Several years ago, I stood before an audience at a neurosurgical conference to discuss my book The Lobotomist, a biography of Walter Freeman, MD, an advocate and promoter of the controversial treatment of lobotomy.
I gave my talk, and it went well. I am not a physician — I’m a journalist and biographer who often writes about medicine, and I feel comfortable speaking at medical conferences, grand rounds sessions and medical school programs.
As I left the auditorium, a member of the audience approached me. I had no inkling that this man, a neurosurgeon, was about to ask me a question that would change my career trajectory.
He introduced himself and then lowered his voice as if he did not want anyone except me to hear his next words. “I want to write a book something like yours. How can I do that?” he said.
I nearly made a terrible mistake in my reply. I almost said, “Yes, and I want to be a brain surgeon.” Had I let that flippant remark pass my lips, I would have missed the opportunity to understand what this physician needed, how I could help and where this chance encounter could lead.
Instead, I asked for his business card and promised to give him advice on writing when I returned home. I used this delaying tactic because I wasn’t sure how to advise him. When I followed up by email a few days later, I had decided I should recommend that he take some writing classes, find other physicians with similar writing interests, and go slowly, researching and writing in small chunks of time.
Most of all, he should read books like the one he wanted to write and pay attention to their voice, structure, and approach to the stories they told. He should take note of what worked and what didn’t. That’s what it means to read like a writer.
I do not recall receiving a reply from the neurosurgeon. But in the months that followed, different versions of him — young and old, women and men, specialists of many kinds — came up to me after the dozens of talks I gave about my book at medical venues. They all wanted to know how to start — or in some cases, how to get back into — writing creatively. They were interested in writing nonfiction, fiction, poetry, memoir, essays or scripts. Clearly, a lot of physicians felt an urge to write but didn’t know of professional resources that could help them do it. I would have been a dolt not to pay attention.
When the promotion of my book died down, I could not forget all the physicians I had met who wanted to write, not to mention the many others who likely remained silent at my talks.
I considered what I might be able to do to help them. I soon put together a syllabus for a creative writing workshop for physicians and other health care professionals. I proposed that syllabus to the continuing education program of the University of Minnesota.
A few months later, I found myself leading this weekend-long workshop for a group of 15 students: physicians, nurses, psychologists, therapists, and others. Through the Mayo Clinic and other organizations, I have been leading workshops in creative writing ever since. I recently began individually and virtually coaching physicians in writing.
After years of teaching writing to MFA students, these workshops have opened my eyes to the distinctive writing preoccupations and concerns of medical professionals, especially physicians.
My students wonder about the ethical quandaries of writing about patients and colleagues, whether the people in their professional lives will judge them for writing about medicine for non-medical readers and how to find time to write when their working schedules are already full almost beyond endurance.
My role is to help health care professionals feel comfortable writing creatively in whatever genres interest them, give them inspiring models and guide them in producing work that can serve as starting points for future writing. My students have ranged from people early in their careers to retirees.
These students are fond of talking about the benefits of writing. Whether they publish their work or not, they describe how their writing helps relieve their stress, disconnection from patients, and emotional turmoil. Through writing, they have become better listeners and observers, better colleagues, and better practitioners. And they crave having a creative outlet.
Physicians have a deep well of experiences to draw from in their writing. They witness dramatic episodes of heroism, cures, disappointments and failures. They see unforgettable scenes, hear devastating words, make difficult decisions and observe people at crucial moments in their lives. Most importantly, they witness the power of cause and effect — one action producing a resulting action — a building block of fiction, nonfiction and poetic narratives. Great writing comes out of these experiences.
The stresses of the COVID pandemic intensified the need for my students to express themselves creatively. There is more to medicine than science, and physician-writers can feel their doctoring strengthen as they synthesize and imagine experiences and explore on the page what it means to be observant, compassionate, and curious. They regain their original purpose in pursuing medicine as a profession. Complementing their grounding in science, they reclaim their grounding in humanity.
Jack El-Hai is a writer and creative writing teacher.
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