In 2011, my first novel was published. It is a medical novel, and, unsurprisingly, since I practiced as a nephrologist for many years, it takes place in a dialysis unit. I learned a lot from writing this book, seeing it published and living with the consequences. Since its publication, many professionals have confided to me that they harbor a secret desire to write a book. I want to share my learnings with them. Here they are.
Writing confirmed for me that mindfulness — living in the moment — is a wonderful thing, and writing encourages it. When working on my book, I found it impossible to focus on anything else. My troubles did not disappear but parked themselves elsewhere. I was blissfully unaware of the passage of time. I did not confer with my iPhone.
I learned, interestingly, that in my busy life I had not spent much time simply thinking. Each week I had typically made thousands of decisions — big and little, informed or otherwise— but had falsely equated decision-making with thinking. Creative writing taught me the difference. As a writer, I learned that thinking is essential to creativity, so I had to not only find uninterrupted thinking time, I had to find out how to use it.
Writing a book was a new experience for me and a challenging one. I suffered many moments of doubt, and a few of despair, and had to work through these. I thus learned about the transformative power of stubborn commitment. This learning also helped me steel myself against the criticism of my work that I knew some would surely offer.
Initially, I did not share a word of my new passion with family or friends. I viewed my journey as a personal one and held news of it close. Why? I came to realize that writing a book has its selfish aspects and that this is OK. One example: I yearned to speak out on some issues of importance to me, and writing a book allowed me to do this. Another: I learned that thinking and writing both serve usefully as stern editors of one’s narrative — that mental construct that shapes one’s views of self and world. An overarching learning was that serious writing is not only for the reader but also the writer.
While writing my book, I experienced daily the unalloyed joy of having a goal and a purpose that was utterly non-material. I also learned about the joy of creativity — attempting to create something unusual and beautiful out of nothing. These were important learnings, and sustaining ones.
That my book was modestly successful was nice, but not the greatest return on my investment of time and energy. My greatest reward, without doubt, was the opportunity to connect or reconnect in various ways with interesting (sometimes even fascinating) individuals throughout the world: writers, PhD students, social activists, patient advocates, philanthropists, passionate and caring health care professionals, former patients, and former colleagues. That the little paper object a writer creates may light a path toward a host of meaningful human interactions was one of my best learnings.
Finally, there is the issue of legacy. I know that focusing on one’s legacy is a fool’s game; I’ve read Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” Nonetheless, doing so is a human tendency to which I have fallen prey. I, therefore, take comfort in the belief that my book will be part of my legacy, not only enjoyed and remembered by family, friends, and colleagues but perhaps read by my grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who will ask: “Isn’t this interesting? What was he really trying to say?”
To those who dream of writing a book, I say — do it! You’ll learn a lot, and your joy will be long-lasting.
Robert Allan Bear is a nephrologist.
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