Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Back to basics

Not long ago, I read Judy Melinek's Working Stiff, the true story of her time as a medical examiner in New York City. In 2001.

As you can imagine, the book is full of the kind of not-for-the-squeamish gritty realism you'd expect from any pathologist's memoirs, with the added horrors of handling the victims of 9/11. But the story in the book that shocked me the most, the one that has haunted me ever since, was not particularly graphic or gruesome, and had nothing to do with 9/11.

In investigating the death of a surgical patient, Melinek and the others on the investigating committee discovered that the surgeon--a highly placed and well-respected doctor from a sterling institution--had never learned to tie a proper surgical knot. How had he advanced so far in his career without learning this most elementary of surgical skills? Inside how many other patients had he left what Melinek called "granny knots?"

Fortunately, most writers can't cause such dire consequences by failing to master the basics of our own craft. (Unless we're writing certain kinds of instruction manuals, I suppose.) But "back to basics" is a great motto generally, I find. For meditation: back to the basics of breathing in and out. For writing: find a character and a conflict. For a to-do list that's too long: pick the first thing, and do one at a time. 

In writing and life, it's easy to get lost in the weeds, to try to bluff our way through what we don't know, to take on more and more before we're ready. It's okay--sometimes necessary--to return to Step 1, to focus on a solid foundation, to keep it simple.