I wonder what I am going to do with all these emotions
It was late. I was alone. Everyone in my family was in bed. I had that familiar mellow feeling after completing my accounts for the month.
The pile of poems seemed to be calling to me. Read me. Read me. The poems had been written by a patient of mine. Not just any patient. The person who had caused me the most worry in my decades of work as a family doctor in rural Australia. She had told me the poems described her journey with depression and that it was the writing process that had cured her depression. I was curious to know what role, if any, I may have played in her recovery. Whether my bearing witness to her suffering for the previous nine months had made any difference.
I flicked through the pile of poems. My gaze landed on a poem called And You. I wondered if I might be the You in And You. I wondered if I might be the hero of And You.
I was the You in And You. But not a hero. The poem described me as ignorant, stupid, naïve and cruel, comparing my care to that of a 17th century barber-surgeon. Reading the poem triggered feelings of rage and deep hurt.
It was late. I was alone. What to do with this sea of emotion?
In that dark moment, I had a thought which propelled me on my writer’s journey. If it was good enough for her to write a poem about me, maybe I could write a poem in response.
This was an unusual thought, as I hadn’t written anything since 4th Grade.
I picked up a pen. The words flowed. My emotions flowed. I felt better. Surprisingly better.
My journey had begun.
I wonder how I am going to make sense of my mother’s death
A few months later my mother died. Once again, I was filled with rage and hurt. Once again, I reached for the pen. Once again, the words flowed. And the emotions. Once again, I felt better after writing.
I tried writing after one of my long-term patients died. Once again, I felt better after writing.
Maybe I was onto something with this writing stuff.
I wonder if writing might help other doctors too
Part of my work as a country doctor was running workshops to prepare new doctors for a life in rural practice. I tried out some simple, reflective writing exercises during one of these workshops. The response was surprisingly positive.
I offered reflective writing workshops for a broader range of health professionals. These were also well received.
I began to receive invitations to present these workshops around Australia.
I wonder how a small-town rural doctor with no training in writing ended up running writing workshops at some of the most prestigious universities in USA and Canada
Harvard Medical School. University of Iowa, home of the internationally acclaimed Iowa Writers Workshop. Columbia University, the birthplace of Narrative Medicine. McGill University in Montreal. I received invitations to present my writing workshops at all these institutions. Harvard even endowed me with the title “Visiting Professor of Medicine and Humanities”. Which I thought of as some form of cosmic joke, because I am the least academic visiting professor I’ve ever met.
Despite my anxiety that I was going to be out of my depth, the workshops were well received. Perhaps it was my lack of academic dogma which made them fresher and more alive than the didactic presentations commonly on offer.
I wonder how I managed to get the first three pieces I wrote accepted for publication
Everyone speaks about the difficulties of being published as an unknown writer. Yet somehow, my first three submissions were all accepted.
The first was Witness, a piece about my mother’s death. It was raw and unfiltered. During my first visit to Iowa, I read Witness at the Examined Life conference. The final line elicited a collective groan from the audience, as if they had been punched in the gut. That could be really good or really bad, I thought. I hesitantly looked up. I saw tears. I felt compassion. I felt acceptance. The editor of The Examined Life journal asked if they could publish Witness in their next edition. It was the lead story. By some sort of miracle, I had become a published writer.
After having pieces about the death of a friend and death of a patient published, I entered the real world of a writer – years of living rejectedly! There were smatterings of acceptances to journals in USA and Australia. Enough encouragement to keep me going.
Most of my writing focused on the personal impact of working as a country doctor. My patients were growing older with me. Some were dying. Many were suffering. I witnessed all this. Writing pieces like Ignoring vital signs, A gentleman of science, I’m losing my patients, Remembering John, At least I’m not dying, Ode to my stethoscope and Last writes helped me find perspective. It eased my grief. But it didn’t cure it.
I wonder why I got PTSD
The right side of my face went numb in the middle of a challenging conversation with a long-term patient. I saw my doctor the following day after a visit to the emergency room and a barrage of scans. All the tests were normal. He told me I had PTSD. An accumulation of vicarious trauma after more than thirty years working as a country doctor.
Receiving this diagnosis was a shock – this can’t be happening to me, I’m a doctor, not a patient – and a gift – does this mean I get to rest now?
I was curious to find out why I got PTSD. I lived a balanced life, not working too much, doing all the things recommended to prevent burnout. And yet, here I was.
Was it my personality which put me more at risk? Or my family background as a descendent of grandparents who escaped Europe to find safety? Or as a migrant struggling to fit in?
I wonder if putting together a collection of my writing might help me answer the question of why I got PTSD
I had written many pieces about my life as a doctor. I had written a few pieces about my parents’ death and some exploring the little I knew of my grandparents’ lives based on photos which came into my custody after I became the oldest surviving member of my family. I had written a few light-hearted pieces about my exploits on the soccer field. The challenge was trying to figure out how to collate these into a meaningful body of work exploring my journey into PTSD.
On one of my pre-dawn walks over Lennox Point Headland, the answer to this challenge popped into my head. Why not structure the collection as if it were a medical record? It is a case history, after all. My own case history.
I wonder if I will be able to find someone to publish this collection as a book
Through a series of strange coincidences, I met Ben and Mish who ran a small author-assisted publishing business. I could pay them to do all the work required to transform my manuscripts into a book. Mish helped with editing. Ben arranged all the logistics of design, layout, proofreading, printing, uploading to online platforms.
I enjoyed the process. I tried not to be too precious with Mish’s suggestions for editorial changes. I had fun playing with design ideas.
My biggest challenge was writing the back-cover blurb. I spent hours in bookstores reading memoir back covers. I found them formulaic and uninspiring. I wanted mine to grab the potential reader.
On another walk over the headland, a solution appeared in my mind’s eye. Why not create the back cover in the form of a medical chart to match the structure of the book as a medical record? Being self-published gave me the freedom to pursue random ideas like this.
So, within four months of us starting work together, One Curious Doctor: A Memoir of Medicine, Migration and Mortality was born. A rapid delivery after a gestation period of nearly twenty years since picking up the pen after reading And You. Not the prolonged labor which is more common with traditional publishing.
I wonder why this self-published book has been so successful
Mish and Ben were able to help with the publishing process. Promoting the book was my job. I’m not very good with social media. Being an aging Baby Boomer, I do have a Facebook account, but Insta and the others are a mystery. I shared a few posts about One Curious Doctor on Facebook and sent an email to my contacts list.
The orders started flowing in. Soon followed by unsolicited positive feedback. And some reviews. Many readers spoke of how they had been deeply moved by reading One Curious Doctor. As a writer, making people cry makes me so happy.
Through my profile as an experienced medical educator, I was able to conjure opportunities to speak about One Curious Doctor at medical conferences. At each of these events, I sold all copies of the book I brought along. I wondered if being a good speaker sold more books than being a good writer.
I wonder what else I can do to share the love about One Curious Doctor
Using my contacts in the medical education community, I put myself forward as a panellist for a doctors-who-are-authors discussion session at an international doctor’s health conference. They kindly accepted my unsolicited pitch. I had a massive dose of imposter syndrome as I met with the other panellists – all well-known writers supported by traditional publishers. One of their publishers was also on the panel.
My sense of inferiority as a self-published author was moderated by my confidence as an engaging speaker. Being a successful writer does not guarantee being able to connect with an audience.
I was the final speaker for the session. Using a range of stories, photos and extracts from my book, I think I may have won over the audience. And the publisher on the panel.
I wonder if a publisher would ever want to take over a previously self-published book
This question was answered shortly after the doctors-who-are-authors discussion. The publisher approached me and asked if I could send her the manuscript of my book. A few weeks later, I got the email that every self-published author dreams of. “We love your wonderful book and would like to publish a revised updated edition.”
I wonder what it will be like to let go of total control and work with a traditional publisher
Not easy is the short answer to this question. For most of my professional life as both a doctor and educator, I’ve had autonomy in the way I approach my work. As a self-published author, I worked collaboratively with Mish and Ben but retained the final decision on issues where there was not consensus.
I have worked collaboratively with the team at Wakefield Press, but they make the final decisions on issues where there is not consensus. They have been gracious in listening to my suggestions and patient with my persistent pestering. I am learning that things move more slowly in the traditional publishing world, and that is okay.
Sales of the self-published edition of One Curious Doctor dropped off as I focused more on the new edition and less on promotion. The release of the Wakefield Press edition of One Curious Doctor will be around the same time that this piece is published. My hope is that this will once again boost sales, so that the love which has gone into creating the book by this one curious doctor can be shared with a wider audience.
I wonder what might happen next….
Stay tuned and follow the journey at hiltonkoppe.com