Op-Ed: What I Didn’t Learn In Medical School: How To Become A Writer


This year, at 46, I finally published a book. People who don’t know me often ask me: “How? ‘Or’ What did you find the time to write it down? – as if I could confess that I was helped either by amphetamines or by private access to an additional dimension. But I like to point out that for most of my life what I’ve really made a career of has been being a no-writer.

Therefore, it is entirely plausible that my real expertise lies in how not write a book, and for potential writers, there are lessons hidden in this failure that are just as revealing as anything I managed to learn later.

I have always been driven to write. One version of the words “write my book” has been on my endless to-do lists for almost 30 years. I had some early successes – a play here, a new one there. But then, in my early twenties, I left my postgraduate studies in English to pursue a career in medicine. There is a long tradition of physician-writers – William Carlos Williams, Anton Chekhov, Abraham Verghese – and I thought I would join them soon.

For a few months at the start of my medical residency, I got up every morning at 6 a.m., with the intention – you guessed it – write my book. But the residency was a marathon of one hundred hour work weeks and one tragic case after another. Before long, I desperately needed that extra sleep, and the first few pages of this serious effort were left in a shoebox. They lay in this cardboard tomb for several years.

Soon I was in my thirties, with one child, then two, balancing my role as a 24 hour milk bar and trying to maintain a sense of my own identity. All the time i thought this is the year. This year I will write it. But somehow every day was just another X on the calendar, one more day I had managed to take care of my babies and be a doctor and fold cloth diapers. to help the environment, but I had failed to do what I really needed to do. Write my book.

When my second child was only a few months old, but before my third was born, I contacted a doctor who is also a writer. I didn’t know him well, but I had just finished his memoir and had the sudden, irrational, postpartum urge to open my heart to someone who could understand what I was carrying. I sent him a crude and fragile email. I told her I was crying for what I hadn’t been able to do in my life yet. I told her there was something I knew I had to do, but I had become so good at not do it that I didn’t know if I would do it again someday.

An hour later, his response landed in my inbox. He said he recognized the voice of a fellow writer. He said sometimes it was overwhelming trying to figure out where to start our life’s work. And then he gave me some simple advice that changed my life. Start small.

I told him the same thing that future writers often tell me today: I don’t want to start small! I wanted an agent! I wanted a book offer! I wanted an editor! What was the point of starting small? But in the weeks that followed, he helped me achieve something important. I wanted to be published in the Times before I had ended the weather. It took me seven years of graduate school to become a doctor. Why did I think becoming a serious writer would be any different?

His words that day brought reality to light. I was obsessed with a finished product – holding a book in my hand. But any great success starts with focusing on one small action every day and repeating it consistently. I needed to change my goal critically. It shouldn’t have been “write my book. It should have been: Write.

Ten years after this revelation, I wonder how I could have gotten through the pandemic without writing. It has become the way I metabolize my life, the way I intentionally sort it. Some days it’s as mundane and routine as taking out the trash. Other days it feels deep, epiphanic, a revelation.

Every now and then a friend or stranger reaches out to me in a voice I would know anywhere, just as another writer recognized in me. They say, “I’ve always wanted to write,” and the pain in their words makes me straighten up a bit, because I was there too once, carrying that same pain deep in my heart.

I always give them practical advice, things that got me across the finish line: don’t watch Netflix. Use the Freedom app to limit access to social media. Less is almost always more.

But my most important advice is also the most obvious, and yet it is the advice that all successful writers struggle to follow until one day we finally do. Start somewhere all over, each day, for any time increment, and keep on going. Sometimes it will hurt, because writing is an act of masochism.

But it’s also an act of faith – the faith that, at least every now and then, it will be a portal to another dimension, one that’s worth the wait 30 years.

Jillian Horton is a writer and physician. She is the author of “We Are All Perfectly Fine: A Memoir of Love, Medicine and Healing”.

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