“One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some
demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
I remember my first encounter with great literature. Before bedtime, my
father would read Great Expectations to me, using different voices
for different characters. I remember Pip and Miss Havisham, though I don’t
think I fully understood Miss Havisham’s peremptory and eery commandment
to Pip to love Stella. I remember the stygian scene with the convict in the
graveyard. I also remember reading Sherlock Holmes under my covers, enamored with his brilliance and the game that was afoot. I remember tearing through the Lord
of the Rings books and the first few books of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time
series. Great stories left a large impression on my childhood. The
thrill of diving deeply into an engrossing world still makes me a bit
giddy. Even when I read books far more socially complex now, books I would
never grasp as a young reader, like Thomas Hardy’s novels, I am reminded of the initial
excitement I once felt discovering new stories.
As a child, these stories didn’t remind me of my own life or people in my
life, they were just thrilling. I fantasized about writing my own stories
one day. I created comic books with different monsters, though my drawing
was appalling. I once sat down to hand-write my own epic fantasy story – I
don’t think I got very far. I suspect, then, that my desire to write and tell stories was present
at a young age. But I lacked the sedulousness to work on my drafts. I would write an essay for school or a story at home and
immediately hand it in or toss it aside, assuming that was the end.
Since then, of course, I have written more and learned more. The process
certainly has not gotten any easier, especially as time spent writing
crowds out time for other things in life like music, friendships, reading,
TV shows, and family. Indeed, the time invested has not been trivial. Just
as an example, I was covering the intensive care unit one night during my
first year of residency and during the few brief quiet moments of the night
I was reading a book about the psychology of the Nazi war criminals
for an essay for the Jewish Review of Books.
Why do I attempt this seemingly crazy task? It is a question prompted by a recent fellowship
interview, when an interviewer asked me: Why do you write? And
what drives a physician (and there are many physician-writers) to write?
In 1946, George Orwell explored the reasons for his own writing in an essay entitled “Why I Write.” Orwell explains that there are four great motives for writing: egoism,
aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. Writers,
he argues, “desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered
after death…. It is humbug to pretend that this is not a motive, and a strong
one.” Because of this, serious writers are “vain” and “self-centered.” Of
course, there is an element of solipsism in writing. No writer, physician
or otherwise, writes without anticipating some kind of audience. It does
help give our writing purpose, to know that it affects or influences
others. But such an aspiration is not unique to writers, as Orwell
concedes. All professionals – scientists, artists, politicians, etc. –
desire, to some extent, to be remembered through their research,
art, or deeds. No ambitious citizen can deny that this plays some role,
large or small, in what he or she does. But the entire writing motive is not
necessarily self-aggrandizing: Writers appreciate beauty, “pleasure in the
impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm
of a good story.” An author, no matter what his or her topic, attends to
“aesthetic considerations.” And the content matters, too. Essayists,
novelists, political journalists all “desire to see things as they are, to
find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.” In other
words, they aim to portray the world as it is, to draw away the curtains.
And there is also a “political purpose” to this. Though writers do want to see things as they are, they also want to imagine the world as it might be
or “to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should
strive after.” Orwell does not argue that one of these is more important
than the other: “These various impulses must war against one
another,…fluctuate from person to person and from time to time.”
Most of what Orwell says pertains to physician-writers. For some
of them, for instance, politics drives much of their work. Atul
Gawande, a surgeon and public health researcher, is a good example. Gawande’s books, like Being Mortal or The Checklist Manifesto, both agitate in some way for reform of our
medical system. In Being Mortal, he urges us as a society to rethink the way we take care of the elderly and those closest to death
such that we provide them with more independence and choice and less
invasive care. In The Checklist Manifesto, he discusses the
importance of checklists for the safety of patients in a hospital, in
particular during surgeries.
For most physician-writers, however, I suspect that the primary purpose is
to reveal to the reader what the world of medicine is like – a world that contains the kinds of riveting stories that fiction offers.
Physician-writers face unpleasant facts; or, rather, unpleasant aspects of
life. Most of the stories I relate on this blog are tragic in some way – some of this comes out of a frustrating sense of injustice, but a lot of it comes out
of a sense of the inevitability of tragedy and the beauty and rare success
coupled to that struggle. Thomas Hardy
reportedly said, “The business of the poet and the novelist is to show the sorriness
underlying the grandest things, and the grandeur underlying the sorriest things.” The physician-writer shows the sorriness and grandeur underlying our physical life. In that sense, I write with a historical impulse, “to see things as they
are.” What is medicine really like? What does it mean to be sick and
helpless? What does it mean to be sick and poor? How do physicians react to
all of this?
Perhaps the thrill and romance from childhood stories has faded somewhat, but the hunger for nonfiction as a grounding tool has taken their place.
This blog provides, among other things, a way to impart the great
complexities of medicine and diseases, which are often only understood by
other physicians and the victims of those diseases.
I wish I could write a novel with the same flair for
storytelling and the same talent for diction and the same eloquence as
Dickens or Hardy. That I cannot is unfortunate. But stories about medicine
are powerful and the most I can offer. And I am “driven on
by some demon” to write about them; a purposeful struggle to put to the page these stories that are filled with
meaning, and that might otherwise disappear.
I will never retire this task, whether it’s through this blog or elsewhere. But as my career
advances I ought to give myself space to breathe. I start my
fellowship in neurovascular disease this summer and have an important specialty
board exam this year, both of which require, I think, all of my
intellectual energy. So things will be quiet on this blog for
now, but look for more in the coming year.