The Things That Set Us Apart: 3 Things The Writing Community Can Learn From The Music Scene

Homelife - Regional Band from Lansing, MI

Homelife – Regional Band from Lansing, MI

My brother has been a musician in some local and regional bands for probably a decade now, and I’ve met a lot of people in the punk scene from going to shows with him. Somewhere along the line, I realized that these were a rare breed of people: They were going after something they loved, knowing full well that they probably wouldn’t make a living that way. Perhaps more importantly, they seemed, as a whole, to have a humility and openness about them that seems to be lacking in my usual circles. (Disclaimer: I spend most of my time around aspiring scientists and doctors. I’ll reserve another post someday for talking about why they have reason to be less than super friendly to the competition in their fields.) Nestled in with the fist-flinging dance moves and the yelling vocal delivery, I decided that these people had a certain wisdom that I wanted to take away to my own creative endeavors.

    1. Other Writers Are Not Your Enemy

      Maybe I’m projecting a little bit, but it seems to me that writers are often insulated and have a tendency to scoff, at least internally, when they hear that other people are writing something as well. While I admit that there are far more aspiring authors out there than there are real authors, I think that this attitude is counterproductive to the sense of community that creators of any sort ought to be fostering.
      In particular, there are a few collaborative strategies that we could benefit from trying out. I know that coauthoring is definitely a thing from time to time, but there are other ways we can help each other and build a community of creators that I haven’t really seen in use.


      For those of you who aren’t familiar, it’s pretty common for two bands to get together and press a record that has one or two songs from each of them. In this way, they can get out a new song or two while giving the buyer a taste of another artist’s work as well. This means that fans of either band will be interested in the record, and may therefore give a new band a listen. This has the additional benefits of allowing both bands to split the cost of the pressing and share the task of promoting the album at concerts and over social media. So what does this mean for writers? I submit that there would be some merit in taking two smaller novellas or short novels and binding them together in a “split” in much the same fashion, achieving most of the same benefits. In this way, authors can also form useful bonds with similar authors, laying the foundation for future collaborations and cross-promotion opportunities.


      Record labels often release sampler albums featuring a single track from various artists. In the same way, it seems feasible for various writers to get together and submit compiled works of shorter stories, poetry, essays, and novellas in one volume under some theme. This does happen in some genres, but I wanted to point out that it could be a useful tool for emerging writers to be seen and to work with other authors. Ideally, this would be arranged in a grassroots way rather than relying on a publisher or editor to handle all the compiling – that way the writers actually have to talk to each other.


      Like-minded bands tend to stick together – they tour together, promote each other’s news on social media, and build a scene around them. While this process emerges pretty naturally from the more public nature of consuming music, but I think the same principle could apply. Word of mouth and social media are the best ways of getting people to try out new artists, and writers ought to consider the same sorts of alliances.

    2. The “Real” Publishing vs. Self Publishing debate is missing the point if your goal is to create and share art

      There seems to be a lot of digital ink spent on the relative merits of self-publishing vs. seeking publication through a professional publishing house. While being published by a major company carries a number of advantages (including quality control, promotion, etc.), I feel that both routes ought to be considered parallel means to the same end. If your goal as a writer is to create art and share it with people, the route of publication is pretty much inconsequential. In other words, I think we ought to refocus on the goal of producing products that are well written, well edited and properly promoted.
      There will always be advantages to getting picked up by a reputable publishing house, but it’s pretty widely recognized that this is easier said than done. Publishing houses prefer to do the lowest risk publishing they can, so they may not be willing to take a chance on an unknown author’s fiction when they have a sure bet in picking up the latest topical nonfiction or adapting a well-established blogger’s compiled work. Therefore, I propose that we adapt the music industry’s strategy of relying on more accessible means to get exposure at the earlier stages of one’s career. In the case of musicians, smaller, regional record labels are becoming increasingly common, and the ease of digital publishing has been embraced to get work to fans.
      In the case of books, there are plenty of on-demand services by which we can get our works out in digital and paperback formats without major barriers to entry. I submit that we can reduce the stigma of self-publication by combining these convenient publishing means with smaller scale operations to provide the kinds of quality assurance that a publishing house normally takes care of: Namely, promotion and proofreading. To practice what I preach, I am going to undertake to set up such an operation myself. However, I don’t want this entry to come off as shameless self promotion, so I’ll urge my readers to consider forming their own, and I’ll leave the details of mine to come at a later date.

    3. Fans are Everything

      Transit at the 9:30 Club – We writers may not see our fans en masse, but we should appreciate them just the same.

      The performance of live music is a powerful thing. Watching the crowds erupt when their favorite songs play really drives home the idea that the musician’s art affects people in a deep way. As writers, we aren’t generally privy to the effects we have on our fans, but it’s important to remember that they are the ones who make or break us. I see a lot of hand-wringing in forums about the ideal way to write this or that, but I believe there’s a fundamental mistake in directing this question only to fellow authors. Like it or not, you’re not writing for writers, you’re writing for readers. Works like 50 Shades of Grey and the Twilight series go to show that sheer literary quality does not always correlate to success. I’m not saying we should market to the lowest common denominator, but I think that it’s a perfectly noble goal to write work that resonates with people. Because of the introverted nature of writing and reading, we are at great risk of getting caught up in naval-gazing and idealism when the real goal should be to offer art to the masses that will inspire and affect them.

I don’t mean to criticize writers, many of whom may already be trying to collaborate and form these sorts of alliances. Musicians may have stumbled upon these techniques sooner because their art form requires them to work with others (for example, one artist usually needs a whole band, and a small band can’t play without joining a lineup, etc.), but I believe it’s time for our art form to pay attention to the lessons of theirs in order to adapt to the modes of consumption of the 21st century.

Do you agree? Disagree? Want to help with my “label” or want to give me some choice words? Message me or give me a comment below and let’s talk


Bilingualish? My climb through the Duolingo Spanish Skill Tree

ImageLike pretty much everybody else on the planet, I’ve wanted to eventually learn another language. It got to the point that I was on the verge of finding a way to pirate pricing out Rosetta Stone to try my hand at seriously doing some Spanish. (I picked Spanish because it shows up a lot in the clinic – I figure it’ll give me the edge later on in my medical career.) Fortunately, before I took the dive, I found out about Duolingo, which promised to provide language learning for free. I figured I’d give it a shot. Without trying to sound like too much of a shill, I’ll give you a rundown of my experiences and the pros and cons as I see them. First, for all of you skeptics wondering if they’re going to go for-pay when you’re in the middle of learning to conjugate the future sub-perfect-junctive tense, let me assure you that this is highly unlikely. I’ll quote a saying that’s been floating around the internet (I’ve traced it to the user blue_beetle on metafilter, let me know if that’s not the original usage: “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.” Because Duolingo offers the “opportunity” to translate sites on the web, you’re essentially giving them your labor in exchange for your training. Because there’s no requirement to participate in the translating – you can just do the lessons if you prefer – I’m willing to buy into their cunning plan if it means yo puedo hablar espanol. 

With that in mind, I fired up their service back in March and set off down their skill tree, finally finishing it earlier today. Here are my impressions:


  • The game-like elements are extremely addictive. I found myself swallowed up by the program and kept coming back to get a few more points whenever I had some free time. 
  • The word knowledge mechanic features a spaced-forgetting algorithm. This concept, developed by neuroscientists, causes your “word strength” to deteriorate over time. This means that the skill ratings more accurately reflect reality – you can’t master a concept once and then come back two years later expecting it to be rock solid. 
  • The skill tree offers at least the illusion of a self-contained teaching path. It shares this feature with Khan Academy and Codecademy, both of which are similarly great examples of gamified learning that I’ll cover at some point if there’s interest. 
  • The visual interface is really appealing. The owl mascot, colorful visuals, and cheerful sound effects do a pretty good job of making it feel like fun, even if it is just a dressed up language quiz at its core.
  • Through its use of hover-hints, you can get right into the meat of most lessons without having to do a lot of preliminary reading. This makes the process rewarding and hands-on, but it has its pitfalls (see below). 


  • Perhaps in part because of the need to train you as a translator, there is more emphasis on being able to recognize and interpret the language compared to being able to speak it. At the end of the lessons I feel capable of extracting a meaning from a large fraction of spanish texts, but I’d be pretty hopeless to carry out a conversation or convey an original thought. 
  • It’s quite possible and tempting to lean heavily on the hover hints. I think it’ll be really important to review periodically using the timed practice to improve retrieval skills and get things into long term storage. 
  • The emphasis on diving into exercises means that precious little time is spent on concepts. I don’t claim to have any real expertise in identifying one tense over the other, and I’m far from capable of being able to discuss the language with any scholarly authority. I’m not so bothered by this because I only really care about using the language in real world situations, but it’s probably worth considering. 
  • I was not as impressed with the later sections as I was with the earlier ones. It seems like the programmers are adapting the lessons based on feedback, and I’m guessing that there’s just not as much feedback toward the end due to user dropout. There were a few lessons there where it would reject answers that were virtually identical to the correct ones, and I had to redo the lesson a half dozen times until I was passing most of the phrases by rote memorization rather than any kind of understanding. 


Where am I after taking all the lessons? I’m definitely going to need more practice on Duolingo and using some other resources before I would dare call myself fluent, but I would be much more comfortable surviving if I was airdropped into Latin America or Spain. I’ve taken 4 years of French in high school and I would bet my Spanish skills rival my French ones, especially accounting for all the atrophy to the latter skill set. All in all, I think it’s a great resource, and it’s really fed my interest in gamified learning methods. I don’t think it should be used in isolation, but it has the potential to be a central pillar in a self-taught language learning system.

If you’ve tried Duolingo or have other language learning tools that you’ve found useful, drop me a comment and let’s talk!

Some related links:

Study Spanish – one of the better “online textbook” sorts of pages

Forvo – users can upload the correct pronunciation of words in their native language

A Research Study Evaluating Duolingo – might admittedly be biased since it’s now hosted at the Duolingo site, but it claims that Duolingo is comparable to college coursework and in some cases more effective than a lot of the tools out there. 

Babbel  – an alternative language learning software (not free)

Mango Languages – another alternative language learning software. I haven’t used it in a long time but their mandarin lessons were pretty solid on the trial version. This is also not free but they appear to be trying to bill libraries to foster free access for patrons. 

Rosetta Stone – the 800 lb gorilla of language learning. If you have the money, or someone else is paying for it, this might be worth looking into. I’ve not tried it myself but it seems to be the gold standard in the field. 

Biomedical Research: Going MD/PhD vs. Going 100% PhD

This was adapted from advice I gave to a student with a strong interest in a research career in neuroscience, so it is written for someone who is more interested in research than clinical care.

I will begin by saying that a research career is absolutely possible with an MD alone, but I think it’s not a very advisable route considering the out-of-pocket expenses and lack of formal training in forming and answering scientific queries.

As you may know, the stated goal of most MD/PhD programs is to create physician scientists who aim to do 80% research and 20% clinical time. Therefore, they are well suited for people with a strong research interest rather than a primary interest in care. What’s more, clinical time can be defined in a number of ways. With an interest in neuroscience, for example, you could use your MD to become a neuropathologist and help the clinical side by analyzing patient samples without having to directly interact with patient populations if you prefer. If you’re deciding between an MD/PhD approach and a PhD approach, the MD/PhD programs may be somewhat more competitive, but they are not significantly more difficult than MD programs if you have a strong research background.

Below, I’ve outlined some of what I think are the key considerations in deciding whether to go dual degree or single degree.

– Career security – clinicians will always be in demand regardless of research funding climate.
– Grant demand – MD lends a clinical credibility to research proposals that often makes grants more attractive to funding institutions.
– Institutional demand for Physician Scientists – At the faculty and postdoctoral phase, you would be a more desirable candidate in many cases if you possess the versatile education of a physician scientist.
– Flexibility – This applies to both during and after the program. Most MD/PhD programs do not require you to pick your program right away. This means that you could enter wanting to be a neuroscientist and change course to become a biochemist or pharmacologist if your interests change. After the completion of your program, you could continue into residency with or without a research emphasis, you could proceed directly into a postdoc and become a pure scientist that just happens to possess a background in clinical medicine, or you could take a still different course in industry, government, or consulting. Related to this, it’s worth noting that you avoid some of the turf battles between MD clinical scientists and PhD translational researchers if you decide to work with patients or patient samples, because your education would give you substantial authority in both realms. 
– Better understanding of clinical problems – There are an infinite number of research questions to be asked. There is a finite amount of time in a career. With a medical education and regular access to patient population, you’re more likely to understand the questions relevant to improving the health and happiness of the population. This point is less relevant if your passion is for pure scientific understanding, but it was a factor that drove me toward this career path.

– Length – An MD/PhD program will take 8 years on average, compared to a PhD program which ought to be done in 5-6 years.
– Purity of Purpose – There’s only so much time in the day, it’s impossible to be all things to all people and choosing a single doctoral degree gives you license to focus on your research with fewer outside concerns.
– Program availability and Admissions – It’s still competitive to get into natural science PhD programs, but there will be more slots available for PhD programs than for dual degree programs, so you stand a better chance of attending a more elite institution, or one that’s better suited to your needs. 
– Opportunity costs – It’s worth considering that the extra time and mental energy spent in developing a clinical foundation could alternatively be poured directly into developing your research career. It is possible that choosing a PhD program rather than a dual degree program could lead you to become more well versed in your area of study sooner, giving you an edge over a less focused person. 

An important consideration is that your decision isn’t set in stone, either. Some MD/PhD students began as PhD grad students and transitioned into the program. Other people attend medical school or graduate school after completing the other program if their interests have changed. Still others begin as MD/PhD students and drop half to become a medical or graduate student during the process when they discovered that the rest didn’t appeal to them as much as they thought. 

Back to the land again: Folk schools teach skills for modern-day survival

The folk school movement, along with other sorts of makespaces, seem like the perfect system to give people room to grow creatively.


With mounting school loans and the uncertainty of finding a job after graduation, 26-year-old Jenny Monfore decided to leave college early and look for alternative education. At the Driftless Folk School in Wisconsin, the Bozeman, Mont., native and massage therapist studied organic food preparation, blacksmithing, and mushroom identification — skills she hopes will augment her income and allow her to live a more independent lifestyle.

“We no longer have practical skills, we don’t know how to feed ourselves, and we’ve basically become lost,” Monfore says. “So we’re slowly building new, thoughtful communities.”

Folk school: The phrase calls to mind cloggers, birch bark hats, and strains of “If I Had a Hammer.” But these craft schools of yore are experiencing a resurgence of late, drawing young do-it-yourself homesteaders and restless baby boomers to the woods to learn about everything from organic farming to electric cars.

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AFI Top 100 Film: Sunrise

Sunrise: A song of Two Humans

So this was an allegorical film with intentionally vague setting and unnamed characters. In summary, it was the story of a man who was tempted to infidelity by a woman visiting from a nearby city, but who ultimately rediscovers his better nature and rekindles his relationship with his wife. In many ways, the movie feels ahead of its time, probably as a result of its vague nature. The soundtrack was less corny than comedies of the era, which helped with my enjoyment. All in all, I suppose this was a worthwhile viewing experience despite the relatively uncomplicated plot and somewhat cheesy melodrama.