Did you? That's very sweet.
Yeah, it's like you were totally offline from Sunday afternoon to Wednesday afternoon. What was up with that?
Well, I was at Asilomar attending the American Medical Writers Association Regional Conference. Don't you remember when I did that last year?
You say a lot of things.
It's true. Would you like to hear a little about this year's conference? I spoke on a panel and starred in the skit.
That sounds ABSOLUTELY RIVETING.
Geez, you don't have to be all rude about it.
No, really, I want to hear about it. I'm going to interview you inside the cut-tag.
Let's get started then. First question, sir or madam?
Tell me how the panel went! How'd your bio go over?
Very well, actually! To my surprise, when I registered, people—and by people I mean women, because women outnumbered men by 3 to 1—I did not even know were telling me they liked my bio. One was the conference director—we'll call her Scotti—and another was the chapter president—we'll call her Jacki. So it appeared to have gone over well, unprofessional or not. As someone playfully remarked, "We're very serious people!" Or something to that extent.
At the social Sunday night, Suzi remarked upon my bio and asked how much TV I watched. So I went through the week and listed my shows. Holli—I'll get to her later—asked me why I watched so many shows.
"Because...they're good?" I answered.
Panel, sir, get to the panel!
All right, all right. The panel was Tuesday morning. It was rather sparsely attended; out of the 62 people registered, maybe a dozen or so people showed up. Competition included a credit workshop, the early hour, and the great outdoors. Holli made it by the end of my introduction, which was nice.
The moderator was my pal Demi (previously known as NoDe, one of my punctuation marks from last year—she gave me a hug when I registered), who introduced the panel and then, ah, read our bios out loud! My bio sounded particularly unprofessional when read out loud after more serious ones. The audience did seem to get a big kick out of the fact that I "self-identified" as a medical writer. And when my skit was mentioned, a fellow panelist (and writer of this year's skit) added, "It was brilliant!" There was applause.
Demi had us all basically explain what we did, so I did. Then the focus of the panel seemed to shift more toward freelancing, so I didn't have a lot to say, and no one had anything to ask me. (There was so much freelancing talk, in fact, that someone later referred to it, to my dismay, as "the freelancing panel." No! It was about medical writing genres! Finding your niche!) But, finally, when we were asked about specific documents and high pressure environments, I could talk about safety narratives and submitting safety reports and all that. I was sitting next to Robbi from Regulatory, and our work overlapped somewhat. It was funny how surprised some of the audience members were about the deadlines for drug safety. Yes, we really do have 2-day, 5-day, 7-day, and/or 15-day deadlines (and 30-day deadlines, but those are easier to make), and they are hard deadlines that will get you in trouble if you don't make them. Most medical writing is not like that. Cathi—another of my punctuation marks from last year, also quite a dear—asked whether I did PSURs, and I said I didn't since that was a post-marketing report, and we were mainly focusing on clinical reports in our safety group, which was so small. Jimbo—a.k.a. Comma-Poo, one of the few men in this story—asked me to define what a PSUR was. Periodic Safety Update Report! Come on, people! Don't you know—oh, right, that's why you're here, to learn about things.
Demi had to keep Jimbo from digressing too much into an explanation of how he killed gophers. Also, one woman fell asleep and snored for several minutes until Jimbo commented on it and someone finally woke her up.
While I had gone into the panel thinking I wouldn't have much to contribute, I felt like I did offer a useful perspective, and some people did learn something from me, so that was nice. There was one woman in the audience, Calli, who actually had worked in drug safety, so she knew exactly what I was talking about.
That sounds good! Did you get anything for being on the panel?
I got a little gift! Another business card holder! I really liked the one I'd gotten last year, though, so I didn't know what to do with the new one.
Maybe you could use it to hold the business cards you collect at these things.
That's a good idea!
I mean, surely you must have gotten a bunch since you're so famous.
Famous, you say?
Don't play coy with me! I know you're proud of The Wrik*do.
You don't want someone Googling their way here, do you?
Good point. And, yes, I am still proud of my show. Which is good because people keep telling me how brilliant it is. Jimbo told me it was one of the best ones he'd ever seen, and he's been going to the conference for many years. Jacki was really excited to meet me in person since she saw me online. When I sat down for dinner Sunday night, a woman asked me whether I had done the skit the last year. "Yeah, I did," I replied.
So how did this year's skit go?
When I registered, Jimbo handed me my script. My script, yes, for it had my name and part on it. I had been pre-cast! Ha. I was the lead, Chris. This year's show, written by Jimbo's wife, was based on The Grapes of Wrath. Out-of-work medical writers and editors were headed to California to find jobs! It was very topical. And then at the end, the twist was that, ha, California wanted no medical writers and editors and was sending people to work in India! Oh, outsourcing humor. And Chris had this whole monologue about why India was so great! I burst out laughing. I told Jimbo I understood why he had cast me as Chris, but he said I was just the last one to show up (Chris could be male or female, any age). I was skeptical of the coincidence, but I made sure it would work in our favor.
I read the script again later that night and thought it might be funny to do Chris with an Indian accent. Not that thick, not FOB-y, just a regular Indian accent. Not that I can officially do one; I just approximate it. I wasn't sure whether it would be ironic or undermine the entire show, though. I brought it up with Jimbo, the director, and he thought it was funny as well.
During our first rehearsal, I asked him if I were Chris or "Tandoori Chris." He told me to try out the accent, and it was a hit because accents are funny. The kicker was my final monologue, a play on the famous "Wherever there's a whatever oppressing a whatever, I'll be there" speech.
Jimbo realized that I was secretly the villain of the piece, cleverly orchestrating events so that my compatriots would be forced to join me in India. We asked the writer, and she said that it wasn't what she thought of when she wrote it, but she was fine with our radical reinterpretation. I found it interesting that you could take text clearly written one way and use those same words for a character almost the complete opposite of what was intended. It wasn't perfect, but it still worked enough.
The songs were taken from all over the place: The Mamas and the Papas, Chicago, The Fantasticks, Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music. I knew a few of them, but we learned them on the fly. Luckily, this year, we had a keyboardist! So she played music director. The script had everyone singing every song as a chorus, which may not have been the best plan since we were not trained singers. One of our fellow medical writers burst out laughing in a hallway during a rehearsal, saying, "I've never heard so many different keys being sung at once."
I wasn't even sure I was singing the right notes for some parts, but I figured that, hey, I can sing different notes! I'll be harmonizing! Major key, minor key, they're all keys. And pitches. Pitches are good too.
I found it a little difficult to sing in an Indian accent, though. Later on, I thought about maybe letting the accent out slowly during the show. Maybe in my entrance, I could use the accent and then stop myself to switch to American, although that might telegraph it. Conveniently enough, Jimbo had the same idea about the slow reveal. I wasn't a good enough actor or accenter to actually use nuance, but maybe I could pepper it in? The India monologue would be a good place to throw it in when I mentioned Slumdog Millionaire and said, "And they speak English!" I wondered if I was being horribly offensive. Jimbo asked if there were any other Indians at the conference, and I said that, no, I'm usually the only one. But then later I remembered that I had seen an Indian woman's name on the registration list, and then I finally saw her (she was pregnant, so there would be no medical writing Bollywood romance going on there), so I, er, hoped she didn't think we were being horrible. Jimbo had run the script past some Indian friends who asked them to take out a line about "those nice slums" Chris saw in the movie. But we hoped the audience realized we weren't making fun of India, just having a laugh at the expense of outsourcing.
I discussed my character with Jimbo constantly, trying to figure out what my motivation was. How evil was I? How should I play the final speech? How should I play the reference to the AMWA code of ethics?
"Are you practicing your lines?" Naomi asked, slightly incredulous since we would be carrying our scripts with us.
"I take this very seriously!" I said. "You saw my show last year!" I was trying to be as off-book as possible so I wouldn't have to look at the script. I couldn't memorize all the songs in so short a time, but I could at least memorize my dialogue, which was pretty simple.
"He has an arc!" added Jimbo. Someone wanted to know what an arc was. What? But...it's an arc! Everyone knows about arcs! Or maybe it's just us folk who sit around and analyze stories for fun.
I am getting bored with this story.
Well, suck it.
I'm sorry. What would you find more interesting?
Get to the performance already!
I'M GETTING THERE. There are still rehearsals to talk about! Don't you want to hear about how the show developed, who was in it, random hilarity?
Not...really? Wait, I like hilarity.
Good. There was a flyer that Demi gave me that I was supposed to get all excited about. It was all, "Great jobs for medical writers and editors! Big buck$$! Major stock options! Advancement! Dirt-cheap housing!" The first rehearsal, of course, I used my accent, and it was funny just for that. But the second time, I got to speak regularly, all-American, and I channeled Jonathan (barilosopher) with my silly, over-the-top, wide-eyed excitedness, and everyone cracked up a lot. I don't think they expected me to go so far with it. They also laughed when, during "Editor" (to the tune of "Mr. Cellophane"), when Jimbo sang, "Egotistic authors make me weep," I burst into exaggerated stage tears. Since we didn't get a lot of specific direction, I had to make up a lot of my stage business on the fly; it was fun.
It was nice not to have to worry about the production as a whole this year and simply focus on my character—although a few people already expect me to do the show next year and are anxiously awaiting what I come up with. And at least next year, I'll have a good idea who I'm writing for, as it's a lot of the same volunteers. Demi, Cathi, Jimbo, and Freebo (my Wrik*do) were in this year's show as well.
THE SHOW, SUNIL. GET TO THE SHOW.
All right! So Tuesday night finally arrived. During the day, I got the idea to use my nametag to emphasize the final joke. I would write my name (Chris) on one side and my name in Gujarati on the other side. Then I could flip my nametag over during my final monologue when I become fully Indian. Unfortunately, I couldn't remember how to write a kha, only a ka. I approximate it the best I could, knowing no one would know the difference but me (and it's not like they'd be able to make out the letters). I also added "Medical Writer" to both sides to have more funny script. Jimbo thought it was a great idea.
I had to keep an eye on my nametag during the show, though, as it kept flipping over while I was walking. The show went better than expected; the audience laughed a lot more than I expected. I'm sure the wine helped. But we had been through the songs and such so many times that we'd become desensitized to the jokes! So whenever they laughed, it was like, oh yeah, that was funny. My script last year had more jokes in the dialogue, but this year, most of the jokes were in the song parodies, and I was afraid they wouldn't come across with all of us singing in a chorus, but, thankfully, it seemed that they could understand us well enough.
In one weird moment, I somehow ended up on the opposite side of the "stage" than I always did in rehearsals. I realized this when I tried to react to some dialogue as I normally did and saw that Demi was across the stage. So during the setup for the next song, I wandered over to her side...and moved the chair that we had never bothered to deal with during rehearsals. Oh, improvised stage directions. Theatre is fun!
So how did your big monologues go?
Jimbo's wife was sure that there would be a big laugh after my line "India...hmm, I could see that," and she was right! Thankfully, the audience could see the hilarious irony in having an Indian dude cast in this part.
But then there was another bit of hilarity that, somehow, none of us ever caught during rehearsal.
I was Chris, and Demi was Kelly, and Jimbo and his wife were "Grandpa" and "Ma." Now, I wasn't clear whose grandpa and ma they were, and whether Kelly was my friend or my sister. I didn't see any indication that she was my sister, so I figured that they were her grandpa and ma, and there would be nothing fishy about it. They were all white, of course.
Every rehearsal, I delivered the line "Ma, maybe you should go back with the others" as if Ma were just her name; I was addressing her from a few feet away.
But during the show, I don't know, I saw an opening and got into it or something because I walked over to Ma and put my brown hand on her shoulder. "Ma," I said, and suddenly everyone burst out laughing. Even she and I both broke character and cracked up as we realized what was so funny. None of us had seen the implications of the line before. Jimbo said he improvised "He does kind of look like the postman" eyes, but he wasn't sure if it came across.
Because I broke character, I had trouble getting back into character, which meant that no matter how many times I had practiced the damn thing, I still flubbed my final monologue. Somehow I could not remember the word remind ("to remind him of the AMWA code of ethics"), and the only replacement word I could think of on such short notice was admonish (thank you, Tracy Jordan?), and then I couldn't come up with a proper preposition to finish the line, so I admonished him with the AMWA code of ethics, which didn't make a lot of sense. And then I said the last lines wrong.
I was disappointed and bummed, but no one really knew the difference. I told someone afterward that I had messed it up, and she said she'd had no idea until I told her.
Did people like it?
I think so! After our first rehearsal, our music director told me she thought that I was very dramatic and inspired her, so she might play off me with musical cues or something. I don't think she ended up doing that, but it was nice to hear. After the show, I got some compliments on my performance, but I gave the credit to Jimbo and his wife. Someone actually said that they liked "my" show, and I made sure to clarify that it wasn't my show! It was their show! I was just in it! I must have quite a stage presence. Or maybe it's just in contrast to the others, who were a little more low-key and didn't have as meaty a role as mine. I had an arc!
Egotistical actors make me weep.
Shut up! I'm not very good! But I enjoy myself.
So that was the show. Hey, how was nature? Was it good to get out of the office for a few days?
THERE WAS NO TV DUDE. People kept asking me how I was doing, whether I was having withdrawal symptoms. I managed okay, though. I had a book, after all. The weather was pretty nice, and the air was good and fresh.
What about animals?
I saw two deer! Asilomar is a state park, and deer just wander around. I was walking back to my room or something, and a deer was standing by a tree, just chilling. And then at rehearsal, we saw one through the window.
And then in my room, I saw a woodpecker out the window! It was black and had a red head.
Then one night, after my creative reading, I saw a cat. With a large, stripey tail. Wait, that wasn't a cat at all! It was a raccoon! Rummaging through the garbage!
Creative reading, you say?
Well, it wasn't on the schedule, and I asked Scotti what was up with that. She said that it was normally only done at the annual conference, but I said they'd done it here last year, and I'd brought something to read. So she made an announcement that I would be reading something after the evening social on Monday.
There weren't too many people left at the end of the social, and they seemed to be more interested in socializing, so I just stood around until someone asked if was going to read something. "If people want to listen," I said. I felt like I was imposing. But people gathered around, and I read about my dislocated shoulder. I read more quickly than I intended, as usual, and I couldn't tell who was really interested. They didn't laugh as much as I expected, and I think they weren't fond of my penchant for profanity.
So I didn't feel that it was wildly successful, but a couple people did talk to me afterwards about it, appreciating the gritty details of my ER experience. One woman said she thought about my poor shoulder all night.
Did Holli get to hear your story?
No, she was hosting the freelance forum. Wait, how did you know I wanted her to be there?
You mentioned her before and implied she was important! She's a she! You probably LIKE her!
Oh, pish! Just for that, I'm making you wait longer.
Fine, tell me about the workshops or whatever. Learn anything useful?
Sure! I learned about professionalism and stuff. Like, as a medical writer, I should make myself part of the process earlier. And then there was this whole thing with Demi and a "Futurist" who worked at an outplacement office, and he taught us about marketing ourselves and branding and using LinkedIn to its fullest potential. It was pretty interesting. Other talks were about regulatory affairs, workplace wellness, project management, and writing on the web. I taught Suzi about hovertext. She had no idea that an alt-tag was visible if you hovered over the image; she always right-clicked to Properties. Clearly, she doesn't read webcomics.
All right, enough stalling. Tell me about this Holli woman.
Well, it seemed that I was the youngest person at the conference by a long shot this year (or at least the youngest medical writer—Kati, Peggi's cute, blonde daughter, may have been younger), so when I walked in and saw a pretty young woman at a table with nice hair and lipstick, I of course tried to sit by her. But the two seats next to her were saved, so I moved around the table. Two empty seats to my right, and two empty seats to my left. The seats to my right were finally occupied by her uncle—the keynote speaker, who spoke on his work in the field of organ transplanation—and aunt.
She mentioned having a nine-year-old daughter, so she was a little older than I might have thought. Probably early thirties.
At the reception that evening, she apologized for seating me on an island; she felt bad for saving the seats for so long. We talked a bit there. This was her first time at Asilomar; she normally only went to the annual conference. I told her what sorts of things she could expect; for instance, she thanked me for letting her know at dinner that there'd be food at the reception. She hadn't been hungry at dinner, but she was hungry by reception time.
When she left, I accompanied her, since we were going the same way. She asked me if I knew how to get back, and I said I did. I did, but...not so much in the dark. I got us horribly lost, and she was glad I'd come with her because she probably would have ended up getting lost in the dark on her own. I pulled out the map and used my keychain flashlight to figure out which way to go.
"Wow, were you a Boy Scout?" she said.
"No," I said. "But I was a Cub Scout!" (Webelos, represent!)
I finally put us on the right path, and although she was skeptical that we were in the right place, I was confident by that point that I knew where we were. When I saw what room she was in, I realized that I had actually seen her leaving for dinner; she had gone out a different way than I had.
And then Holli was eaten by a bear.
What?! What the hell are you talking about?
I'm just trying to make this story more interesting.
Well, sorry, there were no bears involved. There may be a mountain lion later on, though.
Anyway, we sat together at lunch the next day; I saw between her and our music director, who gave her advice about interviewing with a new client. She recommended she put her hair up, as she looked like a schoolgirl with her hair down, and they may not take her seriously.
After a few comments in that vein, Holli remarked, "You may think I'm young, but I'm 40."
Get out of town! She asked me how old I'd thought she was, and I told her 32, 33, but initially even younger than that. She said she her mother had great skin, and she got it from her.
You need to find yourself a wife with great skin!
I totally do!
Anyway, we had some interesting conversations at the afterparty about the merits of the annual conference versus the regional conference. As a freelancer, she saw conferences as networking opportunities, and she went in with a plan to get new clients. It made everything seem fake and cold and dirty to think of it like that, though. I mean, it was about developing a real rapport and a connection in hopes that one day, you would get a job—and, even as someone who's not a freelancer, that's an important aspect of the conferences to me as well—but people are also people, not just potential clients. Four or five of us offered our experiences and opinions; it was a very interesting discussion.
Before that, we had looked for bioluminescence, and she had educated us about the Stuck-Ups on our way to the afterparty. And then the next day she borrowed a pen from me.
Meet anyone else interesting?
Well, there was Jenni, who had looked familiar for some reason. I realized I had taken her IND workshop at my first AMWA conference. She was really fun and expressive; I thought she would have been a good addition to the show, but she wanted to concentrate on her regulatory affairs talk. She asked for my help using iTunes since she had just downloaded her first "iTune" and wanted to play it as people walked in. Do other people refer to an individual download as an iTune? I thought that was amusing, as it had never occurred to me and yet seems so obvious to do.
On our way back from the failed search for bioluminescence, we were talking about animals we had seen, and I made a joke about "Major deer options!" It was a stretch, but then I suddenly realized that there was a better joke available: "Big bucks!" Oh, I was good. Jenni gave me props for that one.
Robbi from Regulatory was nice too. We talked a lot at the afterparty about safety reporting, and she was willing to talk to JStew about medical writing; I had spent an hour on the phone with her the night before trying to convince her not to give up medical writing.
Kati was a CRA, not a medical writer, but her mom was teaching a credit workshop, so she was along for the ride. I sat next to her at lunch one day and talked with her a bit; she was very nice and friendly. (She had a boyfriend, journal! Don't go there.) And then later in the conference, she said, "How are you doing, Sunil?" And I was so confused because I didn't recognize her at first and wondered how she knew my name (besides my nametag). She was also at my table Wednesday at breakfast. She was from North Carolina and had a Carolina accent; she spoke very clearly. After breakfast, we complained a bit about sites and how untrained they are at doing clinical trials. I gave her my card in case she found herself on a site visit in the Bay Area, and her mom asked for one of mine as well; we hadn't had a lot of interaction, but maybe I was famous or something.
Jacki reminded me of Sally Field, and her husband...or father? had the same name as a Monty Python member. He was Irish, not Welsh, though.
Scotti was also very nice, and I talked with her about CME. Which reminds me I'm supposed to e-mail her about JStew as well.
Marci was a shining example of the fact that it's never too late to network. I had seen her a few times at the conference but not talked to her, and she ended up at my table for the last lunch before everyone was heading out. And we were talking about the annual conference and certification, and she said she was taking the science courses. So I asked her to be a test subject for the cancer pharmacology workshop I'm developing, since she is my target audience! Awesome.
When I told Cathi, who lives in San Diego, that I would be in San Diego for Comic-Con, she told me to give her a call if I ran into any trouble down there, which was sweet.
Hey! You already knew Cathi! I asked if you MET anyone interesting.
Fine, you got me! But I like her! She's a nice woman! There were a lot of nice women there!
Okay, okay. Anything else you want to say?
I ate vegetarian beef.
Now you're just fucking with me.
No, that's what it was called! It even looked like beef, all dark brown and stuff!
Did it taste like beef?
I don't know what beef tastes like, so I can't tell you. It was probably soy or something.
What was the special dinner this year?
Sea bass! Not Chilean, just regular. So I think it counts as something new. It was good and had an interesting green sauce, more like a sauce you'd find on chicken than on fish.
And the salad had beets.
But there were no bears, you said. And no TV, so no Battlestar Galactica.
Have you forgotten to relate any amusing anecdotes?
Yes, I have! One day at lunch or dinner, a man came to our table and asked one of the women if we were members of AMWA. Because he had actually been presented with an award at a previous AMWA annual conference! He was here for the Stanford Emergency Medicine retreat or something, but he saw the "medical writers" tag on our tables and was curious since he had been impressed with the organization. He told us that he had written a new version of the textbook for which he had won an award, and it was even better. One of the women asked if he'd be interested in giving a lecture on textbook writing or something, and she got his information. What a weird coincidence!
Totally. So are we done here? You appear to have had a pretty good time, and you seem to really like your fellow professionals.
They are a good group of people. I feel like a young upstart among them, though.
One day, you will grow old and befriend young upstarts FROM THE FUTURE.
Dude, the Girl in the White Room turned 19 yesterday. I'm already old.
You just said you felt young! And now you feel old! Get a hold of yourself, man.
In conclusion, medical writing conferences are better than all other conferences.