“I stare out of the window and reflect on the similarity between writing and saving a life…”Such is the observation of Miriam Toews’ latest delicious heroine, Yoli, as she sits vigil at the bedside of her brilliant and suicidal sister, Elf. This comment stopped me in my tracks. I am a family doctor by day, but I’ve been a writer for much longer. I went to medical school in part because I thought I would find myself doing all that saving lives business: setting broken bones, resuscitating car crash victims. Instead, what I find myself doing is a lot listening. People tell me their stories of fear, pain, mistakes, joys, ambitions. How surprised I was to learn that listening — which is also an entry into a tacit co-authorship. as every story is constructed through its recording and retelling — is a form of saving lives. How surprised I was to learn that others knew my secret
— Miriam Toews (All My Puny Sorrows; Knopf 2014, p. 107)
“… it turns out that writing, like any form of art, is an intervention.”Patients — even those who know I’m a writer — share deeply private information with me because they trust I will use it to help them. In more cases than I would like to admit, I can do very little in a concrete medical sense: I can’t take away the pancreatic tumour, or stop the multiple sclerosis, or provide certainty about a baby in intensive care, or predict how long a dying loved one has to live. But I’ve also come to know that most people need community as much as they need oxygen. Letting someone speak, bearing witness, and representing them accurately and with dignity, provides a kind of community. Stories people tell me during a medical encounter cannot leave the clinic or bedside or living room couch in any identifiable way, but a patient and I are co-writing as he works to shape his illness experience into a narrative, while I prompt him to fill in the holes, or to back up, to find the words.
— Sean Johnston (Listen All You Bullets; Gaspereau Press 2013, p.12)
“No words will make the slightest difference to the sky at night. They will not brighten it or make it less strange. And the day too has its own deep indifference to anything that is said.”I would lose my medical license if all I ever did was listen, without being doctorly by prescribing medications and following clinical guidelines. I don’t believe that just listening — the pun is intended; please don’t steal it, I may work on that — is sufficient in the face of illness, otherwise I would have remained a reporter and not bothered going to medical school. But I have also seen palpable relief in a person when her symptoms are simply named, or when I remember a small detail of her life. Other people’s writing has saved my life on any number of occasions: reading Robert Kroetsch and Virginia Woolf while lying in bed recovering from the pain and shock of a broken back, or reading Joanne Page and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Michael Ondaatje (and Miriam Toews) in the darkest of times when a voice in a book seemed the only way forward. And there have been times when I needed to write more than I needed food or water. Committing to a narrative requires an enlivening clarity; finding the right word can call possibility back to a drab and dreary day. Or year.
— Colm Toíbín (The Testament of Mary; McClelland & Stewart 2012; p. 87)
I’ll leave you to read Toews’ book to find out whether writing helps Yoli save her sister’s life. But I’ll tell you this much: we humans are storytellers, and illness is the story we tell about disease. When, as a doctor, I receive someone’s story, which is one stop along the way to writing, I meet her in her place of illness. Which, I have to believe, is one stop along the way to saving a life.