Since I’ve been writing this blog, quite a few people have said to me, “You should write a book!” Let me be clear in my self-assessment—first of all, I don’t have the attention span these days to write a book. A novel has a plot, well developed characters, a beginning, a middle and an ending. I’m not sure but I have a feeling that most good fiction writers have a clear idea of the story they want to tell before they start writing. “But wait”, you say. “You should write a nonfictional account of your work—a true cancer doctor story.” This territory has been covered, most famously by Jerome Groopman who wrote The Measure of our Days, which became the inspiration for the television show Gideon’s Crossing. How about a history of cancer itself? Again, already taken in the most definitive way imaginable—I give you The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Of course, the books that scare me the most are the ones by cancer doctors who actually GET cancer and there are several of those out there too—consider I Signed as a Doctor by Laura Liberman whose title refers to the fact that when she had to sign consent for her own cancer treatment, she signed on the wrong line—the doctor’s space. Call me superstitious but I don’t want to tempt fate.
Why do so many physicians feel compelled to write? Ethan Canin (Carry Me Across the Water, America America) graduated from Harvard Medical School and actually practiced medicine for several years until the publication of his third novel allowed him to write full time. He now teaches on the faculty of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and has been quoted as saying that “everyone has an expressive urge, but it’s particularly pronounced among those who practice medicine.” He goes on to say, “It’s like being a soldier—you’ve seen great and terrible things.” I don’t think being a doctor is like being a soldier because our lives are not typically in danger (although ER doctors in inner city hospitals might argue that point!) I think of it more as a compulsion to “bear witness,” Ancient Mariner-style. We spend much of our days writing down histories, and many of those histories give a small glimpse into the essence of what makes us human, and what gives us courage and hope. There is nothing like a serious illness to separate the wheat from the chaff of life.
I was an English major in college, and though I will never be a John Keats or a William Carlos Williams-two of my physician-poet idols, I will never regret the time I spent reading their works, or the great works of Shakespeare and Milton and Hemingway and all the others. I may have been a bit behind in the basic sciences but that path of study gave me the tools to actually listen to my patients, to interpret what they are saying, and in turn, to be able to write down their stories. I don’t have a major new novel swirling around in the back of my head, so for now I’ll just continue with these little vignettes. And I would really appreciate it if my friends and readers would send me some of their own stories. Who knows—there might be a blockbuster movie in there somewhere. If not, there’s always law school!