Sunday, December 30, 2012

Why Doctors Should Write

Sharpening a quill.

I am a physician who writes and I think that more of my colleagues should do so. Not because, we are such skilled wordsmiths or understand plot and characterization. We don’t. But, we confront the human condition every day. We see pain and struggle and fear and rebirth. We have much to share.

Beyond my own profession, I think everyone should write, because everyone has something important to say and to share.

To paraphrase an old Pete Seeger song, where has all the writing gone? Long time past seen. I long for longhand. I plead for paper. I pine for a pen.

Sadly, there has been steady erosion in the craft of writing, which I attribute to the ’new & improved’ forms of communication that have supplanted the written word. In addition, folks don’t simply regard writing as a worthy pursuit. Writing today means tweeting, emailing, texting and various other keyboard or voice activated techniques. This progress, like many other technological advances, has exacted a cost that may be difficult to measure, but is real and it matters. Today’s communications are either robotic directives, such as ‘board meeting cancelled’, or ‘you’r e fired’, or are coded messages that require cryptographers to decipher, such as TTYL and C U L8R!

Writing is intimate. It’s real and it’s raw. It angers and soothes.

I am so struck when I read letters written by ordinary folks in the 18th and 19th centuries, many without any formal education, who write with such grace and poignancy. Yes, they were somewhat flowery, but they conveyed warmth and feelings that can never be transmitted on Twitter. That they were written in longhand, only adds to their authenticity and intimacy.

Today, on those rare occasions when I receive a signed note in longhand, it is a singular experience. I picture the writer at his desk, pen in hand, composing a personal message just for me. The writer might be delighting in the scene that will follow, when I am holding the envelope and imagining its contents. After I open the letter, I hold it in my hands and absorb its words. Afterwards, I can stash it in a drawer to join with other companions that I have received in the past. Unlike the ethereal iCloud, the desk drawer is a real, live treasure chest that I can see and touch.

Master writers from the past created their opuses in long hand and in ink. How did they do it and get it right? Today, this would be an unfathomable task. Today, students and the rest of us write and research in a very different way, cutting and pasting our way to the final draft. I recall as a high school student learning that Hemingway would tell his wife that when he was staring out the window, he was working.

I love words and respect those who use them well. When I am writing, I often wrestle to find the precise word. Is the right word stubborn or tenacious? Bossy or assertive? Timid or reserved?

While we physicians confront an enormous dose of life experiences every day, every one of us has something worth writing about. I’m sure that on any given day, we could send someone a note of love, a letter of apology, a prayer for healing or a description of an experience that moved us.

Why don’t we do this? IMHO, I think I know why.


  1. Keep writing, Dr. K. You have a strong voice that needs to be heard. Happy New Year to you and your blog

  2. Writing for me is much easier via computer keyboard w/internet references than by longhand. The writers of yore picked up stylus or pen & paper because they had no choice. Typewriters helped, but I'd hate to, hesitate to retype an entire page for a single word correction. Thinking before putting it down -- that's the clue... that's where you begin. Once begun the computer keeps track of my lousy spelling, and looking up facts is much easier in greater depth than paging through dictionaries and encyclopedias. I hated writing in longhand, not much better on the typewriter. With the computer, I love it.
    Dave Huffman, ex-MD
    Longview, WA

  3. Appreciate comments. Agree with you, Dave, that writing today is a different craft than it was during the days of the masters. When one doesn't have the cut & paste option, the writer must think carefully about every word, syllable and paragraph. Is the end product superior? Perhaps, not, but the path to the destination is entirely different.