Tag Archives: Creative Writing

My Book Will Be Published

Good News: I’ve had a book accepted! The title likely will be Carrying the Black Bag: A Doctor’s Story. My editor currently has me rewriting four of the eighteen parts of the book, a task that has lately consumed much time. Nevertheless, my editor was spot on and the book will be better for the effort.

My book will come out next fall. It will tell of my life as a doctor and of especially memorable patients who demonstrated unusual courage, humor, and bravery in the face of sometimes life threatening illnesses. The stories are inspirational and useful for anyone who knows someone with a serious illness or who will someday develop a serious illness. Well, that is just about everyone, I suppose. I also hope it will speak to health care professionals about our very special roles in caring for others.

The patient stories I tell were so important to me that I spent years writing, rewriting, editing, and reediting them. In most instances I am the last person standing who can relate these often poignant stories about special people who trusted me not only with their medical care, but also with their private thoughts.

In all likelihood I will divide this blog into two parts: book related and ranch (retirement) related. I am thinking about adding a second category of Views From the Black Bag to parallel Views From Medicine Spirit Ranch. What do you think? Please let me know.

I plan to share in upcoming posts my long process of unlearning scientific writing skills and learning popular writing skills. This has been tougher to do than I ever imagined. It’s as tough as trying to get rid of belly fat. And it’s not just all about losing the jargon either.

I will keep you posted as to the process and progress of this exciting writing venture.

My Writing Process

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One frequently asked question  readers have since publishing Carrying The Black Bag is about my writing process and any efforts utilized to foster creativity. I’ve decided to add some thoughts here on my blog to answer my readers more fully:

Yes, some authors do goofy things to stimulate their creativity. i’ve known some and read about others. The superstitious may choose to sit only in a specific chair or drink only one brand of tea. Others play up-tempo music or stirring classical works. Admittedly, I’ve been known to don a cap (my Greek fisherman’s cap’s my favorite) to prime the creative juices. But the goal for each author, no matter what the idiosyncrasy, is to achieve a creative fervor whereby the characters take command of the story and  fingers simply race to keep pace with surging thoughts.

For me I appreciate sitting before my word processor with a clear mind, a comfortable chair, and an exciting idea. I usually outline the story before beginning it. This isn’t an absolute but generally I find outlining helpful. I try and determine what the chapter requires for plot or subplot and then with trepidation shove off into the unknown.

Nothing inspires fear more in writers than a blank page or screen. Once immersed in the story, my pace inevitably picks up. Usually after the first draft I simply hate it. I often think what I have written is not fit for bathroom walls. It is not until  many more drafts later that I begin to like it even a little bit.  I then put it “in the can” for awhile. Usually after a week or so, I am able to spot additional flaws and weaknesses. I then adjust the story, much like adjusting a recipe to taste, substituting stronger verbs, adding apt similes/metaphors, and creating further descriptions.

The next stop for me on this literary journey is my writing group. Our group of five writers has met for many years and by now has developed a sense of trust. While we possess vastly different styles and genres, the feedback never fails to benefit my story. Soon thereafter I make the additional changes. After a final read through with minor edits I may write THE END. If the writing project is particularly important I may ask a beta reader for his/her thoughts. These are extremely valuable folks who must like your writing and be anxious to share their precious skills.

The question among writers that repeatedly comes up is whether the spouse should act as an informal editor or serve as an alpha reader. The usual response and one to which I hardily agree is NO, absolutely NOT! Having said that, almost every author I know or have read about uses (abuses) their spouse in this way, so long as he/she is halfway literate. I fully recognize this marital extortion is totally unfair to my spouse. In general the writer’s wife or husband feels torn between being supportive and being honest. To this I say, “tough.” No one ever said marriage would be easy!

So yes, Trudy regularly reads my stories. I ask her to do this when I am simply written out or else in need of a fresh eye. She also is good at word choice and grammar. Sorry Trudy. Such editorial services I’m sure must have been hidden in the fine print of the marriage contract.

My inspiration often springs from my surroundings and experiences. I love to tell stories. I love to watch people and animals and try to figure out what makes them do what they do. I love seeing people in extraordinary circumstances do extraordinary acts (this is the watermark underneath my patient stories  in Carrying The Black Bag). These stories show real people demonstrating courage and perseverance that, in some instances, they never knew they possessed. They tell us something good about the nature of our humanity.

Animal behavior also strikes me as overlooked for the substantial insights it provides for human behavior. I love animals. Maybe that is why in college I majored in Zoology. It wasn’t simply because it was a good Pre-Med major, and Chemistry, the other option, held for me no allure.

Much has been written on the creative process. I’m convinced creativity steals into the picture and cannot be forced. When it hits me, it does so unexpectedly much like a pigeon dropping. A rested mind, a beautiful scene, and a tickling of intellectual stimulation all enhance my potential for creativity.

Since the writing process per se is language-based, it is is strongly left brain. However, sudden insights like solving a problem or flashes of intuition come from the right brain. This  ability to perceive a solution requiring synthesis is right hemispheric and cannot be arrived at verbally. To write well, both sides of the brain need to work together. To paraphrase and alter the old Greek saying, we need a strong left hemisphere and a strong right hemisphere. That is, the brain must process verbal material, but also be able to discern some broader interpretation in order to tell a good story.

I believe this to be true, and try to put this into practice. And now so much for superstition or goofy acts. Now where was it I laid my Greek fisherman’s hat.

Thoughts On Love

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about love. And when I say this, I mean with its many facets. Strangely this began when our daughter Katie and her dog Olive visited last weekend. Olive does not appear as your typical dog. Olive looks like a dog put together by a committee. As best we can determine, she has German shepherd and either Corgi or Basset hound in her background. Olive is a very sweet and a good natured dog but one that elicits gasps and startled comments, such as “Oh my gosh, what is it?”

Olive has the face and head of a German shepherd but possesses a low slung body with front paws that angle outward at nearly 45 degrees. Now how exactly a German shepherd and a short-statured hound got together, I don’t know. My guess is the German shepherd mother got drunk one Saturday night and fell into a ditch- then along came Daddy.

Katie and Olive

Katie and Olive

Another reason for my recent fixation on love is that I have been reviewing chapters from my unpublished nonfiction book (tentatively entitled The Man Who Played Pinochle With Dogs). One chapter describes an elderly lady with a massive stroke who EMS brought to our emergency room. Initially we didn’t even know her name but determined from the CT-scan that the brain hemorrhage  gave her a very low chance of survival. The  woman physically was in very poor shape and not much to look at. Her hair was stringy and yellowish, finger nails grimy, skin fissured and aged, and she looked malnourished. I must admit at that point, we looked at her more as an old lady with failing physiology and decrepit body than as an individual with particular wants and loves. In our defense we had nothing else to go on.

The next day Ned, her octogenarian husband, with mincing steps walked into our medical intensive care unit and filled us in on her background. Ned not only gave us factual information about her health, but also absolutely changed the way we thought about this woman. We learned that both husband and wife had spent their lives as migrant workers. The had met as children at the end of a long cotton row and later started a common law marriage. Neither could have been described as anything but common in appearance. They had little in the way of worldly possessions and possessed little education. They had no children that might have cemented their relationship. Despite this  rocky foundation on which to build a relationship, their love had thrived.

It soon became clear to us just how much in love they had been. They never had been apart in all their years together. They worked hard, looked out for one another, and moved about together following the crops. The husband was absolutely devoted to his wife, a woman in the story whom I refer to as Maggie.

Whether it was Olive’s speculated upon parents or this pair of octogenarians, love always seems to play a central role for all of us in our lives. Whether it was simple lust as I suspect with Olive’s parents or a deeper, longer, and more meaningful love as with my memorable couple that love provides tremendous importance for our lives.

As I review my medical stories, how often I find an underlying theme about some aspect of love. It enters in the form of caregiver sacrifice, spousal love, love of a parent for a child, or love among unlikely and inherently unlovable people. Love often becomes the engine of transformation in my creative nonfiction stories. The stories also underscore the affection doctors and nurses develop for the people they care for.

Medicine is a calling like no other. I am fortunate to have experienced not only an education in medicine but having medicine provide for me a greater understanding of human nature, human strivings, and human fallibilities. Thank you Maggie, thank you Ned for helping me to understand a bit more about love.

On Creative Writing

Writing is hard. I have drawn this conclusion after working for 10 years, attempting to leave scientific writing behind and redirecting my efforts for a popular audience.

My agent has by now sent my nonfiction memoir of patient stories out for a second pass. While I felt I had a distinguished career in Neurology and won more than my share of accolades from various professional societies, State of Texas, and peers apparently this counts for less than a single appearance on Dr. Oz. Well at least that is what my agent suggested. Oh well… We will see.

In response to the need for a larger “platform” I will enter more writing contests. I reworked a story recently and sent it off to the Bellevue Literary Review Contest. I hope to enter several more over the next months. The cost is small but even if a person wins, no one is going to get rich writing for contests. Hopefully if I hit on something, it will enlarge my platform and improve my chances of getting the NF book in print. Meanwhile I will continue to play around with a novel- the first chapter of which was posted on this blog several days ago. I appreciate the feedback and encouragement I received on this.

While writing is hard, it also is an obsession. To develop characters, establish a plot, and say things in non-cliched ways is a challenge. It is nevertheless fun or else I wouldn’t do it.