Lincoln in the Bardo in the Bardo/ by Russell Teagarden

April 5, 2017 at 11:36 am

Russell Teagarden is an Editor of the NYU Literature Arts and Medicine Database and helped lead the Medical Humanities elective at the School of Medicine this past winter. In this blog post, he experiments with creating a text collage from recent reviews of George Saunders novel, Lincoln in the Bardo.

Author's note:
George Saunders is well known for his inventive and affecting short stories. Lincoln in the Bardo is his first novel, and as described by Charles Baxter in his review in the April 20, 2017 issue of The New York Review of Books, it "doesn't resemble any of his previous books…nor does it really resemble anyone else's novel, present or past. In fact, I have never read anything like it." The story is told by a chorus of spirits or ghosts in a "bardo," which is a Tibetan limbo of a sort for souls transitioning from death to their next phase. Saunders rarely gives any individual spirit more than 2 or 3 lines of dialog, and he intersperses short snippets from historical texts- some real, some not-to provide contextual background. Of particular interest to the medical humanities community will be the focus on the well-trodden subject of grief through this experimental approach. The book has attracted the attention of many serious critics, so many in fact, that they can be assembled into a chorus to derive a review of the book in the book's format. I have thus taken excerpts from published reviews, most real, a few not, to produce a review that covers how the book is laid out (I), how the bardo works (II), how the story flows (III), and how it's critically received (IV) as can be told by a chorus of reviewers in a bardo of their own.

I.

The entire book seems to consist of nothing but epigraphs, which themselves turn out to be either historical sources (some real, some invented) or the chatter of spirits, indiscriminately mingling with one another. After a while, the reader begins to recognize the unique cadence of each spirit. The purposefully confusing form adds a disorientating but dramatic element to the book, and forces the reader to focus.
anon/ the economist, march 23, 2017

Readers with conservative tastes may (foolishly) be put off by the novel's formait is a kind of oral history, a collage built from a series of testimonies consisting of one line or three lines or a page and a half, some delivered by the novel's characters, some drawn from historical sources. The narrator is a curator, arranging disparate sources to assemble a linear story.
colson whitehead/ the new york times, february 9, 2017

The Lincoln of the title is not Abe but Willie, the president's 11-year-old son, who dies of typhoid just hours before the novel begins.AWillie may be the Lincoln in the bardo, but the bardo is really in Abe.
benedict jamison/ u.s. presidents in literature quarterly, spring, 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo is set in a Washington cemetery in 1862, amid the resident population of ghosts. Using a format that combines a playlike assemblage of voices alternating with chapters composed of quotations from historical sources, it depicts how the ghosts respond to the arrival of Willie Lincoln, the president's son, who died of typhoid at age 11.
laura miller/ slate, february 6, 2017

The cemetery is populated by a teeming horde of spiritsadead people who, for reasons that become an important part of the narrative, are unwilling to complete their journey to the afterlife and still hang around in or near their physical remains.
hari kunzru/ the guardian, march 8, 2017

The novel is told through their speeches, the narrative passing from hand to hand, mainly between a trio consisting of a young gay man who has killed himself after being rejected by his lover, an elderly reverend and a middle-aged printer who was killed in an accident before he could consummate his marriage to his young wife.
hari kunzru/ the guardian, march 8, 2017

Those voices, and Willie's, come to us in snatches, usually brief, little bursts of subjectivity and consciousness tumbling over one another, sometimes conversing, sometimes interrupting, squabbling, contradicting.
alex clark/ the guardian, march 5, 2017

The novel operates like a cross between a film script and an oral history, much of it narrated by two woebegone ghost pals.
tod wodicka/ the national, march 22, 2017

It moves from collages of quotes from historical documents and textbooks about Willie's death (some of which Saunders appears to have invented) to a riotously imagined story of the ghostly inhabitants of the graveyard.
alex preston/ the financial times, march 3, 2017

To deepen the novel and give it context, Saunders regularly interjects bits of history and reportage (some of which he has created)aanother layer of voices, as it were.
david ulan/ the los angeles times, february 9, 2017

Are the nonfiction excerpts from presidential historians, Lincoln biographers, Civil War chroniclersareal or fake? Who cares? Keep going, read the novel, Google later.
colson whitehead/ the new york times, february 9, 2017

It may take a few pages to get your footing, depending. The more limber won't be bothered.
colson whitehead/ the new york times, february 9, 2017

 

 

II.

 

When someone dies, Tibetan Buddhists believe that they enter the bardo of the time of death, in which they will either ascend towards nirvana, and be able to escape the cycle of action and suffering that characterizes human life on earth, or gradually fall back, through increasingly wild and scary hallucinations, until they are born again into a new body.
hari kunzru/ the guardian, march 8, 2017

The bardo is an element of Tibetan Buddhism, a way station between incarnations in which souls prepare themselves for their next life.
laura miller/ slate, february 6, 2017

It's in the nature of the bardo, which exists, in Tibetan Buddhism, as a kind of purgatory, a transitional space for souls that can't give up their former lives. All the characters here are trapped, prisoners of the past, "bellowing their stories into the doorway, until it as impossible to discern any individual voice amid the desperate chorus."
david ulin/ the los angeles times, february 9, 2017

Time and space in the bardo Saunders conjures are the same for its inhabitants as they were for them in their former earthly domains. This bardo restricts its inhabitants to the geographic area of their burial grounds they were buried in Georgetown and so their bardo is in Georgetown. They measure their time in the bardo in "years." I was expecting something more other worldly.
alexis leigh/ buddhism and literature, february, 2017

This is not a straightforwardly Tibetan bardo, in which souls are destined for release or rebirth. It is a sort of syncretic limbo which has much in common with the Catholic purgatory, and at one point we are treated to a Technicolor vision of judgment that seems to be drawn from popular 19th-century Protestantism, compounding the head-scratching theological complexity.
hari kunzru/ the guardian, march 8, 2017

This grey purgatorial state is the 'bardo' of the novel's title. It has little in common with the Buddhist concept of that name, which envisioned a sort of metempsychotic wormhole that connected successive cycles of rebirth. In Saunders's bardo, a Dantean contrapasso transforms the ghosts in accordance with the moral ailments that afflicted their lives.
robert baird/ london review of books, march 30, 2017

For non-Buddhists, it is a recognizable limbo, full of milling entities who for one reason or another will not take the next step of the journey. Like the ghosts we know from stories, they are tied to their former existences, trapped by an idea of themselves, and can't leave until they are ready.
colson whitehead/ the new york times, february 9, 2017

 

III.

 

Unfolding over one night in a graveyard not far from the White House, it tells a story that is, by turns, simple and complicated, tracing both a father's grief and its effect on the Republic he serves.
david ulin/ the los angeles times, february 9, 2017

His father, already beset by internal doubt and external uproar a year into the American civil war, was propelled by restless grief to walk the dark and stormy Georgetown cemetery where Willie's body lay.
alex clark/ the guardian, march 5, 2017

His presence upends the order of the cemetery. For one thing, "young ones are not meant to tarry" unburdened by a lifetime's accumulation of failures and regret, they usually pass over quickly. But a visit by his grieving father agitates the boy, as well as his graveyard neighbors.
colson whitehead/ the new york times, february 9, 2017

Willie, like other children, is expected to pass on quickly to the afterlife proper, instead of remaining in the cemetery, but because of his father's grief he is tempted to stay.
hari kunzru/ the guardian, march 8, 2017

The boy's ghost wishes to stay in the purgatory of the graveyard, desperate for a few last moments with his father.
alex preston/ the financial times, march 3, 2017

There is a touching trio of eldersanames deliberately written lower-case who take Willie under their wing: roger bevins iii, a young gay man covered in eyes; hans vollman, who lugs around a "tremendous member", having been taken ill while anticipating his marriage-bed; and the reverend everly thomas.
alex christophi/ the new humanist, march 9, 2017

When the ghosts find that they're able to pass into Lincoln's body as he sits in the mausoleum, the reader is suddenly privy to the president's thoughts, and the novel discovers new depths.
alex preston/ the financial times, march 3, 2017

The father must say goodbye to his son, the son must say goodbye to the father. Abraham Lincoln must stop being the father to a lost boy and assume his role as a father to a nation, one on the brink of cataclysm.
colson whitehead/ the new york times, february 9, 2017

Willie's mother, Mary Todd Lincoln, does not figure in this story much more than descriptions of her taking to her bed. This is about a father's grief.
teresa slominski/ chicago american, february 24, 2017

 

IV.

Lincoln in the Bardo is part-historical novel, part-carnivalesque phantasmagoria.
alex preston/ the financial times, march 3, 2017

Saunders' primary intention in the novel: to take these whirling and disparate voices miserly widows, violent grifters, drinkers, doting mothers, licentious young men, abused slaves (even in this realm cast into a less hospitable portion of the graveyard) and unite them in their common humanity.
alex clark/ the guardian, march 5, 2017

The polyphonic narrative of the spirits is interleaved with constellations of artfully arranged quotation from primary and secondary sources about Lincoln's life, which Saunders uses to show that observers can be unreliable about the motivations and mental state of the president, and that even such questions as whether the moon shone or not on a particular night can be distorted by memory.
hari kunzru/ the guardian, march 8, 2017

And they lend the story a choral dimension that turns Lincoln's personal grief into a meditation on the losses suffered by the nation during the Civil War, and the more universal heartbreak that is part of the human condition.
michiko kakutani/ the new york times, February 6, 2017

In Lincoln in the Bardo, the immense pathos of the father mourning his son, all the while burdened with affairs of state, gives these sections of the book a depth that isn't always there when Lincoln is off stage. The busy doings of the spirits are entertaining, and Saunders voices them with great virtuosity, but the tug of Lincoln's griefAis sometimes too strong for them not to feel like a distraction.
hari kunzru/ the guardian, march 8, 2017

In the midst of the Civil War, saying farewell to one son foreshadows all those impending farewells to sons, the hundreds of thousands of those who will fall in the battlefields. The stakes grow, from our heavenly vantage, for we are talking about not just the ghostly residents of a few acres, but the citizens of a nationain the graveyard's slaves and slavers, drunkards and priests, soldiers of doomed regiments, suicides and virgins, are assembled a country.
colson whitehead/ the new york times, february 9, 2017

Saunders presents Willie's death as a turning point for Lincolnawill he be able to move on from his grief, to draw on it as a source of strength in the battle ahead, or will it crush him, the acuity of his own loss meaning that he sees Willie in every dead soldier?
alex preston/ the financial times, march 3, 2017

One of the novel's conceits is that byAoccupying the same space, the spirits can experience a dissolution ofAinterpersonal boundaries, understanding and feeling sympathy for each other in a mystical way. It is hard to be specific without spoiling the plot, but Saunders uses this device to imply a cause for Lincoln's later signing of the emancipation proclamation, a move that seems glib and reductive, a blemish on a book that otherwise largely manages to avoid sentiment and cliche. This is a small quibble.
hari kunzru/ the guardian, march 8, 2017

A portrait of Lincoln is not the point of this novel…the book provides slightly hidden away, but still quite visible a form of instruction concerning acceptance and grief.
charles bbaxter/ the new york review of books, april 20, 2017

It's tempting to trace some sort of connection between Lincoln and the Bardo and the political climate in which it has been published, but to do so, I think, is to miss the point. Rather, its concerns are existential, metaphysical, even when politics enters the work.
david ulin/ the los angeles times, february 9, 2017

Saunders's beautifully realized portrait of Lincolnacaught at this hinge moment in time, in his own personal bardo, as it were that powers this book over its more static sections.
michiko kakutani/ the new york times, february 6, 2017

Life is chaos and history a story, and even the greatest of our leaders are merely humans, after all. The recognition sits at the center of "Lincoln in the Bardo," which is a book of singular grace and beauty, an inquiry into all the most important things: life and death, family and loss and loving, duty and perseverance in the face of excruciating circumstance.
david ulin/ the los angeles times, february 9, 2017

The supernatural chatter can grow tedious at timesathe novel would have benefited immensely from some judicious pruning.
michiko kakutani/ the new york times, february 6, 2017

The novel is funny, poignant, and smart. But it's not an escape, just like it's not really about history.
theodore yurevitch/ the southeast review, february 21, 2017

This is a novel that's so intimate and human, so profound, that it seems like an act of grace.
alex preston/ the financial times, march 3, 2017

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Lincoln in the Bardo | 360 VR Video | The New York Times

 

Reading Lolita in Residency

March 23, 2017 at 11:23 am

Howard Trachtman, MD
Department of Pediatrics
NYU School of Medicine

Throughout history, reading books has often been viewed with deep suspicion by figures in authority. The Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola collected and publically burned thousands of objects including books on February 7, 1497 in Florence, Italy, an infamous episode that has been recorded as the Bonfire of the Vanities. The books were condemned as temptations to sin. Russian dissidents put their lives on the line to gain access to books smuggled in from the West because they had been banned by the Communist politburo during the height of the Cold War. People have been imprisoned in Iran for reading Lolita. All high school students are familiar with Ray Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451, a science fiction novel that depicts a futuristic American society in which books are outlawed and "firemen" are authorized to seize and burn any book judged to be subversive. So even though reading books by the beach on a warm summer day is considered an innocuous activity, there is more to it than meet's the casual eye. It can be an act of great power.

 

One year ago, we started a reading group open to all the pediatric residents at NYU devoted to reading and discussing works of fiction. The selection process is open and consensus-driven, not particularly radical. We are receptive to non-fiction books but we have agreed to avoid literature expressly addressing medical problems or topics. The objective is to pick books that are high-quality literature. We are partial to books that are multi-dimensional and timely, expecting that they will push boundaries and stimulate thoughtful discussion. The senior member of the group prepares questions and gets the discussion started but no one has to raise their hand to speak. It quickly gets lively. We have read short stories by Edith Pearlman and novels by Jenny Offill, Kate Walbert, Kazuo Ishiguro, Edna O'Brien, and Ben Fountain.

Ms. Walbert joined the group for the discussion of her book, AA Short History of Women The books, which have been modest in length so we can finish them in time, have often been honored on lists of Best Books of the Year or Notable Books.
We meet bimonthly in the home of one of the faculty members and have a light dinner and desserts as we sit around in a tight circle to discuss the book. In part, we do this because it is worthwhile to find a friendly place outside the day-to-day hospital environment and away from the bustle of patient care for the group to get together. It is conceivable that it fosters a samizdat atmosphere among us. We can imagine that we are taking part in something that is outside the box, an underground activity that is a bit revolutionary compared to our day job as pediatricians. But apartments across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art are not hotbeds of revolution. If that is the case, where is the subversive element?

For starters, we read a book in hand. The Department of Pediatrics purchases the books and a hard copy is distributed to whoever wants to attend the group. No one brings a Kindle or reading device. Moreover, no one gets by reading a capsule summary or abstract of the book. We read the book from start to finish. This is a distinctly uncommon behavior in an age when most people routinely get their information online in easily accessible, abbreviated formats that can be easily read and digested. It may be considered a quiet act of rebellion when we show that an author's work deserves to be read and considered as a whole entity when we devote time and effort to understand what the author has in her or his mind.

Second, for attendings to see residents as more than a means to patient care and for residents to see attendings as more than the people who give orders and occasionally teach upsets the normal view of the residency ecosystem. The reading fosters a sense of community, a feeling that everyone in the department of pediatrics is a person with an interesting life outside the walls of the clinic or hospital. Each member of the reading group brings a unique perspective to the discussion that is worth listening to and taking into consideration. There is genuine camaraderie and free exchange of ideas between people who have usually kept apart in the hospital. We plan to open the reading group to more interested faculty because we think it promotes a type of interaction that is difficult to foster during rounds and provision of care. Instead of a hierarchical structure, the reading group promotes the revolutionary idea that residents and attendings share a common goal and can work together to achieve it.

Third, with the growing emphasis on evidence-based medicine, there is a worrisome tendency to think that everything worth knowing can be found within the pages of high-impact-factor medical journals. There is nothing to be gained or worth spending time on besides up-to-date summaries of validated clinical guidelines. Acknowledging that reading quality literature adds to one's knowledge and is time well spent goes against the grain of current residency training. There are many medical schools that have incorporated an appreciation of literature and narrative structure into patient care. These programs link medicine and the humanities and represent a welcome addition to the medical school curriculum. But they are pragmatic and primarily aim to help the residents become better doctors. Our reading group is designed to make reading good literature a worthwhile aim on its own merits, a distinctly different valuation for most residents.

Finally, it opens the possibility that reading good books can make residents better people. In a recent profile of Martha Nussbaum (New Yorker, July 25, 2016, 34-43), Rachel Aviv refers to a lecture in which Nussbaum writes that we become merciful when we behave as the "concerned reader of a novel," understanding each person's life as a "complex narrative of human effort in a world full of obstacles." The direction of Nussbaum's thought is from people to a literary mindset. The unspoken mission statement of the reading group is that Nussbaum's assertion can be made in reverse, namely, that a devoted reader of literature will become a more compassionate individual. Those who have chosen a career in the humanities have always known that the ultimate purpose of their study is to become better human beings. Physicians may have forgotten that charge in the struggle to become good doctors. Reminding them of the value of reading novels in residency may be disorienting at first. But we are optimistic. We meet and read together in the hope that introducing reading into residency will help trainees and faculty become better people. If the reading group makes us better doctors, we will take it.
If you have read this far, we want to reassure you that we do not take ourselves too seriously. We have a good sense of humor and have mostly enjoyed our careers so far in pediatrics. But we think we are on to something, a simple thing that may make any residency program a bit stronger and more meaningful for faculty and trainees. As Arlo Guthrie sang in Alice’s Restaurant if one or two residency programs start a reading group they may be considered sick or weird.

If three programs do it, the accreditation boards may think it is an organization. If fifty programs do it, it might become a movement. So go out with some resident friends, buy a book, and get together to talk about it. It is not as dangerous as it sounds.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
We thank the leadership of the Department of Pediatrics for supporting the reading group.
We thank Lolly Bak for her thoughtful comments and suggestions about the essay.

PARTICIPANTS
Denis Chang, Deanna Chieco, Svetlana Dani, Patricia Davenport, Jasmine Gadhavi, Michael Goonan, Shelly Joseph, Sabina Khan, Marissa Lipton, Kira Mascho, Bridget Messina, Mary Jo Messito, Claire Miller, Shira Novack, Roshni Patel, Gabriel Robbins, Jessie Zhao.

 

 

Richard Selzer and Ten Terrific Tales

July 20, 2016 at 9:23 am


Richard Selzer and Ten Terrific Tales
selzer
by Tony Miksanek, MD
Family Physician and Author, Raining Stethoscopes

If there were a Medical Humanities Hall of Fame, physician-writer Richard Selzer (1928-2016) would be a first-ballot selection. And likely by a unanimous vote. The diminutive doctor had a very large presence in the field. He energized the medical humanities movement in the 1970's and 1980's with his lectures, readings, writing workshops, commencement addresses, correspondence, personality, and kindness. But it was his writing - earthy and elegant, whimsical and wise - that masterfully mingled the world of medicine with the world of the arts and highlighted the necessity of humanity in health care.
His literary output includes more than 125 published short stories and essays, a work of nonfiction (Raising the Dead), an autobiography (Down from Troy), a novella (Knife Song Korea), and a diary (Diary). Many of his stories reflect an interest (even an infatuation) in decay and death, the beauty of the body, how illness beatifies the sick individual, the power and fallibility of doctors, and the great panacea/contagion - love.
"Writing came to me late, like a wisdom tooth," Selzer proclaimed. Indeed, he was 40 years old when he began writing seriously. His early efforts at crafting stories dutifully occurred between the hours of 1:00 and 3:00 AM. His initial focus was creating horror stories because it was an "easy" genre to handle. That fondness for the macabre and otherworldly never dissipated as he continued to utilize horror (and humor) in many tales. The majority of Selzer's stories involve doctor-patient relationships, surgery, and suffering. Some of his literary work is weird ("Pipistrel"), experimental ("A Worm from My Notebook"), and an exercise in reimagining ("The Black Swan Revisited").
Surprisingly for an MD, he seemed a bit unconcerned about facts in his writing. Rather, he was deeply interested in creating impressions. For Selzer, facts weren't necessarily equivalent to truth. After all, facts change but impressions endure. Still, Selzer stubbornly searched for truth (and love) in his stories. He was enticed by language and the sound of words. From time to time, he manufactured his own words. He disliked gerunds but appreciated onomatopoeia. His favorite doctor-writers were John Keats and Anton Chekhov both of whom died from tuberculosis - Keats at age 25 and Chekhov at age 44.
I don't know which story Richard Selzer considered his best or most beloved, but I suspect that "Diary of an Infidel: Notes from a Monastery" was at or near the top of his list. The rest of us, however, definitely have our favorite Selzer stories. And while there are so many wonderful tales to choose from, I recommend the following 10 not-to-be-missed selections. My list is divided into two sections. Part 1 includes personal favorites and stories that don't get nearly the attention they deserve. Part 2 is comprised of stories and an essay that I find very useful in teaching.
Part 1: Five Fabulous Favorites:
1. "Tom and Lily"
2. "Luis"
3. "The Consultation"
4. "Toenails"
5. "Fetishes"
Part 2: Five Fixtures for Teaching:
1. "Brute"
2. "Imelda"
3. "Sarcophagus"
4. "Wither Thou Goest"
5. "The Surgeon as Priest"
So there you have it. The two greatest stories by Richard Selzer are "Brute" and "Tom and Lily." Of course, that's just my opinion. How do you see it? You are invited to post to the blog with your favorites. (I have a hunch that "Imelda" is going to vie with "Brute" for the top spot.) In the meantime, The Doctor Stories by Richard Selzer is a perfect place for readers to roost - either as an introduction to his work or an opportunity to reacquaint with some notable tales.

The Patient Experience Book Club at NYU Langone Medical Center

March 2, 2016 at 1:41 pm

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When an AP reporter called to tell Erika Goldman, publisher of the Bellevue Literary Press, that its novel, Tinkers, by Paul Harding, won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, "it was akin to receiving a blow to the head," she said. "It was concussive." For the first time since 1981, a book published by a small press won the award.

Ms. Goldman told this story to the members of the Patient Experience Book Club at NYU Langone Medical Center, a group that includes physicians, nurses, administrators, analysts and social workers among others. On a recent Friday afternoon, the group met to discuss Tinkers.

Tinkers recounts the last days of George Crosby. Lying in a hospital bed in the middle of his living room, surrounded by the members of his extended family, George's thoughts drift between the scene around him and memories of his boyhood. His father, Howard, a peddler of home goods in rural Maine, had epilepsy. Faced with the possibility that he would be committed to a psychiatric hospital Howard Crosby abandons the family leaving George, his mother and siblings to fend for themselves.

Time is a thematic thread running through the novel (George repairs clocks) as the narrative flows between memories of his childhood and his adult life. Harding describes his book as unlineated poetry. Its rich, descriptive language requires readers to settle into the prose, avoid distractions, and allow themselves the space to fully experience the story.

After a brief introduction by Ms. Goldman about how the Pulitzer Prize process works, the group turned to a discussion of the text. Their interpretations were filtered through their individual experiences working with patients and families. A social worker compared some "not so great" deaths she has witnessed to George's death at home with his family. A neurology administrator pointed out that the stigma attached to epilepsy remains a problem for some of the patients she encounters. Tinkers draws attention to the silence surrounding illness, another commented.

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The Patient Experience Book Club was started by Dr. Katherine Hochman in 2012. She came up with the idea after attending a conference on patient experience that was organized by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement in Boston: "What I took away from that was in order to have an engaged patient, we need to have an engaged staff." She decided to hold meetings every two months to discuss books that related, even tangentially, to patient care. A small grant funds box lunches and copies of the selections. The books are made available in advance of the meeting. Sessions typically draw from 10-30 people from all areas of the medical center. For many, it's a chance to meet co-workers who they do not interact with in their normal daily routines.

Locksley Dyce, a hospital administrator, loves to read and is a regular attendee: "It affords me the opportunity to meet in a multi-disciplinary group and exchange thoughts with healthcare professionals whom I probably would not meet otherwise."

The Club invites a faculty or staff member with expertise in a particular area to lead the sessions. Dr. Joseph Lowy from the palliative care service led the discussion of Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. David Oshinsky discussed his book Polio. And during the Ebola scare, the novel Blindness prompted a discussion of what it would be like for a whole society to be affected by an illness. During that session, Hochman and the group wore blindfolds to experience blindness for themselves.

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Mr. Dyce finds the sessions particularly thought-provoking. "We try to apply the material from the book to healthcare - especially patient care - and the individual roles that we play in it," he said.

As the session on Tinkers drew to a close, and the members prepared to go back to work, ordering tests, analyzing metrics and attending to their patients, they reflect on the issues brought up in the meeting and acknowledge the importance of taking time to connect with their patients.

The group meets next in April to discuss When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.

Rediscovering a history of trauma: An interview with Dr. Annita Sawyer

August 17, 2015 at 2:20 pm

Dr. Annita Sawyer is a psychologist and the author of several essays, stories, and a memoir titled Smoking Cigarettes, Eating Glass, which was published in May 2015.

In 1960, however, Dr. Sawyer was battling mental illness and thoughts of suicide. She was institutionalized and underwent 89 electroshock treatments. Although traumatized by her experience as a patient, Dr. Sawyer survived the broken mental health system of the 1950s and 1960s and went on to graduate summa cum laude from Yale, earn her doctorate and join the faculty of the Yale University School of Medicine. In 2001, Sawyer sent for the records from the years she was a patient at the two psychiatric hospitals. She decided to reveal her past and began to write only after she had begun to recover from revisiting the early trauma and began to remember what had happened to her.

In this interview with Simone Leung, Dr. Sawyer discusses the process of creating her memoir, how doctoring and writing play into her life, and shifting perceptions of mental illness today.

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What originally led you to dig into your history, and why have you chosen to share your story in Smoking Cigarettes, Eating Glass at this point in time?

I'd been working full time for twenty years. As a psychotherapist I had reached a comfortable place professionally. My children were grown and on their own, so I had privacy. My husband and I were meeting with a marriage counselor who was struck by my sometimes vague, otherworldly demeanor, and the fact that in the middle of an argument I would often forget what I was talking about. She recognized this as dissociation, a symptom of trauma. I still had little memory of my first twenty years, and I had questions about my history, which I thought might have answers in the medical records. I wanted to find out the specific number of shock treatments I'd been given - my estimate of 54 seemed way too high. For all of these reasons, we agreed that I should send for the hospital records.

Conventional wisdom holds that the best way to make a point vivid and memorable is to connect it to a story about a real person. Reading the records triggered a dramatic revisiting of my early life - as a child and also as an adolescent in the hospital. All my old symptoms returned, overwhelming me. Memories I thought had been erased by shock treatment returned in many forms. Most striking were intense physical reactions that often lacked thoughts - memories were stored in my body even though they might have been erased in my mind. This experience of the enduring effects of trauma was so amazing to me that I was determined to share what I'd learned. I felt an urgent need to inform clinicians of the harm they could cause by being careless, by not paying attention, beginning with diagnosis.

A mental illness diagnosis has a powerful influence on one's sense of self. Also diagnosis often determines treatment and some treatments have severe life-changing side effects. Misdiagnosis can seriously compromise people's lives.

Beyond medical side effects, shame and stigma adds to the suffering already caused by mental illness. It can lead people to deny that they are having problems, or to avoid getting help, because treatment also carries stigma. This stigma also affects families and friends, who worry about shame by association. I kept my past hidden for most of my life, long after I was working as a psychologist. This secrecy was a given: no one ever suggested that I should stop hiding my past. However, the gratitude people show - friends and strangers alike - along with their references to my bravery now that I am speaking about my experience, makes clear how powerful the stigma is and how important it is that we work to diminish it.

And finally, I'm here, alive, today because I was fortunate to find the right therapist and to recover through psychotherapy. By showing how it worked for me, I want to inspire people both not to give up and to invest in good quality psychotherapy.

When you were sorting through your journal entries and gathering material for your memoir, did you find yourself having to filter out certain details? If so, could you talk about the process of determining what should be made public and what should be left personal?

Initially I was writing from the midst of urgent chaos, seeking to hold myself together by putting thoughts on a page. I repeated lots of fears; I can see looking back that I was in certain ways repeating my earlier hospital thinking. I had a sympathetic and savvy therapist who encouraged me to write down what was happening and to send it to her by email. The details I filtered out over time included primarily what I considered over the top melodrama. I also toned down what felt like was terrifically immature neediness in my relationship with my therapist. There was just so much embarrassing information I could bear to reveal.

In one of your essays, you explain that you initially held back from sharing your history in part due to fear that it would affect your professional reputation. Did opening up about your past and vulnerability affect your practice?

I am not alone in my concern that the stigma attached to acknowledging a history with mental illness could risk my professional reputation. A number of colleagues have confided their own fears. I kept my past hidden until I'd been in practice for more than twenty years.. The first time I spoke at a psychiatry grand rounds, I was a co-presenter and my name was not on the announcement. Before I did that I met with both a long time supervisor, a senior psychologist in New Haven, and with my former psychiatrist, checking with each one to make sure they didn't think I was compromising myself professionally to do this.

All of these precautions may or may not have made a difference. In fact, everywhere I've gone I've been treated with kindness and respect. I have been invited to make further presentations. People express gratitude and confide their own secrets. Among professionals my reception has been consistently positive. My patients appear unfazed. If anything, they say it makes them feel more secure to know how far I've come. They appreciate that I understand suffering.

Could you talk about the shame and fear of stigma attached to mental illness and psychotherapy today? Do you believe our perception of it is shifting and if so, how?

I hope that increased openness on the internet and the presence of more media series that include mental illness and psychotherapy will help to defuse the stigma. But every time there's a mass murder or similar tragedy and the perpetrator is someone identified with a psychiatric diagnosis much of the media hype that follows only serves to reinforce the fear, and thus stigma, again. I don't think there's a good way to change this except for successful, accomplished, public people to begin to refer to their therapy sessions or their childhood therapist or the year they had to drop out of college for treatment, etc. as if that was a perfectly reasonable response to the situation at the time, so that the public perception shifts to seeing mental illness and treatment, especially psychotherapy, as part of a continuum, as much more common that one would think and something that can be dealt with successfully.

Smoking Cigarettes, Eating Glass, "The Crazy One," "The Other Chair," and many of your other works seem to draw almost exclusively from your personal experiences. What is appealing about writing nonfiction to you?

Nonfiction is what I know. I haven't tried to write fiction because I worry I couldn’t create a good enough story. My own life in psychiatric hospitals, however, delivered hundreds of stories already made. I just had to learn how to capture them on the page. There's the challenge of telling a good story as a way to make a psychological point. By using myself I can show the many sides of a simple action - the shame, fear, excitement, dread and hope that can be part of making a decision or taking a stand. I can illustrate emotions and psychological dilemmas without wondering if I'm accurate or not. The truth has sort of been handed to me and I'm using it.

As a psychologist and an author, you straddle the worlds of medicine and humanities. Could you talk about the interplay between your professions?

At the center of both medicine and humanities is the individual human experience. Yet that experience takes place in a context. We're all products of families and cultures, which vary widely, to say nothing of the larger forces of economics and the natural environment.

For me personally, your question itself couldn't be more affirming. You accept as given that I am an author as well as a psychologist; you refer to my professions, plural. And today this is true: I belong to both worlds. Each enriches the other. I find joy in both. Often the mistakes I make in therapy, the times I'm insensitive or overlook something important, come from rushing, from filling in the blanks with my own assumptions rather than being patient and listening with respect. The more open we are to varieties of experience, the better we can listen and appreciate any particular individual we encounter.

Are you currently working on any new projects?

I have pages of ideas for new projects, but I haven't yet been able to develop one beyond a few tentative stories. I'm learning that to have a book accepted for publication and then actually published and available is only another step in a long, ongoing process. It sounds trite, perhaps, but it's like having a baby. Labor and delivery is just the beginning! I'll be going to a residency in the fall where I'll have three weeks to really focus on beginning something new. I want to write stories about psychotherapy from a variety of points of view - the patient and therapist perhaps, but also the patient's parent or partner or child; people in the therapist's life. I want to see if I can convey the effects of psychotherapy as they ripple beyond the consulting room, to show how it heals (or doesn't) and how one person's change affects a whole system. And I'm beginning to think I want to write a novel that would tell what I imagine to be my mother's story.

Simone Leung is an intern at the Bellevue Literary Review. She is a rising junior majoring in Global Studies at Colby College and is interested in creative writing.

Sawyer's story "The Crazy One" appeared in The Bellevue Literary Review: http://blr.med.nyu.edu/content/archive/2012/spring/crazyone

Reading the Body: Live!

July 16, 2014 at 10:29 am

Stacy Bodziak, Managing Editor, Bellevue Literary Review

Not many literary evenings are divided into sections on "Dissection," "Bone," "Brain," "HEENT," and "Heart," but then again, it's not often that the readings are selected to complement Frank Netter's iconic illustrations. This past spring, the Bellevue Literary Review (BLR), a journal published by NYU School of Medicine, hosted "Reading the Body: Live!" an evening of poetry and prose that celebrated the closing night of the MSB Gallery's exhibit honoring Netter, "The Michelangelo of Medicine."

The featured readings - which span the BLR's thirteen-year archive - were brought to life by Kelly AuCoin and Carolyn Baeumler, talented actors that captivated the audience. Introductory remarks were made by Danielle Ofri, MD, PhD, editor-in-chief of the BLR, and Matthew Vorsanger, MD, Chief Resident, Internal Medicine. The evening was sponsored by Division of Medical Humanities and the Master Scholars Program in Humanistic Medicine.

This div will be replaced by the JW Player.

Humanity Out of Context: Tinkers as a Touchstone for Dissection

November 3, 2011 at 3:19 pm

Editor's Note: I met Rachel Hammer, a third year medical student and MFA candidate at the Mayo Clinic, last month at the American Society of Bioethics and Humanism conference in Minneapolis where she presented a poster about a student poetry group. When I mentioned that I worked at Bellevue, she told me about a recent meeting at the medical school where the novel, Tinkers, was discussed in a narrative medicine group. Tinkers, as many of you know, was published by the Bellevue Literary Press and received a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. I asked Rachel if she would write about the group and its discussion of Tinkers.


Commentary by Rachel Hammer, MS3 and MFA Candidate, Mayo Medical School

The Mayo Clinic College of Medicine's Narrative Medicine group started in response to an ornament in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. A skull sits in a bowl of roses in the dorm room of Waugh's protagonist, Charles Ryder, in a section entitled, "Et En Arcadia Ego." Arcadia, legend has it, is the field described by Pliny the Elder where a shepherd wet his finger with spit and traced his friend's shadow against a tomb-the first painting-suggesting whilst setting the precedent that art is inspired when humans face their mortality. Art, thus, is humankind's response to death.

After hours in the medical school anatomy lab in the first year, we had stared at skulls and the dead long enough to stir substantial need for creative expression. A group of us began to meet to read poetry and excerpts from novels. I had read Rita Charon's Narrative Medicine, and visited the Masters Program at Columbia, where I learned some basic exercises in "attention, representation, and affiliation" and so I offered to facilitate the sessions. We are graciously funded by the Walt Wilson Art in Medicine grant. Our group meets for lunch once a month and is open to all medical students. Students sign up to attend, and we cap the group at twenty members. I choose the excerpts, usually something I come across in my MFA coursework.

For the October meeting I chose to read from Tinkers by Paul Harding, a work that I thought would resonate with first year students going through the emotional and physically arduous anatomy block. The excerpt (pages 178-184), was the touchstone for a discussion on experiences of cognitive dissonance when bearing witness to humanity out of context, such as the discomfort one may experience in dissecting a cadaver.

Tinkers is broken into segments with alternating narrators, Howard, the father, and George, his son, each tell the stories of their lives, with modest overlap. Real time in the book works backward, counting down the last days of George's life; time within memories works forward. Father and son as co-protagonists are like two gears, intimately related and yet spinning with force and purpose all their own.

In the excerpt, George, near death, loses consciousness in the living room where he lay in his bed surrounded by family. As always in our Narrative Medicine group practice, we read the passage to ourselves, closely, deliberately. Then we read the passage again, together, aloud. We then discuss what we recognize, what surprises us, and what it means to us, today, as we chance to encounter it.

We were struck by the language of natural elements Harding used to describe the dying bodies: Salt, wood, minerals, legs like planks, feet like lead weights, salt-cured, metal strengthened, dried veins, strong as iron chains, exhausted engine, bushings. Someone remarked that in other settings, when humans are described reductively in terms of their elemental components, their inner workings likened to the machinery of a clock, we are repulsed. How dare we consider humans as mere material! But in the space of death, written with the reverence of a poet, George returning to mere material is a beautiful, honorable fate. Recognizing that George spent his life as a clockmaker-that there was nothing for which he had more passion than clocks-his, then, is a righteous transfiguration indeed; that in death, he would morph to resemble the very thing he most loved in life, the wood, the chains, the lead weights, the bushings of a clock.

One student linked the end of the passage (p.184) to themes of TS Eliot (The Four Quartets was a previous reading in this group). She recognized the confusion of time in the space of death and grief-"imagining was as it is still approaching"-as a collision of past and future. Sharing our fears of death for ourselves, worry of bodily pain, we saw in ourselves the family Harding describes hovering around George:

(…"that they mourn because of the inevitability of the was and apply their own wases to the it [dead body], which is so nearly was that it will not or simply cannot any longer accept their human grief) as its broken springs wound down or its lead weights lowered for the last, irreparable time."

We discussed the extent to which our efforts in palliation and comfort are more for the provider than the patient. How some things are irreparable, and how seldom we can admit this to ourselves.

Since this passage was intended for the reflection of the first year students, as they loom over their assigned dead bodies like belated Fates, I asked them to reflect on the language in this passage while contemplating what it means to be dead, and what it means to encounter the dead. As you pick away at the crust of another human, now lifeless, out of context, consider the story that lies beneath. Our bodies, universes unto themselves, are, in fact, neither simple nor always logical, but ever so elegant.

Nurse-Poet-Writer Cortney Davis Responds To Thomas Long’s Blog On Nurse Writers

January 6, 2010 at 4:32 pm

Commentary by Cortney Davis, MA, APRN, Nurse practitioner, Sacred Heart University Health Services, Fairfield, Connecticut

Thank you to Dr. Thomas Long for his excellent blog entry and for his continued championing of nurses' writing. I also wonder why nurse-writers don't have a wider audience. Specifically, as I see more and more narrative medicine courses offered to medical students, I wonder why many nursing programs still fail to utilize the creative writing of nurses-why not narrative nursing courses? After reading Dr. Long's blog, I asked my husband, a physician, why he thought nurse writers were not as well respected (and as widely read) as doctors who wrote. His answer was immediate: "Authority," he said. "People think that because doctors have more authority in the work place, they also have more authority on the page." There is certainly some truth in this, as Long points out. Doctors are often seen as the embodiment of strength and "curing" and nurses, whether male or female, are often seen as the embodiment of a softer, more feminine "caring"-and I think there are other factors at work here as well.

One reason nursing programs may have been slow to incorporate nurses' writing is the myth of "natural empathy." Some have assumed that those who go into nursing are already compassionate and empathic (sometimes they've even been seen as bleeding hearts, ruled by the emotions and not by the mind). Therefore it might seem that nursing students, those sensitive souls, wouldn't require the humanities to awaken them to their patients' suffering. The companion myth is that of the "distant physician." It's often assumed that medical students are more interested in the illness than in the patient and therefore would benefit from studying the humanities in order to become more empathic providers. Of course, neither myth is valid, although there is a kernel of truth in both. Indeed, when nurses first began publishing their creative writing, some of that writing was overly sentimental and, in some cases, poorly crafted. When doctors first began offering their creative writing, some of it was overly cerebral and occasionally cold. Now, after several decades, nurse- and doctor-writers have honed their skills and found their voices; the best of them are accomplished, professional and writing on equally high levels.

Another factor relates both to the question of who has the authority and to the myth of natural vs. learned empathy. "Nursing Education," that big generic machine, for many years also viewed, if secretly, physicians' work as having more authority, if not more worth, than nurses' work. This bias was spurred on by many things, including the belittling of the nursing profession by doctors, by hospital administration, by the media, and sometimes even by patients and nurses themselves. This led nursing educators to do their best to rid nursing programs of any hint of "softness"-that natural empathy taken to its limits-and to forge nursing education into a research-based, scientific endeavor. As Long notes, this brought the study of nursing from the hospital bedside to the classroom. Almost at the same time, in the 1970s, along came "medical humanities," the study of literature meant, among other things, to foster more empathic, nurse-like compassion in medical providers. As medical schools began offering courses in the arts, humanities and creative writing as a way to increase students' awareness of the "softer side" of caregiving, nursing programs hurried ever farther away from touch and ever closer to technology.

Nursing, it seems to me, missed the boat; only now is it, in some instances, trying to catch up. Still, the majority of nursing programs today have neither the time nor the inclination to offer humanities or writing courses to student nurses. If nursing students are asked to keep journals, the journals are too often seen as an exercise tangential to the real studies; when medical students are asked to keep journals, the journals are often lauded as intimate glimpses into the trials and triumphs of learning medicine-and some of those journal entries are published as beacons to guide other medical students. If the majority of nursing programs are not honoring the creative writing of nurses and using that writing to help guide their students, should we wonder why the names of the best nurse-writers producing poems, essays and novels today are not well known?

That said, some interesting things are happening which give me hope that, little by little, nurses' writing is moving into a more mainstream consciousness. Nurses' creative writing, while still for the most part under utilized within nursing education (and here let me recognize and thank Thomas Long and the many other educators who do value nurses' writing and fight to include it in their courses), is becoming more and more visible, as Long also points out, in the "secular" literary world. Rattle, an excellent and widely read literary journal, featured a "Tribute to Nurses" in the winter 2007 issue, publishing poems and essays by 24 nurses. Many of the poetry volumes, novels and essay collections by nurse-writers have been published by literary presses-among them the University of Iowa Press, Calyx Books, Beacon Press, Random House, and Kent State University Press-rather than by nursing presses. Many nurse-writers have won impressive literary awards-including National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships-which have no connection to nursing or medicine. It seems to me that nurses who write are finding new and exciting outlets and are being recognized not as nurse-writers but as writers.

Yet, within the halls of nursing and medical education, until we move beyond myth and presumption and accept that nurses and doctors are co-workers in the same mysterious and amazing world of caregiving; that we all long to find ways to deal with the complicated emotions our work engenders; that we all want to know what others like us are thinking and feeling; and that we all have essential stories and important contributions to make to students and to the humanities canon-well, until then, we nurses who write, although literary equals to physicians who write, will not enjoy equal recognition.

Remember The Nurses

December 30, 2009 at 5:01 pm

Remember the Nurses - Lithograph 1939 - 1945, Wellcome Library, LondonCommentary by Thomas Lawrence Long, Associate Professor-in-Residence, School of Nursing, University of Connecticut

Name three popular physician writers working today.
Atul Gawande. Pauline Chen. Oliver Sacks. Jill Bolte Taylor. Jerome Groopman. Rafael Campo. Deepak Chopra. Edward de Bono. Andrew Weil.

Well, that was easy.
Now name three physician authors who are part of the Western literary canon.
Hippocrates. Galen. The author of the Gospel According to Luke and of Acts of the Apostles. Hildegard of Bingen. Charles Eastman. Arthur Conan Doyle. Anton Chekhov. William Carlos Williams. Oliver Goldsmith. Thomas Browne. John Polidori. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. Lewis Thomas. Thomas Bowdler (unfortunately).

An embarrassment of riches. That was easier still.
Now name three nurse authors, who are either writing today or are part of the literary canon.
All right, I'll give you twenty-four hours to get back to me.

Where Are the Nurse Writers?

Paradoxically, the healthcare professional field established by a prolific Victorian English author, Florence Nightingale (whose 1859 Notes on Nursing: What Nursing Is, What Nursing is Not has never gone out of print), finds few of its writers on the tips of our tongues. And even at the origins of professional nursing in the United States during the Civil War, one of America's most beloved authors, Louisa May Alcott, started her literary career with Hospital Sketches, an account of her experiences as a nurse in a military hospital.

Why are there so few well known nurse authors? And what nurse writers are ready to be discovered by a larger audience?

When I have asked nurse editors and scholars the first question, the answers have centered on two points. First, nursing has often been viewed (and until recently nurses viewed themselves) as ancillary, literally ancilla, handmaiden, a feminized, subservient profession deferring to the physician. Not only was the nurse not expected to have insights into the human condition; she (and the nurse usually was female) did not have the "room of one's own" to enable reflection and literary productivity. The physician had his (and the physician usually was a man) office as a retreat, while nurses just had . . . the nurses station-a public location at the hub of medical care and utterly lacking in privacy or solitude.

Second, nurses often were not educated for their profession in the tradition of the liberal arts and sciences. Instead they were frequently trained in hospital nursing programs, or since the second half of the twentieth century at community colleges in two-year associate of science degree programs. Baccalaureate programs in nursing have been a feature of the nursing curriculum since earlier in the twentieth century, but many nurses even today are not the products of that broadly general education.

Nursing Writing

Nurses seem uniquely equipped, however, to comprehend the whole person of the patient, spending considerably more time with the sick than physicians do and aware of the entire psychological, social, and spiritual inflections of their patients. Nurses have historically been encouraged to keep journals and diaries of their clinical experiences, so the raw material for memoir is in fact at hand. As Jane E. Schultz observes of the contrast between clinical accounts by Civil War military physicians and those by their nurses:

Though nurses' styles of self-expression differed widely, they wrote about their patients with a singular degree of material specificity, and they resisted surgeons' tendency to blur patients' individual characteristics. In their letters and diaries, they referred to patients by name, frequently mentioning hometowns, culinary tastes, or other distinguishing details. Often they quoted their conversations with soldiers, which surgeons who kept diaries rarely did. . . Surgeons' diaries do not show nearly the same individualization of suffering. They were more likely to refer to their patients in the abstract or to refer to the clinical details of a particular treatment without mentioning the soldier's name at all. (378-379)

Civil War nurse diaries are among the more vivid and moving accounts of the war, whether from the hand of the domestic Louisa May Alcott, or the sensationalist S. Emma E. Edmonds, author of the memoir Nurse and Spy in the Union Army. Moreover, feminist critic and literary scholar Elaine Showalter in an introduction to Florence Nightingale has characterized Nightingale as a major literary figure in English feminism, bridging Mary Wollstonecraft in the eighteenth century and Virginia Woolf in the twentieth.

Who are Nightingale's literary descendants working today? They are men and women, and they are many. They are working in a variety of genres, and their work has earned frequent anthologizing. Cortney Davis and Judy Schaefer's two collections, Between the Heartbeats: Poetry and Prose by Nurses (1995) and Intensive Care: More Poetry and Prose by Nurses (2003), have brought nurse writers to a wider audience. Schaefer's more recent anthology, The Poetry of Nursing: Poems and Commentaries of Leading Nurse-Poets, gives 15 nurse poets the space to present and to comment on three or four of their own poems, an unusual and engaging meta-analysis. An accomplished poet, Davis is also a talented essayist, whose recently published The Heart's Truth: Essays on the Art of Nursing encapsulates the relationship between clinical practice and writing:

. . . I find that when I'm not seeing patients, it's a struggle for me to write. It seems that for me, nursing and writing have become, over the years, inextricably bound. That intimate connection that links us, human to human, is essential both to my vocation and my avocation. (98)

Writers like Davis and Schaefer, Jeanne Bryner, Theodore Deppe, Veneta Masson, have published their work in distinguished literary journals, such as Minnesota Review, Prairie Schooner, Hudson Review, Poetry, The Sun, and Kenyon Review, as well as in their own books published by respected presses.

These nurse writers join an eclectic canon. Katherine Prescott Wormeley (1830-1908), an American nurse in the Civil War, was a highly respected literary translator, who turned works by Balzac, Daudet, and Dumas to English. Sarah Chauncey Woolsey (1835-1905), an American children’s author and editor, wrote under the pen name Susan Coolidge. Lillian D. Wald (1867-1940) was a community health activist and author of two memoirs, The House on Henry Street (1911) and Windows on Henry Street (1934). Ellen LaMotte (1873-1961) published several books, including travel and wartime nursing narratives. In addition, today nurse scholars publish their research in over 100 journals of nursing science and professional practice.

Florence Nightingale, whose collected works now runs to thirteen volumes in the edition published by the Canadian University of Guelph's Wilfrid Laurier University Press, put pen to paper in the service of a variety causes, not all of them related to health care. As Lytton Strachey observes in his profile of her in Eminent Victorians, Nightingale's dedication to spirituality led her to write a tract on the spiritual wellbeing of working-class artisans:

Then, suddenly, in the very midst of the ramifying generalities of her metaphysical disquisitions there is an unexpected turn, and the reader is plunged all at once into something particular, something personal, something impregnated with intense experienceaa virulent invective upon the position of women in the upper ranks of society. Forgetful alike of her high argument and of the artisans, [she] rails through a hundred pages of close print at the falsities of family life, the ineptitudes of marriage, the emptinesses of convention, in the spirit of an Ibsen or a Samuel Butler. Her fierce pen, shaking with intimate anger, depicts in biting sentences the fearful fate of an unmarried girl in a wealthy household. It is a cri du coeur . . .

The best of nursing writing shares this passion, a thirst for justice, an advocacy of vulnerable populations. Nightingale did not suffer fools gladly, and her view of the role of nurses went well beyond the ancillary, for as she wrote, "No man, not even a doctor, ever gives any other definition of what a nurse should be than this — ‘devoted and obedient.’ This definition would do just as well for a porter. It might even do for a horse. It would not do for a policeman."

Works Cited

Alcott, Louisa May. Hospital Sketches. Boston: J. Redpath, 1863.

Davis, Cortney. The Heart's Truth: Essays on the Art of Nursing. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2009.

Davis, Cortney, and Judy Schaefer, eds. Between the Heartbeats: Poetry and Prose by Nurses. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1995.

—. Intensive Care: More Poetry and Prose by Nurses. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2003.

Edmonds, S. Emma E. Nurse and Spy in the Union Army. Hartford, CT: W. S. Williams & Co., 1865.

Nightingale, Florence. Notes on Nursing: What Nursing Is, What Nursing is Not. London: Duckworth, 1859.

Schaefer, Judy, ed. The Poetry of Nursing: Poems and Commentaries of Leading Nurse-Poets. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2006.

Schultz, Jane E. "The Inhospitable Hospital: Gender and Professionalism in Civil War Medicine." Signs, 17.2 (Winter, 1992), pp. 363-392.

Showalter, Elaine. "Florence Nightingale." Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Traditions in English. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996. 836-837.

Strachey, Lytton. Eminent Victorians. New York: Putnam, 1918. Retrieved from http://www.bartleby.com/189/204.html

Wald, Lillian D. The House on Henry Street. New York: Holt, 1915.

—. Windows on Henry Street. Boston: Little, Brown, 1934.

Seven Reasons Why Doctors Write

January 4, 2009 at 1:05 pm

A pair of round glasses on a sheet of writing, Wellcome Library, London, Photograph 2004

Commentary by Tony Miksanek, M.D., family physician, short-story author, and coeditor, Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database

As a profession, physicians are a remarkable group of writers. What doctors lack in good penmanship is more than compensated for by their skill in penning stories and poems. Their literary accomplishments are even more impressive given a lack of formal training in the art of writing. Only a few physician-authors have MFA degrees. Most medical students do not major in English or literature while in college. Doctors become talented writers the old-fashioned way. They practice. They also teach themselves via voracious reading with attention to style and technique. They occasionally attend writing workshops.

It helps that doctors are immersed in stories. If the business of medicine is taking care of patients, then the currency used in the transaction are the narratives of illness told by patients and received by physicians. Doctors spend a good chunk of their professional lives listening to stories. It's only natural that doctors would retell versions of these tales or craft their own new ones. All the elements of a story are readily available to any doctor: plot, protagonist, antagonist, setting, dialogue, and theme. Physicians witness struggle - disease, death, and suffering - all the time. Writers call it conflict. Physicians regularly observe cures, acts of heroism, and even miracles. Writers refer to it as denouement. Doctor-writers have oodles of experience to tap from. They have a rich pipeline of poignant images, unforgettable language, colorful characters, and vexing irony in any single day. In addition, physicians get plenty of practice writing and editing office notes, consultations, and histories & physicals.

There is an elite roster of physician-writers for readers to drool over. Anton Chekhov, John Keats, Arthur Conan Doyle, William Carlos Williams, A.J. Cronin, W. Somerset Maugham, and Mikhail Bulgakov are a few names that immediately come to mind. There are also many recognizable physician-writers including Michael Crichton, Robin Cook, and Frank Slaughter who may not get the love (critical acclaim) but certainly get the money (commercial success). There is a sizeable but unquantifiable group of practicing physicians who engage in creative writing without fanfare. These doctors take their writing seriously whether they consider it a hobby, diversion, or passion. I estimate that as many as 4-7 percent of all practicing physicians in the United States are currently working on a poem, story, or novel.

With hectic, unpredictable, and stressful jobs, why do doctors want to write? Given the demands and responsibilities associated with a career in medicine, why do so many physicians make time to write? The short answer is that doctors write for many of the same reasons that non-physicians do: They feel compelled to write. They have something to say. They love words and language. They are excited by the process and gratified by the result. They are inspired.

Here are seven special reasons (ranked from most important to least important) why doctors write:

1. Therapy - Physician heal thyself. Nothing promotes healing like writing a poem or short story or even a single glorious sentence. Writing helps a doctor get things off their chest in a much more productive way than yelling at a nurse, ranting at a patient, or being grouchy at home. Poems and stories written as a form of therapy are easy to spot. They have a confessional quality.
2. Exploration - Doctoring is hard. Creative writing is an opportunity for physicians to make sense of what they do. Stories written for the purpose of searching sometimes have themes that focus on medical ethics and boundary issues.
3. Sharing - Doctors can pass along knowledge and experience by writing in clever and vivid ways. Humor and compassion provoke memorable moments in literature. A perfect example is The House of God by Samuel Shem.
4. Joy - Writing is fun. Okay, maybe not always - rewrites, editing, and the evil "writers' block." At some level (the spark that begins the project or reading the finished manuscript), there is euphoria. Would you settle for glee?
5. Honor - Writing allows physicians an opportunity to memorialize patients and colleagues. These literary works feature a fictionalized version of a character or an amalgamation of a few people. Creative writing can immortalize someone. P.S.: Doctor-narrators also reap literary longevity.
6. Atonement - Doctors make mistakes. They sometimes behave badly. They have regrets. Stories and poems can be part of their penance. Think "Brute" by Richard Selzer.
7. Notoriety - Let's not lie to ourselves. Who among us would not want to be a rich and famous author? I don't know any doctors who would turn down a Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, or an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Good luck with that.