When Doctors Write

When faced with the opportunity to read a book by someone who isn’t by profession a writer, I always go for the doctor. It is the rare book by the businessman or entertainer or politician that I thoroughly enjoy; and lawyer-writers may be the worst of the lot.

But doctors! Often, I love them. Arthur Conan Doyle was a marvel. Walker Percy was very good. Chekhov was phenomenal. (It was Chekhov from whom I learned where to “cut into” a story, the crucial point in the narrative arc where the writer begins to relate the tale.) And two men have just published non-fiction books that seem sure to enhance the literary reputation of doctors.

The first is Jerome Groopman’s How Doctors Think, which I was asked to blurb – we share a literary agent – and I happily agreed, since I love his writing for The New Yorker. Here’s the quote that Levitt and I supplied: “Jerome Groopman has written a unique, important, and wonderful book about a central paradox of modern life: even though diagnosing an illness is often as much art as science, we want our doctors to speak with scientific surety. Groopman gives a rationalist’s tour of the doctor’s thought processes – or lack thereof – and yet, unlike many rationalists, he never veers toward cynicism. You’ll never look at your own doctor in the same way again – for better or worse.” And I meant every word of it. It is not only Groopman’s intelligence, but also his humanity, that imbues this book with deep meaning.

The second book, Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, is by Atul Gawande, who also writes for The New Yorker. I haven’t read Better yet, but I loved his previous book, Complications, as well as some of Gawande’s New Yorker pieces that are incorporated into Better. (Particularly memorable were the articles on cystic fibrosis and on the origin of the Apgar test.) Gawande has important things to say about medicine and is a wonderful stylist; if I practiced medicine one-tenth as well as Gawande writes, I would seriously consider opening a little medical practice on the side.

So why do these doctors write so well, and so much better (to my mind, at least) than other non-writers? Perhaps there are elements of doctoring that lie in harmony with writing: peeling back the layers to get to the core of an issue; confronting the obvious but being willing to look beyond it; learning where to “cut in,” of course; and, more than anything, recognizing that this object before you – in one case a human body, in the other a manuscript – is on a certain level a miraculous object with the power to astound, and on another level is a complex, dynamic system which can (and must be) reduced to a schematic, laid out on paper or x-ray film.


frankenduf

Karl Jaspers was another good one- perhaps they all know how to dissect a text...

egretman

Because Harvard goes out of their way to specifically teach doctos how to write.

http://www.hno.harvard.edu/gazette/2001/12.13/14-writing.html

This has to be the answer

110phil

Perhaps doctors write so well because they are selected for medical school on the basis of how well their admissions essay is written?

Only half joking.

kah

"So why do these doctors write so well, and so much better (to my mind, at least) than other non-writers?"

Stephen, we don't know what goes on in your mind or why. That is a question that only you can answer.

tmitsss

Here are two books by Doctors I liked, perhaps not for everyone's taste.

How We Die: Reflections on Life's Final Chapter
by Sherwin B. Nuland

Includes a very interesting chapter on Alzheimer's its more than you think.

Why We Hurt: The Natural History of Pain
by Jr., Frank T. Vertosick
Ever heard of DREZ?

Vivek M.

Very, very impressive and (heh) incisive last paragraph. Thanks.

jjc

For a lawyer who writes well you should check out the blog at philalawyer.net, who I believe has a book coming out in the near future.

cherdt

William Carlos Williams, the poet, was also an M.D.

snubgodtoh

kah-I think the parentheses exclude the personal discloser from the question.

As to why many MDs write so well: there's gotta be some selection bias going on.

editorguy

Journalists and doctors tend to think modestly in terms of their own personal contribution to society, and consider the world at large to be a fascinating sea of untapped knowledge and possibility. Businessmen, entertainers, politicians and lawyers think modestly about the world at large and feel their own personal contributions to society are fascinating seas of untapped knowledge and possibility.

(And if you can't make a sweeping generalization in public every now and again, what's the point of blogging?)

frankenduf

editorguy calling doctors modest?- what planet do you live on?!

samrobb

"It is the rare book by the businessman or entertainer or politician that I thoroughly enjoy; and lawyer-writers may be the worst of the lot."

Doctors, because of their profession, are generally forced to be truthful. They may be abrasive, annoying, or suffer from other personality flaws... but a good doctor, of necessity, must be truthful with his clients, or (s)he won't be successful.

In contrast, businessmen, entertainers, politicians and lawyers all make their living by exploring (and exploiting) various shades of truth in one way or another. The most successful in these fields are those who are best able to manipulate public opinion, perception, and thoughts about the facts. These professionals are trained to enter into communications with a goal of persuading their audience in one way or another: "How do I get someone to buy/do/feel/think/believe this?"

Just a thought... and no insult intended to any businessmen, entertainers, politicians or lawyers :-)

Read more...

Mu Cow

I read a book not too long ago (unfortunately I don't remember the name) about classical music written by a surgeon. It was quite a good book for a layman as since the author was not a musician, he didn't get bogged down in music theory. It was obvious though that he had a preoccupation with the health and cause of death of the composers.

MoreCowbell

Is it really fair to call Doyle, Percy, and Chekhov doctors who decided to write books? They seem to me to be more accurately described as writers who took life detours as doctors.

A great number of writers were temporarily other things, but will always be remembered for their writing.

egretman

Doctors are as verbal as toads. Their science knowledge is minimal. Their knowlege of statistics is often non-existent. They are so isolated in med-school that they have rarely dated. They have no first hand knowlege of sex. They have no and I mean no social skills.

They get no respect. Dentists are much higher paid and, in the ultimate role reversal, are now more liked.

Worse, doctors are incapable of taking back control of their businesses from insurance companies that treat them like indentured serfs.

Did I forget anything?

rcentor

Most doctors are lousy writers. However, many doctors think deeply about humanity, health, decision making and philosophy. Our profession stimulates us to think deeply. Making life and death decisions has a great impact on many physicians. Our daily experience shapes our thought process.

Some physicians write well. When you find a physician who writes well and can expound on his or her experience, then the subject matter often will trump the subject matter of the other jobs.

Sit with physicians and raise this issues, and you will find passion and careful thought. I believe the thought process is the key. Those who have the writing skills have a great reservoir of experience from which to draw.

We probably learn more about the human experience than the great majority of non-physicians. Understanding the human experience allows those with writing skills to tell stories which affect their readers.

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ValJonesMD

I completely agree with Dr. Centor above (most doctors don't write well - but many think deeply - and the subject matter about which they write is very interesting). A casual review of hospital charts will reveal the quality of writing of the average physician! Still, in the hunt for great writers... I'd vote for asking nurses and other docs which ones write thorough, thoughtful notes. Great chart notes probably correlate well with creative writing ability.

b

Don't forget Somerset Maugham.
b

davelus

Mikhail Bulgakov was also a doctor.

Law

"Doctors are as verbal as toads. Their science knowledge is minimal. Their knowlege of statistics is often non-existent. They are so isolated in med-school that they have rarely dated. They have no first hand knowlege of sex. They have no and I mean no social skills.
They get no respect. Dentists are much higher paid and, in the ultimate role reversal, are now more liked.
Worse, doctors are incapable of taking back control of their businesses from insurance companies that treat them like indentured serfs.
Did I forget anything? "
— Posted by egretman

/\This is one of the most ignorant posts I've ever read.