A Medical Adventure in Novel Writing

A Medical Adventure in Novel Writing

An excerpt from "Adventures in Medicine" - Coming Fall 2010:

     I thought the mugging had been brutal. The beating had not been physical with bumps and bruises. Worse, it had been an intellectual one, more painful and demoralizing. A disquieting familiarity to a previous episode at the same University made it tougher on my ego. Just like walking down a dark alley or being ill-prepared for Grand Rounds, I should have expected trouble being out of my league when I attended the University of Iowa's Writer Workshop Summer Seminar on the advanced novel.     

     Before, it had happened in my third year of medical school during my second clinical rotation on the orthopedic service. Poorly tutored, I had been selected by my staff professor, a world renowned orthopedic pathologist, to present a complex patient we had seen in the morning clinic to the weekly Grand Rounds that afternoon. The primary goal of these weekly events was educational, and, to be fair, they generally were. However, depending on the level of the malevolence of the department chairman and his henchmen in the long coats, the “rounds” could be more miserable than “grand,” especially in the field of "one-up-man-ship." My medical career nearly ended during first Grand Round presentation. I died on stage attempting to present the orthopedic problem and mumbling inept answers in response from the following inquisition. Embarrassed more for himself than for me, my mentor slumped further in his front row seat with each passing minute as I dug a grave of incompetence. My furtive glances to him brought no support as he detached himself from my awful presentation as well as his poorly conceived plan for the patient. As the rabble clamored for my head, the senior resident in my group took pity on me to get me off the stage by accepting the responsibility of the debacle. The experience forever made me wary of allowing myself to be placed in awkward, unfamiliar situations. Ironically, I did it again thirty-five years later at the same university, only across the river in the foreign land of the humanities.

     The week long seminar's round-table format consisted of two or three critiques per day of twelve, including me, aspiring novelists' first captivating twenty pages of their unpublished work. A published author, a Masters Graduate of the U. of Iowa Writers Workshop, ably lead the discussion of the submissions, which were read by all the participants. Unlike the lone physician, me, the majority of the attendees were well read, insightful in a literary sense, and totally dedicated to their writing. Most of them were English Majors in College. My concerns started at the opening reception when I noticed that this seemed to be a different crowd than any medical conference I attended. It increased when I was asked in what "genre" my novel was. I had no clue. But then, what was I to expect? That was why they were there.  Maybe, and it probably was, I was the one who had the priorities screwed up. It was certainly a different crowd than the usual medical conference where the seriousness of the subject was left in the classroom.  Even there, the interactive intensity of it left no one dozing with their head on the desk. In fairness, everyone worked hard, made those constructive comments, and was tactful in their criticism.  Despite being friendly, they were difficult for me to read in conversations outside the classroom. Their self-absorption in their novels seemed to extend to their normal behavior. What surprised me most were their revelations of themselves in the novels. This was great material in itself.   

     Everyone around the table seemed to be a sensitive and responsible citizen. Their novels often reached for something else. But, then, we learned that the irony of good novel writing was to explore the normal and boring making it complex and interesting. That certainly was the case. The violent and chaotic worlds of forlorn relationships, sociopathic behaviors, and repulsive fantasy seeped out in their stories. Only one budding novelist gave hope to the human condition. Their beloved works seemed incongruous to the people who sat with me in our circle of discussion. Most described worlds with which they had, thankfully, no direct experience, yet provided insight into their personal axes to grind. 

     The oldest participant started out first. He sat there sternly in his John Deere hat and Marine Corp t-shirt while we discussed his novel about a young farm boy in the 60's, who, scorned by pretty girls in high school, runs off to the Marines to become tough and rough. On a two week leave three years later in Chicago, still a virgin, he obsesses on finally getting laid while displaying a frustration for a society that does not recognize his value. In the process the main character demeans women as untrustworthy sexual objects. Next, a bearded and round Classics professor, seated to my side, wrote about an all-knowing seer roaming about ancient Greece making fools of those who thought they were more intelligent than he.  At the start of our breaks, the professor would often start our conversations in reference to medical issues with "of course, I won't insult you by asking you if you read this or that novel." Of course, I hadn't.  Histrionic as hell displaying cleavage and tight pants each day, a displaced Toronto housewife currently living in the dull, safe suburbs of Des Moines Iowa presented a story about the destruction of two stepsisters by drugs and men in a squalid bus station in Toronto. She talked of returning to Toronto with her three children because they didn't have an understanding of the dangers of the undercurrents of society. Gee, and I thought Toronto was a nice city. The most insightful person, fastidious and height-challenged man, wrote of a vicious and cruel Spanish Pirate. The tall, bloodthirsty character towered over his enemies and crew, cut off their fingers, and fed them to the sharks as punishment. With hands as big as dinner plates, he raped woman until his "faucet" went dry. Others wrote of multiple partners, assaults, corporate greed, and a seduction of a priest. 

     When my day of reckoning came, I knew I was in trouble much like the day across the river in the Orthopedic Grand Rounds. My work was not up to the literary standards of the group or the leader. My novel, based on my youth and relationship with my father, had been written with as much inexperience as my knowledge as a third year medical student doing a first rotation on the wards. There were few positive words about my effort. I felt that my soul had been bared to be trampled on to submission by daring to work in the humanities rather than science.  

     After a day of reflection on what had happened, I realized that my literary “mugging” was much like the theme of my novel being that it is often not about you, but about them. Adversity can either build character or destroy it depending on how you let it affect you. On the final day of the workshop, our leader wrapped up his comments with a personal story to make this point. It concerned a successful English writer friend with whom he had attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. His name was pronounced Chasee with a hard "e." In a hurry to a book reading in New York, he stopped at a Barnes and Nobles for a copy of his book as he did not have one with him. He asked at the information counter where he could find a copy using his name. The man behind the counter informed him that the name was really pronounced Chasee with an "a." The author without telling him who he was corrected him. In a condescending manner, the man assured Mr. Chasee of the proper pronunciation. After the story, our most informed, condescending, and well-read participant stated, "that's so Barnes and Nobles." It was an amazing lack of her insight into her own conceit.         

     Both these medical and writing experiences taught me hard lessons in the art and craft of the professions. They also taught me more about myself. To excel in either requires a willingness to learn and to accept constructive criticism. Insight into your personal motivation and behavior coupled with knowledge of the subject will also lead to a more satisfactory result. Thus, despite my limitations, I continue to write…maybe not so great in a literary sense, but because I enjoy telling stories.

coming soon

"Adventures in Medicine"