I was recently given a review copy of The Healing Art of Writing, Perspectives in Medical Humanities, Vol 1, 2011, University of California, Joan Baranow, Brian Dolan and David Watts, eds. Today I finished reading it and want to recommend it to you. This volume contains close to 100 different poems and essays by a group of writers, patients, nurses, and physicians who gathered for a weeklong medical humanities conference in the summer of 2010 at Dominican University in California. Suzanne Edison, who is a friend of mine and is a UW Poetry and Prose Rounds group member, has several excellent poems in the journal.(You can read some of her poetry at www.literarymama.com and www.washingtonpoets.org/owas) In addition, Sharon Dobie, a physician in Family Medicine here at the University of Washington was also a conference participant and has several poems and an essay in the journal.
What I especially like about The Healing Art of Writing is its freshness and its West Coast egalitarian, communal, almost-hot-tub-but-not-quite sensibility. It includes essays given as speeches by various California university professors, as well as writings by previously unpublished writers/patients/family members/care givers—mixed in with writings by established poets and authors. Some of what made my heart sing is that at least three nurses have their work included: 1) Rebecca Ashcroft’s Lullaby, about being a night-shift nurse by choice so she could be with her children while they were awake, is both hilarious and poignant; 2) Terry Pauser Wolf’s The Stories Remain, a sort of nursing coming of age essay is memorable; and, 3) Marilyn Morrisey’s Cycling, an excerpt from her memoir of her physician-husband’s decline and death from pancreatic cancer is well crafted. John Fox, a poetry therapist, has an essay Poetry, Community and the Flourishing (Healing) Heart in which he describes a poetry therapy session with patients and nurses at a hospital in New Jersey. Towards the end of the essay he writes, “This is the blessing of nurses and nursing, that is, attending to the matter and person at hand, even to themselves.” (p. 155). I like this, as it captures some of the essence of what is best about nursing and doesn’t stray into the nurse as angel nauseating category.
David Watt’s opening essay The Healing Art of Writing is an excellent and accessible overview of medical humanities/narrative medicine from the perspective of a physician. But the most powerful ‘almost academic’ essay for me was Empathy and Characterization by Louis B. Jones. In the essay he is mostly speaking of the importance of writing and reading—especially of fiction—to health and healing—to nurturing empathy for others and for our own selves. This especially struck me: “Consider the three or four books in your own life that shed a useful light on your existence. Those books—even if you’ve grown since then, and left them behind—were at least as important as certain bridges you may have crossed once.” (p. 76).
It didn’t take me long to come up with my ‘bridge’ books. Here are mine in chronological order starting from age 14 and ending a year ago: Par Lagerkvist’s the sibyl, Dervla Murphy’s Full Tilt: Ireland to India on a Bicycle, A.S. Byatt’s Possession. Jose Saramago’s All The Names, and Emile Zola’s Germinal. What are yours?