When doctors become writers

Several of my friends and acquaintances have, like me, exchanged a career in medicine for one in creative writing.

Some had to retire early from medicine because of illness or family circumstances. Some chose to leave the profession after becoming “burnt out” by the continual exposure to human suffering, the weight of responsibility for people’s lives and health, frustration with the administrative aspects, or the long hours. Others were simply driven by an overpowering desire to write. For me, after 30 years in medicine, the reasons were mixed.

Working as a doctor provides a wealth of material for fiction writing. Although the settings of my own three novellas are mainly non-medical, drugs and diseases play crucial roles in all their plots. The risks of breaching patients’ confidentiality, libelling professional colleagues or offending readers’ sensibilities must be kept in mind, and I am currently debating whether the satirical novel which I wrote while working as a junior doctor in a psychiatric hospital is too politically incorrect to publish.

Unlike such well-known figures as Somerset Maugham, Anton Chekhov and Arthur Conan Doyle, most “physician-writers” will never achieve fame and fortune as authors. They will usually experience a drop in income and status and, no longer having a structured work environment or daily interaction with colleagues, must become entirely self-motivated. Life coaching can help with adapting to the transitions and, in my experience, the freedom and stimulation of developing a new career in mid-life more than makes up for the losses.

Outside criticism, and self-criticism, may suggest that those who choose this path are no longer making a worthwhile contribution to society. This is only partly valid, for the written word can have marked effects for better or worse on people’s well-being. I am always delighted if someone tells me they have benefited from one of my medical books or enjoyed one of my novels. But while doctors have direct contact with their patients and are usually able to tell whether their treatments have healed or harmed, writers do not meet the majority of their readers and will never know the wider impact of their books.



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