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Letter to a new doctor friend who wants to write the story of his life

by Frank on March 10th, 2013

You’ve got a fascinating and moving life story, John. An amazing arc. I can imagine a movie. An old story-writing technique I learned long ago and try to put into practice is this: focus intently on one relatively small but telling segment and refer obliquely to the “back story,” letting the reader fill in the blanks. Readers want granularity and close-ups so they can draw their own lessons. What we remember from “War and Peace” are the battle scenes, not Tolstoy’s philosophy of history, as interesting as it might be. It’s like the difference between a panoramic photograph of the Himalayas versus a close up of the climber clinging to a near-vertical rock wall, so close you can see his fingers gripping the rock and his toes bent on a narrow foothold, where you can touch in your mind the unforgiving ancient texture of the rock and see snow trapped in little crevasses, a profile of the climber’s face, grim and exhausted. Only at the edge of the frame do you glimpse sky and a snow-covered peak soaring up in the forbidding distance. Which picture really tells you what mountains are like on the human level? That’s the trick for writing something that sticks.

My life has been interesting in its own way, but less emotionally dramatic than yours by a long shot. Raised in lower middle class Rochester, NY, slipping into near poverty a few times because my dad had no talent for keeping jobs, joined the Army right out of high school in 1968 and went to flight school, turned twenty as a warrant officer huey pilot in Vietnam, discovered I had more brains and capability than I’d given myself credit for, grew up fast and by a gift of fate I still don’t understand I glomped onto medicine as a goal to aim for, as a life that would be challenging, secure and allow my shy self to walk freely in the social world cloaked in the robes of a healer. But I had a strong love of books and a knack for writing poetry and stories and as I moved through college at Chapel Hill and then med school back in Rochester, my hero was WC Williams the great doctor-poet. Also fell into an easy truce with emergency medicine, grandfathered into the boards and while I was working in Asheville NC, I picked up an MFA in writing too. Came back to Rochester, joined the EM faculty, helped start their residency and then broke away to start a community ED group, where I’m still working, and have been writing quite a bit all the while since, a couple non-fiction books, a collection of poetry and stories, and a bunch of novels that gradually got better and better until one was worth publishing (that’s Final Mercy), and I’ve been working on a sequel now for the past couple of years. They’re a hell of a long slog, I’ll tell you, at least in my hands. Many many stages. Think of a big outcropping of marble on the wall of a quarry becoming a statue. Or a tangled pile of stones and fresh cut timber becoming a castle.

I’ve also for the past fifteen years been doing a twice yearly run of creative writing seminars for medical students through the Univ of Rochester’s division of medical humanities and it’s fun beyond measure. Married to my 3rd wife for almost 25 years now and we’ve got all combined six kids at varying stages of maturity and soul-searching. Empty nested up to a quiet little place on an weather exposed shore of Lake Ontario where the water crashes and goes quiet and lovely in turns and is a fine companion for your thoughts.

In any case, I can tell you need to get your story out. Take it in small steps, discover what you really want to say along the way, and trust you’ll get there. Find the universe in a grain of sand.

Best,

Frank

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