The annual Literature + Medicine conference at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas is turning into one of my favorite small writers’ conferences. Despite the long, illustrious history of literary doctors, a familiarity with literature isn’t the first criteria that comes to my mind when choosing a doctor. But that’s something the conference’s director, cardiologist Dr. John F. Harper aims to change, with lectures from such award-winning writers as Abraham Varghese (Cutting for Stone), Tracy Kidder (Mountains Beyond Mountains and Strength in What Remains) and this year’s speaker, John M. Barry (Rising Tide and The Great Influenza). This year’s conference, the fourth, added a poetry lecture by physician/poet Rafael Campo (The Poetry of Healing).
Dr. Harper first combined literature and medicine in a course for medical residents intended to build communication skills. As the conference grew, he found medical personnel wanting to move beyond reading and discussion to writing, and a writing contest was added. The 2013 conference this month received more than seventy essays, short stories and poems. Writings of the contest winners are available online at www.texashealth.org/litmed/.
The most recent medical writing from 2013 speaker John M. Barry, The Great Influenza, “should be required reading for anyone who wants to go into medicine,” Harper said. “I think we take for granted some of the medical advances we have, the magnitude of this great pandemic, and the likelihood that it could happen again.”
Barry wryly admitted that as a teenager he was torn between a career in writing and a career as a clinician, finally deciding on writing after his parents shut down his early attempts at bacteriological experiments.
“What is the connection between literary understanding and medicine?” he asked the audience gathered in the Fogelson Forum of the Presbyterian Hospital. “It’s the methodology”--specifically, the testing of hypotheses.
“Every true writer shares one essential element with scientists--trying to express something that is true and important, that gets back to methodology.”
So what is Barry’s methodology as he begins tasks such as the seven year long writing of The Great Influenza? And why is it so applicable to writing in general, and to so many other aspects of life that I took notes the entire time he spoke?
“It starts by questioning yourself,” he said. “The first thing is, I try to remain aware, aware of my biases. This doesn’t turn my biases into strengths, but it can limit their dangers.”
As part of this self-awareness, he asks himself four major questions: what happened, that is, what exactly is being investigated; how it happened, or the mechanism; why it happened; and “the key to creativity and the key to imagination, the most important question--so what?”
The “so what?” question he finds so important he’s been known to post it in his writing space, for the help it provides in setting his priorities. I’ll add it to my list of questions to answer, even in writing fiction.
With those questions in mind, he investigates in what he terms vertical and horizontal dimensions--vertical for “diving deep into a subject” and horizontal for “looking for connections. As soon as you make the connections, it’s so obvious, nobody can figure out why they weren’t thought of before.”
And the advantage of the vertical dimension, the in depth dimension? “Sometimes you can make an observation that’s so brilliant it illuminated the world.”
For more about Barry, his writing, and his on-going interest in civic activism, see