Johanna Shapiro, Ph.D.
Physicians have always written, and some of them have written poetry (Chekhov, Keats, William Carlos Williams and Mikhail Bulgakov come to mind). In the 20th and 21st centuries, physician writing has proliferated, with many physicians recognized popular writers and many medical journals publishing personal narratives and poetry.
If, as narratologists assert, we are basically story-telling creatures, then we all exist, at least in part, to tell our own and others’ stories. As Tony Milsanek1 has said so well, “Physicians live inside other people’s stories.” And because these people are their patients, these are often stories of suffering.
In our more romantic moments, some of us may once have fantasized that words on paper might be beautiful enough or meaningful enough to somehow compensate for the horrors of suffering. I suspect that life has long since disabused us of that notion. Writing does not change suffering.
Yet physicians, nurses and other health professionals continue to write. Why? Sometimes writing about a difficult event is an act of healing or atonement. It is a way of facing a painful moment (perhaps a failure of judgment or an actual medical error), coming to terms with it, and finding a place for it so that one can, if not move on, move forward. Writing can also be an act of witnessing, testifying to the painful reality of an event. “This happened, do not forget.” For some, writing memorializes an especially cherished or annoying patient. Sometimes physician writers hope that writing will lead to action that will change oppressive systems, make things better, more just, less wrong. Sometimes indeed physicians do hope to create something beautiful or meaningful, to “balance out” so to speak the grim realities of their lives.
And sometimes doctors, like the rest of us, put words on paper because that is all they, and we, have.
1Commentary by Tony Miksanek, M.D., Seven Reasons Why Doctors Write – LIT MED MAGAZINE (nyu.edu);