A little over a month left of my pat leave, my return to the wards is quickly approaching. Soon I’ll be back in clinic and at the hospital caring for others. This time with my family was wonderful, from seeing our son’s first steps to being present to celebrate two of our children’s birthdays next month.
Part of this vacation was also time for myself. Medical school with a growing family was a challenge, and meant I had to put aside some things I enjoy. As mentioned in previous posts I enjoy reading (1, 2, 3). Over the last ~6 months I’ve enjoyed reading/listening to many books in addition to my time with family and occasional writing. I have a long list of books in my queue, some I sought out, some given by friends, and some inherited. Going over my list I’ve finished 31 books and 5 graphic novels this year. Great to have time to read for pleasure and not rush through what I’m reading.
Letters from a Stoic – Seneca
The Pleasures of the Damned & Run with the Hunted- Charles Bukowski
My classmates moved on to residency at the beginning of July while I delayed my start to welcome a new addition to the family. Still three weeks until I start, feeling a bit anxious and know I’ll be rusty going back , but it will be alright (I haven’t been in clinic since November). With the waiting and driving I have enjoyed some reading after graduating in May and moving to a new city. I’ve mentioned my love of reading previously (1, 2) and with a baby not wanting to sleep an audiobook can help pass time in the night.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Gaiman
Post Office, Ham on Rye, Factotum, Women – Bukowski
The Emperor of All Maladies – Mukherjee
Being Mortal – Gwande
When Breathe Becomes Air – Kalanithi
The Sun Also Rises – Hemingway
A Picture of Dorian Gray – Wilde
Candide – Voltaire
I’ve mentioned my enjoyment of fountain pens before and how I make my notes by hand (link). This interest in pens led to a relative passing on an old Waterman lever filler pen that had seen better days. I took this on as a project and restored the pen. It was a fun distraction.
The first problem was getting the pen apart without breaking it. These pens use ink sacs, so I assumed the rubber had degraded and was stuck. That was right, but it became clear the pen was full of ink at the time it was stored, and that ink was everywhere.
After getting it open I carefully removed the old ink sac. The body of the pen, nib, feed and cap were caked with ink and needed a long soak. With the ink softened much of it could be wiped off, some such as the ink in the threads required the use of a toothbrush. It was fun to see the nib regain its shine as I worked on it. Finally, a new ink sac, some shellac, fresh ink, and it was ready to use. The nib is quite stiff and puts down a very fine line, so I have it loaded with red ink and use it for editing.
During the last 15 months of clinical training I have tried to keep a few of my hobbies going despite the busy schedule. It was a piece of advice I’m glad I took and I found it valuable in finding some balance. I read a variety of books and graphic novels in addition to listening to podcasts.
The Old Man and the Sea – Hemingway
Invitation to a Beheading – Nabokov
Philosophy of Medicine – Gifford
Good Omens – Pratchett & Gaiman
The Graveyard Book, Trigger Warning – Gaiman
Anathemas & Admirations, All Gall is Divided, The Trouble with Being Born – Cioran
Deschooling Society, Medical Nemesis – Illich
Great Science Fiction about Doctors – Conklin & Fabricant
A Contract with God, Life on Another Planet, Minor Miracles – Eisner
I had never held one before. It was a thoughtful gift from my wife, a fountain pen and a leather-bound journal to commemorate finishing my Master’s degree. It was a large black pen with bronze accents and a two-tone nib. I inked it and was hooked. Since that first day the pen has never been dry. The original journal sits on my shelf and another is half full. I’ve used the pen for notes, outlines, and more. The feeling of a fountain pen gliding across a page is unique.
Before the fountain pen I was an avid user of rollerball pens. I still use them on the go. Cheap, easy to start if you leave the cap off, and enjoyable to use. I’m a student that makes compressed notes and does so by hand. Over the years I moved to rollerballs since they required less pressure and thus cause less cramping. I still pick up a pack of Pilot G2s every once in a while. Fountain pens required even less pressure, however, they do need higher quality paper. There is something about writing or drawing the key points that aids in consolidation of my learning. Until recently my writing was primarily making compressed notes, to-do lists and journaling. I would think of interesting projects, but they would come and go, rarely captured on a page.
I had a few essays I was proud of in undergrad and high school, but all were rather standard fair. I started this blog late in my application cycle to medicine and initially it was more a collection of tips and experiences.
The move to more creative writing came in my first year of medical school. I became interested in the history of medicine after nearly fainting during placement of an intraosseous needle (link). I also had memorable interactions with patients and began to write capture their essence while preserving patient privacy. A change occurred following time in a rural family medicine clinic at the end of the year. We did week-long placements and at their conclusion had to present to the class about our experiences. My presentation came together as a set of short stories. These stories included: Pain in the Butt Friends about removing a pencil tip from a teenager’s buttock, Right Chart? about a pregnancy test nearly ordered on an 80 year-old gentleman, and The Crying Doctor (link) about priorities. Telling that final story people listened, it struck a chord. A few weeks later a medical narrative contest was closing and I decided to write the story down and share it.
In the spring of the same year I befriended a physician that previously led Western’s Medical Humanities program. I sent him an early draft of my story and he provided feedback along with encouraging me to continue writing. Over the last two years he has become something of a writing mentor. We speak regularly and his feedback on my work has been invaluable. This fall I am doing a month long elective with him.
That summer a friend recruited me to write on a knowledge translation blog. I had received positive feedback on my writing in high school and beyond, so I thought my skills were reasonable. I was wrong. Simply writing an introduction took numerous revisions and this helped me realize how underdeveloped I was as a writer. This prompted my reading of Keys to Great Writing and The Elements of Style as a means to begin improving my writing skills.
Over time I met others interested in the medical humanities and have enjoyed exploring their work. I’ve also found some success in publishing my pieces and continued to work on my craft. Writing and other projects have been great creative outlets throughout medical school.
It is our last summer and how we have each chosen to use it is interesting. Many moved from the classroom to research, others took on advocacy projects or work in other areas, a good deal of the class traveled (a few got married or had children too). I thought I would share one of the projects I put time into before we enter the clinics this fall.
Over the last year I have found some success writing, having had a few reflections and articles published. At the same time I see many issues with my writing and decided to find ways to improve. This project took the form of reading books on writing, reading ‘great’ novels and watching classic films.
This project actually started last summer when I read Keys to Great Writing and The Elements of Style. This summer I re-read both books along with a dozen other books on writing and made notes of key points from each. I learned a lot about fiction and non-fiction, story and scene structure, and the joys and difficulties of writing. I took the opportunity to absorb the thoughts of many people on the subject and in the future I’m sure their advice will crystallize and be drawn on in future writing projects.
Apart from the books on writing I also read a number of influential novels. These ranged from classic to modern. The Odyssey and Dead Souls (Part 1) are now two favorites; they were books that I saw on my Grandfather’s shelves many times, but never read until this summer. Catch-22 was great in small doses and I finally got through The Castle and then read The Trial by Kafka. Lots of ideas gleaned from my reading, not all of it pleasurable, but I’m glad I did it. Since I looked through lists of great books my queue is now longer than ever. Not sure when I will get the chance to cut it down with clerkship approaching and residency on the horizon.
I also realized I had not experienced many important films, ones that I often saw or heard referenced during my life. Thus, I watched ~40 movies this summer. When not with family or enjoying the weather I’ve watched films by Charlie Chaplin, Akira Kurosawa, Alfred Hitchcock and many more. The Bicycle Thieves, Cinema Paradiso and Dr. Strangelove were some of my favorites.
I have enjoyed experiencing and learning from these sources, though I know they are not exhaustive by any means. It was great to have the time to read and watch movies along with enjoy many other parts of life this summer.