by Rene Allen
During the years I was involved in a medical practice, I wondered what the qualities of a good physician were. The implication was that if I knew what a “good physician” was, I could adopt those same qualities and I too, would be a good physician. I dutifully noted what I saw and liked in this doctor or that one, and worked them into a kind of collage of traits that I put on like my white lab coat.
The funny thing about all of this is that every doctor thinks he or she is a good doctor. Sir William Osler, a great teacher and physician from a hundred years ago, speaking to a graduating class of medical students, said
Curious, odd compounds are these fellow-creatures, at whose
mercy you will be; full of fads and eccentricities, of whims and
fancies; but the more closely we study their little foibles of one
sort and another in the inner life which we see, the more surely
is the conviction borne in upon us of the likeness of their weaknesses
to our own. The similarity would be intolerable if a happy egotism did not often render us forgetful of it.
It is that same, happy egotism that permits us to write. The idea that I have something worthwhile to say, to commit to the written page and therefore to a form of permanence comes from knowledge that my experience is unique, that my thoughts and observations are skewed by who I am, and that frankly, they are not insignificant.
Sometimes, during a day in the office seeing patients, I would have pangs of identification – that oh, boy, that could be me on the examination table, but fortunately, it isn’t: that I, too, am subject to ordinariness, to illness, to being just like everyone else in mortal vulnerability. In practicing medicine, that wasn’t a useful paradigm and I had to learn to move on, to put on again the physician’s egotistic shell of knowledge and skill.
Likewise, I believe with writing the death knell to forward motion on the keyboard and a growing manuscript is the thought that what I’m writing has no merit, that it is mundane, like everything else out there and therefore of no worth. This is not a helpful thought.
The problem is that at times, however, either perspective is bound to be true. Sometimes, just ask me, my writing is so wonderful it could make stars dance. At others, well, to quote Mark Twain in Tom Sawyer, perhaps the best thing to do is draw the sweet curtain of compassion over this scene.
The truth is that neither point of view is going to get the job done, but probably the most helpful perspective is the one that reminds you that you can do it. You have worked to acquire skills. You have learned how to spell and where to put commas, how to construct a paragraph, how to write a cunningly successful hook and how to describe a beach in Malibu. And whizzing through all that wonderful gray and white matter in your brain are circuits of memory and invention and putting them together creates stuff – a little raw and unprocessed, perhaps, but nonetheless unique and charming and worthy to decorate a page.
If it takes a few mind games to confront the blank page with your own witty observations and win, what is wrong with a dose of Osler’s happy egotism?
I have decided to make it real, to see it as I would my white lab coat which, whenever I put it on, means I am really good at this writing business.
But I don’t have to wear it all the time. That’s the key. Sometimes, I can take it off, take a deep breath, give my fingers a rest and just be ordinary.