Longtime instructor tries his hand as an author
James Menz, MS, CES, has spent years teaching at multiple colleges and universities on a wide variety of topics within his expertise. But a while back, he felt the itch to do some learning of his own.
Menz didn’t go back to school or sign up for any clinics, however. He wanted to do see if he had what it takes to write his own book.
Two years later, Heart Appreciation: The Nurse’s Guide to the Cardiovascular System is complete, approximately 200 pages of intricate, yet routinely explained information on one of the human body’s vital organs. Menz, who’s designed his career as an educator around the premise of making information retainable for the long term rather than the memorize-and-forget approach all too common today, attempted to do the same with his book, using vivid diagrams to illustrate points and analogies that work for any layperson or healthcare practitioner.
What did you see or experience as an instructor that made you want to write a book?
Menz: It’s been churning for at least 15 years. As I teach the cardiovascular system, I seek to turn a technical concept into its simplest form possible. Look at an illustration—the heart is a square cut into four corners. That’s easy to follow. It goes in, goes down, goes out. By the time you look at an actual heart, you have a sense of what’s going to happen already.
People compliment you on the simplicity, and you start to realize there’s something to teaching in that method. So a basic explanation of how the heart functions when it’s running well, that led me into “well, here are some of the things that can go awry.” Then you explain medical procedures, and so forth. There’s a little bit of nutrition, medicine, lifestyle. Every time I’d go through [the book], I’d decide to add a little more. It’s very consuming, but it’s a labor of love.
What was your favorite part about the process of writing a book?
Menz: Seeing it come together, piece by piece. There are 8-10 different aspects of the book. When I touch on say, nutrition, that takes me into cholesterol. I got to illustrate good vs. bad cholesterol using the analogy of popcorn. You make popcorn, some of the kernels never ‘pop’ and remain kernels. So if I drop a bunch of ‘popped’ corn and a bunch of kernels down a drain, which is more likely to clog things up? Suddenly, the good vs. bad cholesterol comparison is easier to understand.
Just writing words, creating analogies, choosing the pictures—there are almost 200 pictures in this 200-page book—making those tweaks and decisions. It takes time. I think the five pages I wrote on nutrition took me about eight hours, but when I was able to take it and screenshot it to somewhat… you’ve got something. That’s an accomplishment.
What aspect did you find the most challenging?
Menz: One of the hardest parts was formatting, making everything fit. As I’ve said, the book is about 200 pages, and it probably would’ve actually been easier to let it go to about 250 pages. There are things that I wanted to include, but where do you draw the line? I was constantly remembering my high school English teacher, Mr. Fenton. He used to say when you look at something you’ve written… once you think you’ve gotten it nice and clean—there’s probably a good chance you can still cut about 20 percent of it.
Most laborious was the editing process. The number of typos and spelling errors is just heartbreaking. Luckily, I have a girlfriend and several other friends who were willing to go through that tedious process… “hey, page 72, you did that thing where you skipped two spaces after a comma.”
How do you find the time to write within your existing schedule?
Menz: I’m a big fan of Jack Canfield, the author of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. He always uses the term ‘butt glue’… he says you have to pour that butt glue on your chair, so you can’t get up, and just sit there and write for one hour. If you have writer’s block, you suffer through it, and you commit to that one hour. Of course, that one hour tends to turn into three, which is how you make progress.
It helps that I almost never watch TV. But there are times that it’s very laborious because you’ll have this great idea and concept that ends up taking you five hours to put it all together.
Can you give us two things featured in the book that we might not expect based upon the title?
Menz: It contains a lot of anecdotes, background—little breaks for fun. For example, how did the heart come to be associated with love? Because the human heart doesn’t look like a valentine. I give some details on that within the book. Who was St. Valentine? Why do we celebrate him on February 14?
From a technical standpoint, I have a lot of notes on the language and the breaking down of terms. I like
So what do you want to accomplish with this book?
Menz: I’m prepping about a 35-page sample for national distribution to college, hospitals, anybody with nurses on staff.
So far I’m keeping the book on Amazon, because a hard copy would be much more expensive with the pictures. There are a lot of live links, and there’s a matching workbook with quiz questions and fill-in-the-blanks as well.
I also want people to learn from this book, rather than read it as if they’re going to be tested on it. I have these items in there—for example, the Purkinje fibers of the heart are named after an old, Czechoslovakian doctor, Jan Evangelista Purkynḗ. I do a brief bio on him. I know some people aren’t going to care, but if others learn something from that section, hopefully, I’ve made their reading experience a little more enjoyable.
Anyone else who deserves credit or a brief mention for making this book possible?
Menz: At the very front of the book I have the dedication, which is to my dad Paul. He taught engineering for 51 years and was the person who most influenced my idea of what teaching is. He kept things lighthearted, and the dedication reflects that.
I also had a huge amount of help from my girlfriend Arlene D’Antonio-O’Brien. She’s a pharmacist by profession, but she’s my inspiration in every area of my life. Also, I have several friends who are in nursing who were constantly telling me what people need to know. There’s some content in there I didn’t plan on writing, such as an appendix on units of measure and conversion. That’s all thanks to my friends who gave me that advice.