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A Medical Writing Life

When people ask me which came first, the writing or the doctoring, I am quick to tell them it was the former. In fact, I can’t remember a time when I was not writing, in some form or fashion, at any point in my life. This includes my time in medical school and residency and now, as an attending physician in general pediatrics.

Now that I find myself in a mentoring role to the undergraduates, medical students, and residents around me, I’ve been approached by many who want to know how to do it. That is, how to make a life of medicine and writing without compromising either.

I obviously don’t have all the answers, but after about a decade of these dual careers I can look back and see a path in the rear-view mirror. So here are my top tips for wannabe-doctors, doctors-in-training, and full-fledged physicians (and maybe other health care professionals) who want to get back to writing, get into writing, or push their writing. Please note that this is heavily skewed from the perspective of a poet, since most of my writing and publishing experience has been in that genre so far, but hopefully applicable to broader interests.

  1. Read. Read deeply and widely. Read works by people whose experiences you know nothing about. Actively look for contemporary and not-so-contemporary voices. Read across genres. Read styles of work that confuse, excite, bore, inspire, and frustrate you. Challenge yourself to feel all of those things, and then try to figure out how and why the work moves you (or doesn’t). Take it apart like a machine, then put it back together.
  2. Expand your knowledge. There are so many educational resources these days for writers outside of traditional writing-related fields. There are poetry podcasts like VS, Commonplace, the Poet Salon, the Poetry Gods, and many others. There are poem-a-day emails and newsletters from places like the Poetry Foundation and I’ve learned so much from reading interviews with other poets in places like Divedapper, which is dedicated to just that, as well as in the myriad free, online journals that regularly feature author interviews.

Make it a practice to read about your craft. In my case, I try to read (and write) poetry book reviews and essays on writing wherever I can find them. Try applying to a retreat or workshop in order to dedicate time to your craft in the company of fellow writers. Poets & Writers is a great place to start looking for such opportunities. While these resources are heavily focused on poetry, there may be similar resources for prose. Asking other writers and connecting with the larger community online may help you find these resources.

  1. Write. It’s hard for most medical professionals to find the time and space for an ideal writing practice, so make up a non-ideal practice. Write when and how you can, whenever you can. Identify why you are writing (coping mechanism? advocacy? to create something beautiful? to make sense of something you feel?) and keep that drive close. Figure out what conditions inspire you (late at night, on your couch with a cup of tea? sitting in the park on a Saturday afternoon? early in the morning before your shift starts?) and put yourself in those conditions as often as you can.

If you’re ready to send your work out for publication, take a look at the humanities sections of medical journals. See what kinds of work they post. Start regularly reading magazines or journals whose work you like. When you’re ready, submit something. If you’re not sure where to start, check out the Creative Writer’s Opportunities Blog. When you do start to submit your work, stay organized (I use a spreadsheet to keep track of all submissions). And don’t take rejection personally! It’s just a part of the process.

  1. Build community. Get involved in the literary scene wherever you live. Find out which bookstores, bars, cafés, and art spaces regularly host readings. If you’re connected to a university, attend readings sponsored by the English or other relevant departments. Show up to open mic and poetry slam events. Most information about such events is readily available with a little Googling. And when you go, put yourself out there. Make it a goal to either perform a piece or meet a new person at every event. For me such connections have led to friendships, writing workshop groups, invitations to read, new collaborations, and countless other opportunities.

Medical humanities conferences like The Examined Life in Iowa City are another way to connect with like-minded folks nationally, and there’s an increasing number of narrative medicine workshops around the country. Don’t forget that there are plenty of online communities, too, through social media. For instance, #MedHumChat is a great Twitter space for virtual community among fellow health care professionals who write. Finally, ask your colleagues who among you writes – you’d be surprised by the number of medical folks who are clandestine poets, bloggers, fiction writers, and essayists. If you feel ready, share your work with each other. See if you can create accountability among your fellow medical writers in order to keep each other going.

  1. Self-care. This should probably be first, but write only if it makes you feel whole and happy. Medical training is rough. There’s no need to add more to your plate unless it does something essential for your health and well-being. Writing does that for me. Without it I actually don’t feel like myself. That being said, of course there were months (like in the PICU and NICU) when I was barely able to eat and sleep enough, let alone pick up a pen or crack open my laptop. Prioritizing my health was how I got through those rotations. But I always come back to writing because it feeds me.

This is just a start, and the resources mentioned above are merely examples among dozens if not hundreds of others. Hopefully something in here will be helpful. Good luck and happy writing!