three docs on a stage

On Wednesday night, I was one of the featured panelists at The Cambridge Forum, a venerable speaker program that takes place in the heart of Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The other panelists were Dr. Sasha Helper, a child psychiatrist, and Dr. Elissa Ely, also a psychiatrist as well as the much-beloved columnist for the Boston Globe. The topic was “When Doctors Write,” and we were there to talk about the intersection of medicine and writing. How does being a doctor affect one’s writing? How does one’s writing affect the practice of medicine? I had never before met either Sasha or Elissa. It was nice to discover that Elissa is as gentle and big-hearted as her thoughtful articles reveal her to be. Sasha, who acted as moderator, came prepared with a number of thought-provoking questions about how one combines writing and medicine. The audience spilled out the doors, and the event was recorded both on camera and for radio.

I was the only fiction writer onstage, and I no longer practice medicine, so I focused on how medical training affects one’s writing. There are a number of distinguished physician writers we can probably all think of — e.g., Chekhov, Conan Doyle, Crichton, and William Carlos Williams. In fact, you can find a list of “physician writers” on Wikipedia — right beneath the list of “physician criminals.” But even taking into account all the popular fiction authors who are physicians (Robin Cook, Michael Palmer, etc.) you still probably can’t come close to the list of authors who are attorneys. We doctor-novelists are a relatively small group, yet there’s no question that doctors want to write. We’re like everyone else in America. A survey of 1,000 Americans revealed that 82% say they “have a book in them.” And that same study estimated that two percent of all Americans have already written a manuscript, either fiction or nonfiction.

Doctors are like everyone else in America; they want to write and be published.

During the discussion, and the question period afterward, we explored the question of whether doctors are at an advantage — or a disadvantage — as writers. We agreed that doctors have rich source material to draw from. (Dr. Ely’s columns, for example, are drawn from her experiences as a psychiatrist, and they provide an ever-fascinating look into human behavior.) But doctors also have a disadvantage because of medical training, which forces them to be objective, to write in the passive voice, and to underplay their own emotions while at work.

The forum will be broadcast nationally over NPR sometime during the next few weeks. I’ll let you know when it will be aired.

10 replies
  1. Kyle K.
    Kyle K. says:

    This is why I should have never left Boston. Well, one of the reasons, anyway!

    That sounds like a really fascinating discussion! And you and MP have even taught classes for doctors who want to be writers, right? Paying it forward!

    It’s always fascinating to hear what people did before they wrote. Doctors and lawyers, vets, psychologists, you name it. All you people spent hundreds of thousands of dollars earning your degrees, went through years of study and interning, etc… when you could have skipped all that to pursue your real passion!

    But then you wouldn’t be the same person you are today, which would have undoubtedly affected your writing career as well…

    You know where I was going with that!

    But, who am I to say anything? I want to write more than anything, yet I went through five years of college to get a marketing degree… which I hope I NEVER have to fall back on… 😀

  2. Ghasem Kiani
    Ghasem Kiani says:

    Since the unfortunate demise of the late Michael Crichton, I have been wondering if you would mention him in your blog, since he was such an influential writer, and especially because he was a physician writer like you. Through your blog, I was also acquainted with Michael Palmer, and I plan to start reading his works soon.

  3. Tess
    Tess says:

    I don’t want to insult my attorney friends, but I often like to joke that lawyers make better novelists because their job often involves “stretching” the truth!

  4. moe.kay
    moe.kay says:

    As both a ten-year cancer survivor lucky enough to still have a cadre of wonderful physicians on my “team,” and as an attorney for the federal government, I have given the issue of doctor vs. lawyer authors some thought.

    I think you see many more lawyers than doctors as authors because writing comes a lot easier to a greater number of lawyers. The law school admission test had a separate writing section, at least when I took the exam, and a writing course was required in law school. We also had only one all-essay exam for almost every law school course. I suspect the same may not be true for medical school. Also, many lawyers rarely if ever appear in court, but a good percentage of them do an inordinate amount of writing.

    Unlike most lawyers I know who love to talk and write, virtually all of my doctors are true technicians. They are action people who are very task-oriented. My cancer surgeon had me laughing when he commented on the “talking heads,” who talk rather than do.

    As an aside, the one nice thing about working as a government attorney is that I feel as though my role is to not only represent my client, but also to consider the best interests of the public, so I feel no pressure to engage literal truth-stretching. Of course, we all know that there are a number of ways to say the same thing, some better than others at effectively stating our case.

    I’m not sure why, but for some reason I prefer reading just about anything written by a doctor rather than a lawyer, with the possible exception of a prescription for an invasive test!

  5. Abe
    Abe says:

    Hi Tess,

    I love reading medical thrillers. They takek me into the world of the ER, and sometimes, especially in your books, deep down into the bowels of the hospital – the morgue. I remember reading a book by Rob Myers, MD. called “The Woman Who Swallowed a Toothbrush and Other Bizarre Medical Cases” (highly recommended, btw). The things that people swallow and can’t pass. How stupid can people be? A toothbrush, pencils, and get this. A man who swallowed 2 .25 caliber bullets so when he passes gas, he can shoot his cheating ex-wife. (it was documented. I’ve heard of shooting off your mouth, but this is ridiculous.) That’s why I love your books, Tess. They inform as well as entertain. I find the same from the books of CJ Lyons. I have yet to read a book written by an attorney, though. Will they be classified as fiction, non-fiction, or “who the hell knows?”
    So to all of you doctors out there who are also writers, keep up the great work. You’ve come a long way from those non-legible prescriptions that only Egyptologists can only read, to the brilliant writers that you are today.

  6. Tess
    Tess says:

    moe, I certainly agree with what you said about the differing writing demands of the two professions. Attorneys do massive amounts of writing, and it encompasses so much more than the sort of writing doctors do. (“Abdominal mass palpated in right lower quadrant.”) I think docs and lawyers use different parts of their brains for their writing. And the sort of writing that lawyers do is far closer to what novelists do.

  7. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    Lawyers learn law,and then engage in fiction regardless of the facts.How else could they make money?They exist to make simple things incredibly complicated.God made lawyers on the same day he made cockroaches.Doctors aren’t necessarily all terrific people,but they exist to deal with real problems.Disease and physical trauma would exist without doctors.Lawyers invent their own reason for existing.
    Excuse my attitude,but the vagaries of the legal system just screwed over one of my immediate family and I’m in a piss poor mood.

  8. benwah023
    benwah023 says:

    Thanks, Tess. I attended this lecture, and, as a physician who’s taken more than a passing stab at writing, I found it a fascinating topic for discussion. Continuing with your idea that medicine is poor training ground for writing — not for material, but for skills — medicine is frequently very active (especially for those of us in the more invasive specialties) whereas good writers are skilled at observing, contemplating and commenting. Medicine is often a team sport and one that, by its very nature, involves dealing with other people. Writing is a solitary exercise. The two vocations seem to feed different sides of people. Setting the scalpel down and picking up the pen requires a definite change of attitude, and vice versa. Sometimes to good effect…sometimes not. I suppose the trick is to harness some of the energy in that struggle.

    Thanks again.

  9. PackingPadre
    PackingPadre says:


    I can certainly attest to docs and veterinarians who are politicians thinking differently than lawyers. Medical folk are used to making quick decisions. Lawyers, unless they are before SCOTUS, always have an appeal. That’s not to say I don’t have some lawyer authors I enjoy as well as some military men. I’m sure military women will catch up soon.



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