No I Could Not Write a Book

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!

You Can’t Go Home Again

“Look homeward Angel, now and melt with ruth,

And O, ye Dolphins’ waft the hapless youth”

 

In the fall of 1971, I entered Yale University as one of 250 freshman women, the third class of women to be admitted to a college still dedicated to the concept of graduating “1000 male leaders” a year.  I was seventeen and thrilled to be away from Texas and my parents. I wasted no time actually going to most of my classes, especially the 8 am conversational French class and the entirely uninteresting inorganic chemistry class which required a one mile trek up Science Hill.  When the weather turned cold, so did my dedication to chemistry and so ended my first premedical career.  By the end of the first semester, I had partied my way to earning barely passing grades in the classes I did go to, and a big “F” in the detested inorganic chemistry, which I ameliorated by groveling before the teaching assistant and swearing never to take another science class.  He passed me.  My parents’ response to my less than stellar performance was a typical Southern “You better straighten up and fly right or we will bring you right back home to the University of Houston!” And so I did.

When I graduated four years later I finally did go back to Texas for medical school, but the allure of those “bright college years” had not quite worn off—the brilliant if unappreciated professors, the gothic architecture, the endless “intellectual” conversations over cigarettes and alcohol which went late into the night and early into the morning, the snowball fights, the chess games played out on a human scale between the North and South Courts of Berkeley College, the dogwood and cherry trees blooming in the spring.  During my fourth year of medical school, I had the opportunity to do “away” rotations, the medical student’s way of testing the waters to see if a particular program might be a good place for an internship and residency.  In November of 1978, I chose to go back to Yale for my medicine “subinternship.”  During the days I roamed the wards of Yale New Haven Hospital, dutifully following my resident’s every command.  At night I huddled under an electric blanket in a spare room in the poorly heated medical student dormitory, a far cry from the hissing radiators of the undergraduate colleges.  I figured out very quickly that being an undergraduate at Yale was very different from being an intern in an inner city hospital where there was no film society or cabaret club to entertain you in the evening.  By the time applications were due, I opted out.

My own daughter graduated from Yale in 2006, and like her mother before her, entered medical school after a period of intense resistance to her life’s calling.  And like I did, so long ago, she is applying for residencies in Internal Medicine.  I told her, “Don’t bother applying to Yale, it’s not the same as being in college.”  My husband, Yale ’70, told her the same thing.  Kids don’t listen to their parents, and besides, she still has friends there.  She flew from Houston to Hartford yesterday and made her way to New Haven for interviews today.  I spoke with her tonight, and despite dinner at Mory’s, a quick stop into Atticus Bookstore Café and a mild gray cloudy day, she told me that our instincts had been confirmed.

You can sing “Boola Boola” all you want, and call yourself an “Old Blue”, but you can only be seventeen and full of dreams once.  Thomas Wolfe was right—you can’t go home again.