Heretics, Superheroes, and Fighting the Lonely War of the Writer

Heretics, Superheroes, and Fighting the Lonely War of the Writer

Reader Comments (56)

  1. Jennifer:

    Let me first congratulate you on leaving a career as a PhD biochemist to become a writer. It reminds me of Kelly James-Enger (i.e. see books on Amazon) leaving a law career to become a writer. Or William Sydney Porter leaving the confines of prison boredom to become a writer.

    This profession is lonely. It’s probably the reason some famous writers (i.e. even Noble prize winners) indulge in large quantities of alcohol.

    I’m glad you mentioned superheros. I’m eagerly awaiting this summer for DC Green Lantern and Marvel Thor movies. I identify more with the Hancock movie starring Will Smith. If I were a superhero, I’ll probably fumble things just as badly.

    Yup! Superheros can’t do it alone. Which is why Hancock needed the PR agent who discovered him. Good stuff today. I love the fact you join stuff from you science background into your writing.


    • Thanks, Randy. You know, I got a tatoo of a DNA helix shortly after college because I felt “science is life, and my life is science.” So even though I’m not working directly in the field anymore, I know its influence will never leave me either.

      I’m looking forward to the Thor movie too!

  2. Hi Jennifer,

    This is a wonderful piece, and a fervent call to arms, wrists, and pens.

    I think we all truly know when we’re writing something that will ruffle feathers, or alienate others. The adrenaline starts to drip like a tap until it flows like a stream, and then….we stop when we are on the cusp of insight, because we imagine the fallout.

    If you have learned to embrace solitude, and enjoy it, you are learning to deal with the sting of being isolated for your views, or findings.

    Michael is an inspiration. Thank you for telling his story so beautifully.


    • Thanks, Conor. It’s an honor to be a part of Michael’s story as well as to share it. I put in the post the quote about changing his life by funding his work. I should have also mentioned that his work changed mine.

  3. G’Day Jennifer,
    Thanks for the post. I started a blog about a year ago. Every so often I wonder if I should soften my message. You see, I believe that most conventional HR practices are simply not appropriate for the person running a small-medium business. And I keep on saying so.

    Incidentally, I’ve worked in the field for over 40 years. I’ve reached my conclusions based on lots of practice and experience. One of my superheroes is Graham Greene who said; “Heresy is just another word for independent thought.”

    Posts like yours help me to stay firm in my resolve to keep preaching, as one client called them,”Leon’s Little Heresies.” As John Wooden observed,”It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

    Just one other thing: make sure you have fun.

    Thanks again


    • Leon,
      I happen to be passionate about HR practices as well, and let me tell you, you definitely don’t need to soften your message. In fact, I’d say most HR practices don’t serve large businesses either.

      Love your quotes and the reminder to have fun. It’s hard when you’re trying to change the world to keep your chin up, but if we’re to serve as role models for our messages, there’s no alternative.


  4. The why…very very important to keep in mind the why of what we are doing, and do it, from that place. I love this piece. Fabulously told Jennifer. Fascinating. I’ve wondered many times about those organisms and what they might hold for us to discover. Love the way you brought Daly’s story across disciplines.

  5. I live near a dried up lake bed in SoCal, and every winter (the only time the rain comes in the desert) the lake fills up with water.

    This lets all of the sea monkey-type shrimp come to life, and the birds love having a shrimp dinner for a couple of months.

    As far as the life of a writer being lonely- it’s kind of like the phrase “it’s lonely at the top”, but you aren’t always at the top so it’s just flat out not an easy career.

    On the other hand, nothing worth doing is ever easy, right? People who change lives- doctors, teachers, writers- don’t have it easy, but they make a much bigger difference in people’s lives than a lot of other careers.

    (I’m an engineer by trade, so I’m one of those “other” careers!)

  6. Jen,

    Your latest post is wonderful as always.

    I wish I could force everyone in any position of power or influence – scientists, politicians, journalists, business leaders, parents – to read this post.

    But the message of this post is something that sadly is absent I think in every profession.

    I wish people in positions of control would keep in mind that it doesn’t matter how many people believe something, or how long they’ve believed it. They should always keep in mind that it might be wrong.

    I can’t even fathom all the great breakthroughs that have been crushed because of minds with old ideas locked tight.

    Given the reality that your idea is assumed wrong until proven correct over and over again, it’s critical that the agent of change – the scientist, the writer – is motivated by the right things, as you point out.

    It’s about the idea, and the idea’s potential. Thanks for the reminder that spreading important ideas not only may not ultimately improve your reputation, but often will cost you dearly.

    • Yes, it’s why I was initially attracted to science I think. The foundation of the field is (or should be), “Maybe I’m wrong?” That sentiment is certainly the foundation of learning, which I’m also a fan of. I’d rather be in the learned minority than the alternative, but I think that applies to all Copyblogger readers, right? Don’t they say the readers are just smarter? 🙂

  7. When I want to make a parody video of one of the political leaders here in my country, I am told not to, by my friends and family. Not because it is in bad taste (it probably will be if I was to make it though). But because there is clear, ‘rational’ fear of actual harm. And it’s just a parody. Expression is not as easy a thing in many circumstances.

    Putting one’s self on the line, not for a revolution, but because ‘you find it interesting enough’ is I think very hard too, and also sometimes very important. A whole gamut of ‘artists’ did things because they were interested in them, and not because those things were (seemingly) important at the time. And they changed the world. But just like your friend, they didn’t do it to revolutionize anything, but only because they found it interesting!

    I think the right type of fear, initially at least, is the thought of not giving it a shot.

    It is this fear fighting that makes the heretic into a superhero. I invite the readers here to see my neck dangling by visiting my blog, and telling me if they liked it or not (the blog, not the neck). It’s not revolutionary. But then again, maybe it is.
    Who. The. Hell. Knows.

    And about them damn trolls: You making a video of talking into the camera and then putting it online, and then inviting your friends over to give you ‘feedback’, this will rejuvenate the fear of trolls all over again!

  8. Hi Jen,

    This is a great read, from the sea monkey bit straight through. It must be my day for reminders like this since I just read Chris G’s post for today which was along similar lines. It amazes me–and it’s why I’m fascinated with people and communication–how people react as they do to novel ideas and can’t set their emotional reactions aside to take a look at the facts, as you did when you reviewed this guy’s evidence.

    I had a somewhat similar situation in college. My master’s thesis was so controversial in my rather conservative university that I was ostracized, big time. The only prof who would have understood my point was on sabbatical, and my advisor didn’t really care. But as my work was reviewed periodically, the attitudes got worse and worse (I had an assistantship so I was around a lot), and I must have had nerves of steel to continue and defend it–I’ll never forget those 6 big profs staring at me like I had killed somebody lol But hey, it was solid, and I knew it, and too bad they couldn’t see beyond their noses. Other (well-qualified) people who read it years later were blown away. And I had to say what I wanted to say, as you wrote, no matter how unpopular.

    Probably have to unleash a little more of that. Thanks for the reminder 🙂

  9. WOW.

    Did not expect to find so much beauty in the words here today.

    These sentences will stay with me daily: “it’s not about us. It’s about what we leave.”

    Beautiful, reaffirming, inspirational, motivating.

    Thank you.

  10. At risk of being accused of trolling, or some other less than honorable blog responder, I’ve added some words so you see that I indeed do like what you’ve said.

    What originally I wanted to post was simply this: Thanks.

    Thanks sums it up really. You’ve really captured a tremendous amount of energy in this post, and I have been truly encouraged through reading it.

    It’s only recently that I’ve told anybody that ‘I’m a writer’, even though I’ve been at it for a few years. To be read I think is what it is all about, and to be read with meaning is all the better. You’ve really done a nice job here.


  11. Thank you for writing this. I have one book that is nearly completed and am terrified of publishing it. There’s another book idea I have that I have barely put to paper because it scares me. These books only scare me because of the backlash I will get when they are published. This blog is exactly what I needed to read. I must stop caring about what others will think and care about the cause.

  12. Thank you for writing this. I have one book that is nearly completed and am terrified of publishing it. There’s another book idea I have that I have barely put to paper because it scares me. These books only scare me because of the backlash I will get when they are published. This blog is exactly what I needed to read. I must stop caring about what others will think and care about the cause. Thank you.

  13. Wow, Jen! Thanks so much for this post! I feel like my brain grew two sizes as I read it and I know I’ll be thinking and sharing its lessons for a long time!

    I’ve talked with so many people who express a strong interest in telling a story – creating something. That’s not so unusual, actually: As I’m sure you know, human beings are wired for novelty and challenge. It turns out that we are driven to create.

    The sad thing (and referenced in Jon Morrow’s post) is that most people never take the necessary action to make their dreams come true, even though it’s usually just a matter of showing up and getting started. Although it may not always seem like it, simply getting started is the main thing that helps people achieve their goals. In my experience, as long as I keep going and realize that everything that goes “wrong” is making me better, smarter, and stronger, I can’t fail.

    Thanks for reminding us that if we have a big (scary/lonely) dream or goal, the world probably needs us to do it. The question is whether we’re willing to do it imperfectly until we accomplish it.

    • I can think of no greater gift to give than brain growth. 🙂

      You’re exactly right–you actually can’t change the world without being brave. Because if the task doesn’t require bravery, it probably doesn’t change much. Thanks for the kind words, Stacey!

  14. Jen:

    I’m loving this blog, and this post in particular was very inspiring! I have found myself sinking into this pattern of writing that I know is destroying my chances of making a difference: a great idea hits me, I dream about the idea for a week straight, I write furiously until I have about fifty pages… and then, nothing.

    It’s like the idea has left me or the novelty has worn off, I don’t know. Now, I’m wondering if what has faded is that initial courage I had to write about a new idea, take something old or misunderstood and spin it in a new way, or be unconventional in the stories I tell.

    I’ll have to carefully reevaluate my “writer’s block” and see if there isn’t some deeper issue preventing me from continuing. Thanks for the thoughts!

    Can’t wait to read what’s next 😀

    • Interesting. It could be the novelty issue or courage, as you mention. It could be both. Or it could be you just need to give the project a break, to let the ideas further gestate. Creative people need down time to give their ideas legs. You can’t just work, work, work (I say this as a creative workaholic–so trust me, it’s true).

      The best writer’s block suggestion anyone gave me is to tell yourself you can’t work on something for a period of time. This does two things: 1) turns the project into a kind of forbidden fruit, and 2) allows your ideas to sprout again through rest. Try it and let me know how it goes!

      P.S. One more thing: not every idea needs more than 50 pages. That’s a lot! Be sure to give yourself credit too. Your emotions may be bruised from lack of personal recognition after all that effort.

  15. You did it again Jen – used a fascinating science story to make your point about writing &/or careers. I enjoyed it tremendously.
    Heretics must have tenacity and courage. That is a lonely road.
    What I don’t understand is people get angry at the different viewpoint or ostracize the person. Is it not possible to just disagree without anger? Perhaps not, if the heretic is persistent…ever persistent.

  16. Really beautiful piece. You brought me right into the room beside Michael Daly and before I knew it, I was whispering fervent words of encouragement into his ear. If nobody has told us the story of Michael Daly, then you might be the one to do it. Love to hear more.

  17. What an inspiring post! It fits in perfectly with the post I read today from Sonia Simone (?) on being bold when you write.

    Although I believe firmly in what I do, I often find myself apologizing, backstepping, and generally driving myself crazy with the wimp factor. Your post has finally inspired me to be revel in the controversy-roll it around on my tongue like a good wine. Thanks.

    (I almost put ” a little bit” after the word revel. I guess I need a little more work…)

  18. You never disappoint, Jen. I love seeing you connect your passion (and skill) for writing with your expertise in science. Funny isn’t it how the medium and the message harmonize.

    Writing is often more about being alone than lonely for me. When my mind is in that place where the words are, churning up the juxtapositions that create the message, I never feel lonely. It’s only when I leave that place and revisit what has emerged that I acknowledge that it happened while I was alone.

    I love your point about sticking your neck out to get your word out. We would likely not bother to write if something weren’t burning within us. I think it’s how we put our fire out while stirring it up in others.

    Thanks for a wonderful post that has clearly meant a lot to everyone here. ~Dawn

  19. Wow, Jen–for someone who hasn’t spent any time in the world of biological research (I believe I got a “D” in biology, due to the grace and pity of the good Lord, and Mr. Shelton), I found Daly’s story fascinating.

    “In fact, there’s an entire class of organisms known as extremophiles, and they are every bit as impressive as the superheroes he had read about in his comic books. These microbes can survive the extreme pressures of deep sea vents or thrive in everything from boiling water to the ice floes of Antarctica.”

    This is by far the most interesting fact I’ve read all week. TY for the suggestion for a subject for Junior’s science project;).

    I really appreciated your distinction b/w going against the grain for the sake of uncovering the truth, vs. embracing unconventiality b/c you really just don’t like folks…

    I’m truly burning to say (and I’ve said it) that ppl create their reality through their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. I believe that w a few drastic exceptions, ppl who live w depression and anxiety do so b/c they’ve chosen to. Does this make me popular? Absolutely, not. Do I care? No, b/c I believe this position represents the truth.

    TY for a truly inspiring post, on so many levels. Now, off the Google “extremophiles…”

    • Linda,

      Okay, I’m clearly biased, because I started a whole program on extremophiles in my previous work, but yes! Junior will love learning about them. Great intro into biology (as are slime molds and spores, by the way…fascinating!). I’m happy to see that science metaphors are so appreciated around here. Who knew?!

      You are wonderfully brave in the work you do. I hope that fire never gets extinguished. Shine on!

  20. Absolutely stunning article, Jennifer. This the motivation I needed as I head into the next phase of my life!

    It really does beg the question of balance. Most bloggers quit after only a few months. Some make hundreds of thousands blogging; others barely make enough to pay the rent every month even though they’ve done it for years.

    It’s a tough business, but a good one. What am I itching to say? That is a good question.

  21. I like Daly’s story and you obviously have good intentions, but I’m afraid you chose terms very badly and the core idea of your article is rather dubious. Are you seriously encouraging people to believe they’re so special and misunderstood and should think of themselves as heretics? Do you even know what a heretic is? Since you’re making the heretic into such a romantic figure, you should know the 19th century romantic ideal is Lucifer, the tragic-beautiful-damned-angel (see the image of the vampire in modern literature and film). So how exactly is a heretic a voice of truth?

    By definition someone who is right can’t be a heretic. Heresy is opposed to orthodoxy (=right teaching, true doctrine) and orthodoxy stands in the truth. The fact that some heretics were burned by some people because their ideas threatened the establishment does not mean the establishment were orthodox (indeed the said establishment was in fact the product of a schism from orthodoxy in 1054), only that they held the power. People from the camp of those burned as heretics went on to gain power in some countries and burn witches themselves. It’s not the desire to be different which makes one the good guy.

    And I really don’t think you can speak of heresy in science, for the simple reason that last time I checked there was no orthodoxy in the various sciences (I’m only familiar with social sciences, of course, but one hears of the endless debates in biology ). Don’t sciences hop from mistake to (hopefully a smaller) mistake, from a partial truth to another partial truth? There’s hardly the possibility for orthodoxy, ergo no real heresy either.

    • Ioana,
      The great writer Graham Greene said, “Heresy is just another word for independent thought.” And he was most definitely Christian.


      • Well, said, Leon.

        Iona, there is most certainly a dogma that creeps into science when any theory is held and seemingly supported for a long time. Scientists become invested in continuing to support their previous data. They’re only humans after all. Most of us are the same, regardless of discipline.

        It’s true that scientists are some of the most open-minded to new ideas and theories, but big changes require time and a brave person (if you dislike heretic) to keep speaking what they think is the truth.

        I personally admire Michael, even if his own theory is proven to be incorrect.

        • You’re using the term “dogma” in the recent, popular sense… the dogma are by definition true and unchanged, they’re the equivalent of axioms if you will. I’m sorry if I’m being harsh, you’re saying common things, but common is not necessarily good and I don’t like people misusing words and twisting their original meanings, especially when they make them into something negative (as it happened with dogma). Yes, I know everyone does it, I just think writers should have much higher standards.
          Speaking of twisting words, I know that in America the name “Christian” was hijacked by the various Neo-Protestant sects rebelling against older creeds and they have indeed no problem accepting heresies, quite the contrary. So if Graham Greene was Christian in that sense, it’s only natural he should have uttered such a sentence.
          But this is not the place for theological discussions, so I’ll end the off-topic right now and leave the thread in peace. Thank you for your answers.

  22. I’m not supposed to even care what anything this website says.

    In fact, I don’t “write” professionally or own my website where I provide valuable content for people to buy (although I want to).

    I’m a lone stranger with a speck of hope in me that say one day I’ll have a website where people will find valuable content and spend money for it because it’s worth something.

    Do I know where to start? No.

    Do I know what content I want to provide? Definitely no.

    But, for some odd reason, I still find myself coming back here to read the blog. I find it so incredibly useful for shaping my thinking as a sales professional that I can’t figure out why I haven’t tried to build my own audience of real people who are benefiting from purposeful content.

    But I have no idea where to start…

    Nonetheless, is invaluable and I thank you for that.

    Warmest Regards,

    Daniel Maldonado

    P.S. This was a great post!

    • Daniel,

      There is a voice inside you trying to tell you something. Be brave and listen. Go out there and write. No may hear you for a while. That’s not only okay, that’s a good thing. It will allow you to grow as a writer before you get exposed to a lot of different (and sometimes negative) voices. I held myself back as a writer for 20 years, and all I can say is: I’m glad I didn’t let another year go by without fulfilling that dream. It’s so worth it.

      Feel free to contact me if you need more of a puch. 😉

  23. Jen, just loved this piece and your passionate invitation to the writer in each of us to stand up courageously for what we believe in enough to dare to express things that matter, regardless. That’s authenticity, that’s our song, that’s our inner call to connect meaningfully to life within and around us. So glad you expressed what was burning inside you to say. : )Thanks for this inspiring piece!

  24. Wonderful piece! I never knew WHAT those sea monkeys from my childhood were ! How funny!

    Seriously, this reminds me of what happened to Dr. Semmelweis, who in the 1860’s proposed that physicians should wash their hands in order to prevent the spread of disease when moving from patient to patient, in this case, the patients were birthing women. Doctors did not wash their hands between pts, so whole wards of birthing women were infected by doctors checking them internally with contaminated hands. Dr. Semmelweis who proposed simple washing, was laughed out of his profession and died in obscurity. He is now celebrated. But what a terrible price to pay. and how closed-minded people can be.

    • Yes, the story of Semmelweis is a great corollary. We are all resistant to change, insitutions all the more so. This isn’t a new “story” so to speak, but one I think is worth reviewing, especially as social media gives even the little guy a chance to be heard. To continue our comic book theme here: With great power comes great responsibility.

  25. “And if you’re not worried about the backlash you’ll get from your writing, you’re probably not tackling anything terribly important.”

    So true! Thank you for the inspiration to swim against the current some times!

  26. Awesome Blog Post Jennifer, Full With Some Greatful Informative Information with Some Nice Quotes.. Really Very Good Style Of Writing Blog Post that Captures the Readers Mind and Make them to use their Brain…

  27. Thank you for sharing thoughts and ideas that I can continue to come back to and find something new each time I read it. It’s full of gems.

  28. Thanks Jen, it can be lonely! But I wouldn’t change it and now we can reach out to people and connect even when you live in the sticks like me:) What I find most annoying is no one really sees writing as a proper job. They think it’s easy:) I remember my ballet teacher telling me the secret of being a great ballerina (I was not one!) was to make it look easy. Maybe that’s what great writers do too!

    • Yes, it’s interesting that the writing life (especially when you are tackling controversial work) can be lonely in some ways, but the internet allows us to find and connect with those that would support us in ways previous generations never could. I suppose one might argue it’s easier than it’s ever been, which is still not to say it’s easy! 🙂

  29. This was a fabulous piece. I loved the story of the scientist. I also believe there is a drive in people to express the truth of their experience or observations in an authentic way. The whole grant review system is about people [protecting their own territory, politics, and resistance to new ideas. You have to play the politics and please the powerful people. On the other hand, when you write a blog, the public judges the quality of your work and it’s less political, at least at the beginning. I think if you have a truth to express that can help people, people will come for the help and the numbers will speak for themselves. There is such a tremendous freedom and joy in this for me!
    Thanks for encouraging people to take the risk of being true to themselves!

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