We try to write a book a year but truth to be told, we find that to be a struggle given our workloads and our young families. Hence, we found this piece in the New Yorker – which highlights that many prominent writers (including Anton Chekov) were active medical professionals – to be inspirational. The author begins the piece by explaining why a doctor needs to be good at storytelling:
“After writing and revising three chapters of what I envisioned as my first book, I showed a draft to my wife, an endocrinologist. She read them, and then looked at me squarely. “They’re awful,” she said. I was taken aback. I’d felt pretty good about what I had produced. “They’re overwritten, with run-on sentences, filled with fancy words,” she explained. I stayed silent, absorbing her criticism. “I can’t really figure out what you’re trying to say here.”
I reread my words and concluded that she was right. What’s more, I realized that many of the problems with my draft reflected the conditioning that occurs during medical training. I had used technical jargon, as if communicating with colleagues, rather than addressing a general reader. And I had removed myself from the stories, a result of the psychological distancing needed to remain steady while helping a patient coping with a life-threatening disease. Finally, I’d focussed on the clinical details of the cases, instead of exploring patients’ emotional and spiritual dilemmas—the very thing that had moved me to write in the first place.
What I needed was a new kind of training, analogous to my medical training but very different. So I reread some of the physician writers whom I most admired: Oliver Sacks, Richard Selzer, Sherwin Nuland, William Carlos Williams, Anton Chekhov. I started to appreciate how they used their individual perspectives and styles to illuminate the experiences of those struggling with illness. They made their own reactions part of the story and, in doing so, immersed the reader in a fundamental struggle of the profession: balancing the ego required to take responsibility for another person’s life with the humility to acknowledge our capacity for catastrophic error.”
The author then gives us several examples of riveting, in fact in some places awe inspiring writing, by doctors. Here is one such example:
“Somewhere between these, I can now slot in Jay Wellons’s vivid mid-career memoir, “All That Moves Us” (Random House). Wellons is the chief of pediatric neurosurgery at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, in Nashville, and has begun to write, as I did, after some twenty years in medicine.
His book unfolds in a harrowing series of operating-room vignettes, explaining the work of his hands while also evoking the tension in his mind and his heart. Before his medical training, Wellons was an English major at the University of Mississippi, where he took writing classes with the novelist Barry Hannah and the poet Ellen Douglas. It shows, both in his narrative control and in the freshness of his descriptive touches. Here he is on the first glimpse of a brain—with its tissues and blood vessels and crevices—once the skull is opened:
‘You peer forward into the eyepieces, and your gaze is directed straight down onto the surface of the brain, to a scene the likes of which only few have encountered, initially as alien as the moonscape must have been to its early visitors. Except instead of desolate grayness all around, the brain’s surface is bursting with color and light, with dimension and depth. It takes a moment for your eyes to adjust to the sudden brightness.’”
And here is another example of Wellons’s writing as cited by the author:
“Reading Wellons, I thought about social context when I came to this devastating passage:
‘In the spring of my fifteenth year of practice, I found myself looking down at a three-year-old reaching around blindly with his right arm as his sedation began to wear off. His left arm lay at his side, unmoving. A large wad of gauze, placed in haste by the ambulance medics, was held against the right side of his head by a loose, bloody head wrap. Underneath, a fist-sized area of skin and skull was missing. His right pupil was larger than his left, a sign of brain pressure, but still reacting to light because the normally constraining box of the skull had been blown open by the bullet passing through.’
The operation is a race to stanch the flood of blood from the bullet hole in the child’s skull, and it is successful, partly because of the ghastly nature of the injury: the missing portion of skull “allowed the pressure to go out, not in.” By the end of the chapter, the child is embarking on a long process of rehabilitative therapy, and can even say his name: KJ.”
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