Taking Part-Time Writers Seriously Part III

by Jacob M. Appel

It is also essential to emphasize that, much as a writer can draw upon one’s “day job” for inspiration, creative writing can also enhance a writer’s work in her other primary discipline.

I am a better physician because I write short stories. I can hear a patient describe his symptoms, often haphazardly, and then impose a linear framework onto his disjointed collection of assorted ills. The Narrative Medicine movement, pioneered by Rachael Naomi Remen and Rita Charon two decades ago, has increasingly converted medical professionals to the unorthodox belief that understanding storytelling is a crucial component of effective clinical care. Trisha Greenhalgh’s now famous article, “Narrative Based Medicine in an Evidence Based World,” sums up the benefits of understanding narrative far better than I can:

Appreciating the narrative nature of illness experience and the intuitive and subjective aspects of clinical method does not require us to reject the principles of evidence based medicine….Far from obviating the need for subjectivity in the clinical encounter, genuine evidence based practice actually presupposes an interpretive paradigm in which the patient experiences illness in a unique and contextual way. Furthermore, it is only within such an interpretive paradigm that a clinician can meaningfully draw on all aspects of evidence—his or her own case based experience, the patient’s individual and cultural perspectives, and the results of rigorous clinical research trials and observational studies—to reach an integrated clinical judgment.

So I am not alone in believing that creative writing makes better physicians, a well-studied subject largely beyond the scope of this essay. What I would like to emphasize here, however, is that the benefits of writing are not confined to a handful of ‘learned’ professions like medicine and law.

I once gave a reading where the other reader worked days as an auditor for the IRS. Over our post-performance drink, I proffered the offhand remark that her job and her writing used “different parts of the brain.” To my surprise, my companion explained that writing her novel had made her into a significantly more effective tax agent. “I spend more time thinking about people and why they say what they say,” she told me. “I know this may sound strange, but now it’s easier for me to tell when people are lying to me.”

The Ancient Israelites demanded that their rabbinic sages, or Tannaim, earn their livings through non-sacred work. Rabbi Joshua was a blacksmith and needle-maker. Rabbi Yochanan cobbled shoes. Shammai, one of the fathers of the Talmudic mishnah, labored as a bricklayer. These men held day jobs, when they easily might have acquired greater wealth by charging for their teaching, because they did not wish to sully or debase their scholarship by receiving compensation for it. At the same time, I cannot help believing that these men became great scholars, at least in part, because they knew the toil and sweat of an honest day’s labor.

How can one preach to the world, I have always wondered of today’s clergy, if one is not of the world? Likewise, how can one describe the world if one does not live in it? An Ivy League teaching gig may give a writer more time to write. But one day with me in the insane asylum offers far more to write about, as far as I am concerned, than ten thousand years cloistered on an elm-shaded New England campus. This is not jealousy speaking. I have taught on any Ivy League campus—and I confess, I rather enjoyed the experience. But the literary public can tolerate only so many tales of Ivy League college professors sinking under the weight of their own angst. Occasionally, they would like to hear about the triumphs of a blacksmith or a cobbler or a scholarly bricklayer.

I have taught introductory fiction to over five hundred students in my nearly fifteen year long career as a writing instructor. These include two Protestant ministers, two rabbis, one nun, one Polish priest, a retired judge, a pensioned naval officer, an airplane pilot, a professional stripper, a paroled burglar, several self-proclaimed drug dealers, two dozen physicians of various specialties, a veterinarian, a concert flautist, more than fifty lawyers, a carpenter, a great-grandmother, a handful of nurses, and far too many new journalists, web designers, financial analysts, stockbrokers, high school teachers, homemakers and unemployed college graduates to enumerate.

Many of them displayed considerable talent and serious commitment to writing. They did not view their hours crafting stories as manifestations of a hobby. Often, in fact, their greatest challenge as aspiring authors has not been generating ideas or polishing prose, but dealing with the co-workers and relatives and even prior writing teachers who have treated their creative work as the products of a mere hobby enthusiasts. Yet these men and women, who write part-time, are no more writing “for fun” than Rabbi Joshua studied Talmud “for fun.”

Many Tuesday nights, after leading my writing workshop, I return to the hospital around 10:30 pm to finish up my medical paperwork or even to meet with patients. Sometimes, if inspired by the creative maelstrom of my class, I sit at the nurses’ station and generate stories of my own. I wonder if the doctors and nurses at the other work stations suspect what I am doing.

And I wonder if they are doing the same—writing stories about their long days treating the mentally ill, trying to create coherence out of madness. This is the is the future of creative writing, I believe: Not a handful of “trained professionals” churning out prose like Dahl’s Great Automatic Grammatizator, but millions of ordinary people, scribbling their secrets behind pharmacy counters and in firehouses and at interstate truck stops, trying to capture the magic of an infinitely diverse and ever-changing world.

Read Part I and Part II.

This article originally appeared in The Writer magazine.