These days, there are a lot of doctor writers. A handful have become household names. One or two dozen more have significant talent and impact, mostly in non-fiction but also in fiction and poetry. Hundreds – maybe thousands? – more write regularly for blogs and journals.
I’m not talking about scientific articles and analyses here. I’m talking about what a medical student in one of my classes once referred to as ‘real writing.’
She said this in a large room full of doctors and future doctors, some of whom were nationally and internationally known for their published research. No one protested. Instead, they nodded.
What that student meant, what we all understood, was that ‘real’ writing is defined by its artful use of language, ideas and stories. It’s a pleasure to read. You learn things and feel things, even if the topic isn’t one that you would have said interested you. The subject is secondary.
That’s the sort of writing that Oliver Sacks did, bringing interesting cases and doctoring itself to the general public through his prose. He was tirelessly interested in human beings, their afflictions and frailties. He watched them intently, and with his writing, invited us to do the same.
He also put himself on the page and in the story, something doctors are taught not to do in their notes and scientific articles. That was part of what made him novel, but his writing wouldn’t have endured – thrived – for so many decades if that were its only distinction.
Like Atul Gawande, who paid tribute to Sacks in the New Yorker recently, my first exposure to Sacks was as a medical student when a friend sent me The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.
But in many ways, his most recent and most personal writings are my favorites. In article after article, he used his distinctive brain – doctor, naturalist, writer and also foreigner, gay man, physician in non-standard medical settings – and his accumulated wisdom to enrich our own lives by commenting on his own old age and life and loves.
I met him in the modern sense – i.e. via media, not in person – after he published an op-ed on turning 80 in the New York Times and the NPR program On Point had him on. Clearly someone who didn’t know much about him thought the octogenarian might need help from a geriatrician doctor-writer colleague. He did not, though the tried to include me now and then. I was just happy to listen to him speak.
Oliver Sacks, of course, is one of the doctor-writer household names I mentioned above. And rightly so.