserved degrees.

 

Now we go even deeper than that. The outraged unfairness of some rich folks getting qualifications that required even less effort from them then from me writing about them, is bad. But what if lives were at stake? We move on to more sinister roles of academic ghostwriting to the field that I find myself entrenched in now, biomedical sciences. Dr. Barabara Sherwin, a McGill University psychology professor, was tied into a class-action lawsuit of which over 8,000 women sued the drug company Wyeth, now owned by Pfizer (yes, you may have heard this company’s name recently). You see, Dr. Sherwin was the primary author of a review about pharmacological treatment options for age-associated memory loss. However, this review was written by a an employee of a paper mill called DesignWrite, hired by Wyeth to attract the involvement of leading scientists in their field of hormone replacement therapy or HRT (and this therapy was part of the review). As described by a Maclean’s article about the lawsuit, "Lawyers representing the women, who claim they were harmed by their hormone replacement therapy (HRT) drugs, discovered that scientific research papers extolling the virtues of the treatment while downplaying potential harm appeared to have been written, not by the academics who signed their name to the papers, but by writers hired by the pharmaceutical company.” And that’s not new, as “Blockbuster drugs such as Merck’s painkiller Vioxx (pulled from the market in 2004 after it was linked to heart problems), and the antidepressants Paxil and Zoloft, continue to come under scrutiny for citing ghostwritten articles that promote their use. Similarly, in 2004, it was found that the manufacturer of [Pfizer’s] Neurontin used a ghostwriting campaign to market off-label uses.” More information on these drugs and the conclusion of the class action lawsuit can be found in the description.

 

Society has been at an unusual crossroads of trusting Big Pharma to invent medicines, while also helplessly unaware of their insincerity. In an 2010 article by Science Mag, a prominent scientific journal, “it came to light that Merck had paid the publishing company Elsevier to produce a journal, Australasian Journal of Bone & Joint Medicine, which looked like a peer-reviewed medical journal but was filled with articles and reviews from [medical education companies], including articles favorable to Merck products for osteoporosis.” How insane is it that private companies can create scientific journals to publish studies that favour their drugs?

 

I will mention that these specific articles gaffing at academic ghostwriting in the pharmaceutical industry are from one or two decades ago, so perhaps things are changing. In fact, even then reputable scientific journals took notice and revised their standards. From the Science Mag article, “The Journal of the American Medical Association, PLoS Medicine, the British Medical Journal, and the Journal of General Internal Medicine, have developed stringent authorship guidelines to ascertain the contributions of each author and obtain full disclosure of authors' funding sources and financial ties”. However, ghostwriting doesn’t stop there. In a 2019 article published in Nature, another prominent journal, even peer review is subject to the shadiness of academic ghostwriting, “A large proportion of graduate students and postdocs ghostwrite peer reviews for senior colleagues and supervisors, receiving no professional credit for their work” based on a study surveying 498 early career researchers in the US, Europe and Asia. Those who have listened to Episode 15 of this podcast know how important the peer review process is in reviewing any academic work. Should we be outraged that elite scientists are passing on this responsibility to early researchers while receiving all the credit, like undergraduates receiving degrees through their ghostwritten work? The answer should be a resounding yes, but the problem is devising methods of detecting this practice while also making it undesirable other than it’s obvious hint of immorality.

 

Throughout my academic career, I have always understood the importance of crediting someone for the work they’ve accomplished. Now, I understand the equal importance of pointing out the work that someone has not done. You see, as unlike the ghostwriters in the music industry’s wish to support mentors in their craft, academia, in all it’s extravagant, elitist, exclusionary culture, and awkward-allocation of funding projects based on quantitative metrics like number of publications, has early career academics just wishing to be heard at all.

 

*Theme Music*

For today’s episode, I’ll be interviewing someone I believe is not only doing great research, but also engaged in writing articles related to science on popular news sites.

 

She is a PhD Student in Biochemistry at the University of Ottawa. Outside of the lab, her time is spent as a freelance science writer and communicator. She is passionate about spreading her love of science and inspiring the next generation of scientists. Please welcome the outrageously talented, Sarah Laframboise.

*Theme Music*

*INTERVIEW*

And thank you for listening to this episode of the Metaphorigins podcast. As as another update, by the time you’re hearing this, it will be my first day as a PhD student at Trinity College, University of Dublin! Super excited to get back into research on the microbiome. I’ll give you more updates, again, via bits and pieces throughout the season, so stay tuned, and hope you enjoy this crazy journey with me. Remember to follow the Instagram page for visual updates as well as to be entered into the draw for the custom, butterfly-printed Metaphorigins shirt which will be given out on the 30th episode. Until then, stay skeptical but curious.

 

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