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.