Diagnosis: Storyteller

Had my life been a movie a few months ago, this might have been the logline:

When a teenager has a life-threatening bicycle accident, his parents–a retired family physician and an inhumanly patient engineer–must persuade an overburdened health-care system to act before it’s too late.

Note to any  Hollywood agents drooling over this premise: Clive Owen would be ideal for the ToolMaster’s role, and Scarlett Johansson would be a shoe-in for me.

Fortunately, our family drama had a happy ending, and so it came to pass that two days into our adventure, my writer-brain kicked back into gear.

Peeps, I’ve been in the medical world and in the writing culture, but never both at the same time and never at such a personal level. I felt pummeled with insights about the confluence of story and health. I’m passing these on in the hope they will give you a different and empowering way to look at your fiction. #6 is particularly pragmatic.

The lessons:

1. When you present for medical help, there’s a diagnostic cage match going on in the minds of your health-care team. The process resembles critique.

Much of what they do—the interview, the exam, the tests—is about selecting the most plausible storyline for your illness.

Which theory best incorporates your backstory and the inciting incident? What is the inciting incident, anyway? When you’ve had health-care issues in the past, have they fallen in a particular “genre”? In a matter of speaking, are you staying consistent with your brand?

2. It tends to be easier on everyone if your diagnosis is confined to one “genre.”

When events unfold according to a pattern, the predictability confers a comforting sense of control. Even if your illness ends in tragedy—especially if people know it will be a tragedy—they’ll work to provide a conclusion with resonance and meaning.

Mix too many genres into the story of an illness, and no one knows what to anticipate. It’s unsettling and can lead to a sense of betrayal, particularly if the ending doesn’t match the beginning’s optimistic promise.

Therefore, if you’re dealing with a complicated illness, be prepared to work harder to keep everyone on the same page.

3. We adopt different stories of self according to the person darkening the hospital room’s doorway, so choose your companions well. The change can be almost instantaneous.

For example, my son was variously:

  • a heart-monitored, sleep-deprived, IV-hydrated bag of meat;
  • a video-game player who could pwn his BFF’s butt; and
  • a crafty situation-milker, who extracted promises of junk food when his parents were emotionally vulnerable.

4. Treat people well. Your character and relationships can determine which stories you get to articulate and who will be listening.

In the ambulance and for some time after, I could tell there were three stories being weighed by the medical personnel:

  1. Frank’s symptoms had a benign cause. We were a family of worriers.
  2. Frank’s symptoms were being purposefully magnified. We were overindulgent parents being suckered by a malingering child.
  3. There was something seriously wrong.

If you ask me, version #3 was losing until the third doctor came into the picture. What made the difference with him? Ten years ago, for a period of weeks, he’d been my student. Though I barely recall our contact, it was enough for him to view the data with fresh eyes and order the necessary tests.

(They were going to get there eventually, even if I’d needed to be a little…persuasive. Still, I’d rather give people a chance to do the right thing than get all up in their faces, yo.)

5. Print remains a relevant medium.

In the pediatric ward, the kids I saw weren’t snuggling up to iPads or Kindles.

When I slept in the adults’ library, I was roused repeatedly when people came to gather books for a loved one. They’d stack them ten-deep and return to the wards.

I had my e-reader with me, but when my son needed me at a moment’s notice, it was easier to toss a paper book down than worry about issues like safety or battery life.

6. If you are lost, losing energy, or forgetting the purpose of your story, find your way back by thinking of your ideal reader.

Visualize her in an imaginary hospital room, perhaps emerging from the bathroom, leaning on the IV pole for balance. For the purpose of this exercise, we don’t need to make things too realistic, so let’s pretend her hospital gown has all its ties. When she reaches the bed and turns her back to you for a moment, her heinie’s not hanging out for inspection.

Now she’s reclining against the pillows, and the covers are in place. Is she pale? Are her features drawn with pain? Is she scratching?

Imagine her reaching for your—what? Is it a book, a short story in a magazine, a collection of manga?

See her paging through it.

If you could make things better for her right now, what would that look like? What would be her ideal reaction?

Do you offer diversion through suspense, so she’s sinking down into the bed by a few inches, her eyes going round as they track across the page?

Is she popping her stitches from laughter and pointing to a passage, eager to show the nurse what you wrote? Will she go back for more after the next dose of Morphine?

Perhaps you write gritty realism and you’ll help her find meaning in her suffering. Maybe you’ve made an ardent case for reconciliation, and she’ll stretch out trembling fingers, finally make that phone call.

What would make it count? What would make your story relevant? What would fill you with purpose?

Write it down.

Notice that, in this moment, you probably don’t care about where your book is shelved in the store, or that your genre isn’t prestigious. (Or that it is, but your work isn’t selling “enough.”) In the hospital room, it doesn’t matter.

Remember, if you get lost again, you can bring it all back to this one person facing this one challenge. You can do this any time.

Now go. Be a writer.

Be a helmet-wearing, judiciously-exercising, health-seeking mo-fo while you’re at it, but be a writer. Don’t delay.

If you’ve had a real-life crisis, what did you learn about the role and importance of story?

PS: “Frank” is on his way to a full recovery, but his abdominal bleeding, sustained when he fell on a handlebar at low velocity, could happen to anybody. In fact, his pediatric surgeon saw six similar injuries last month. Want to be prepared? Here’s a post with tips on signs and symptoms.


About Jan O'Hara

Jan O'Hara left her writing dreams behind for years to practice family medicine, but has found her way back to the world of fiction. Currently the voice of the Unpublished Writer here at Writer Unboxed, she hopes one day soon to become unqualified for the position.


  1. says

    What an interesting analogy. Real-life medical events have all the elements of fiction. We can draw many lessons from our own experiences in hospitals. I’m so glad the outcome for your son was positive. Great post, Jan. Thanks for sharing what must have been a painful experience.

    • says

      I’m a little startled and appalled at how quickly I forget the traumatic moments, CG. One day I’m worried about disability, the next, about who left out the peanut butter.

      Such is life.

    • says

      Indeed they do! Probably why so many medical dramas are successful on TV, actually. But I never thought about real life medical events in quite this way — thanks for the new perspective, Jan!

      And I’m so glad your son is doing better now.

  2. says

    First and foremost, thank God Frank is on his way to recovery. So sorry you all had to go through such a tramatic experience. But I’m glad you were able to pull some great lessons from it, and that you’re sharing them.

    I recall the days in the hospital in another city when a loved one was on life support. The prognosis wasn’t good, but there was no way we were going to be pulled away. I finished the book I brought and someone handed me ‘Round Ireland with a Fridge, by Tony Hawks. That little comedy may have saved a portion of my sanity (as you know, Jan, there’s precious little to be saved, so this was very important).

    I absolutely adore #6. Thanks for starting my week with that wise bit of perspective! (Oh, and thanks for the gown ties for the image.)

    • says

      What is it about the Irish and fridges? Have you read Roddy Doyle’s “The Giggler Treatment”? It has a chapter named, literally, Chapter: Fridge.

      I will check out this sanity-saving-book of which you speak. It must be aMAzing. ;)

  3. says

    I am so happy that everything turned out well. Uplifting endings are always a good idea after a lot of dramatic tension.

    This post is FANTASTIC! You are brilliant. I love how you tied all of this to writing.

  4. thea says

    Thank God sonny is okay, now. I’ve had some bleeding incidents requiring ER status, but nothing like yours. But great advice. Thanks, Jan. t

  5. Jessica Messinger says

    First, I’m glad your son is on the mend!
    Thank you for #1 and #2. I’m going to write some things down now!
    #6 Yes, please, let’s keep the ties tied! I wish we had more fiction where all the ties are tied, the zippers remain zipped, and buttons stay buttoned. If they must be untied, unzipped or unbuttoned because the story demands it, does there have to be so much gory detail? Our readers do have an imagination after all.

    • says

      Jessica, there is an art to conjuring images without laying them out in painstaking detail. I’m a fan of both ends of the spectrum–implied and explicit–as long as I’m allowed to remain in the story.

  6. says

    So glad your son is on the mend! This is such a witty analogy, #4 and #5 seem the most relevant to me at this time. I think I’m going to keep this with other posts I have. I like to peruse them from time to time; I get something new from each viewing.

    • says

      He’s back to sullen teenagerhood, Sarah, so this might be a cautionary tale on two fronts. ;) And thanks, lady. That means a lot to me.

  7. says

    How you are able to translate your experience into this post is mind boggling-thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    Everyone has had a real life crisis. I find I listen more intently to those who share their emotional story, not ‘just the facts.’ It’s all in the connection to the listener (or readers). When connection happens the story becomes more relevant, such as what you’ve done in this post.

    I love “…be a helmet wearing…mo fo…” btw. I’ve found my motto for the week.

    • says

      “…be a helmet wearing…mo fo…”

      Ooh, wouldn’t that be a great slogan for a bike-safety campaign? (Though the pediatric societies might struggle to adopt it.)

      Thank you, Mona. Stories help me remember content, too, and provide a context to ideas that would otherwise be too “out there.”

  8. says

    every blog post of yours humbles me. Oh, if only I could write like Jan…
    I’m glad “Frank” is ok, and that you were able to gain insight from it. How true that saying, “Everything happens for a reason”.

    Although, you shocked the pants off of me when I read “Mo-fo”.

    I never saw that coming out of your mouth (or fingers, as it were!)

    Great post!

    • says

      Ah, Michelle, the grass is always greener, because I look at your six books and think the same thing. But thank you!

      And I shocked you? Really? Maybe I’ve been on my best behavior when we’ve met in person.

  9. says

    I’m so glad your son is recovering, Jan. It must have been a terrifying experience. You are amazing in that you can take a horrific situation and make something positive out of it, like this article. I’m definitely a fan of lesson #4!

    • says

      Well, the real challenge, of course, is to think this way in the midst of the difficulties or when it doesn’t end on such an up-note. I assure you, I’m not that evolved, Liz!

  10. says

    Wow! I’m so glad your son got the help he needed and perhaps a little bit quicker than he would have and not suffered more than necessary. What an advocate you are for pushing for care when you knew something wasn’t right.
    I loved your analogies to writing a good story and they all made perfect sense to me, Jan. I want to write books that make the reader want to turn the page, every page, to see what happens next.
    Thank you.

    • says

      “I want to write books that make the reader want to turn the page, every page, to see what happens next.”

      A worthy desire, Patricia, no matter the genre.

  11. Bernadette Phipps Lincke says

    Wow. Glad everything turned out okay. And I love the way you applied it to writing. Especially this:

    “We adopt different stories of self according to the person darkening the hospital room’s doorway, so choose your companions well. The change can be almost instantaneous.”

    I think this is a truth about life in general, as well as in times of stress. Thanks for the insight. :)

    • says

      I agree that the lesson about companionship is universal, Bernadette. Didn’t we learn this from toddlerhood? (Or maybe I’m the only person who had that kind of parents.)

      What shocked me was the pace of change, as if the hospital acted like an emotional accelerant.

  12. says

    wow. You are so friggin’ calm in a crisis. I’m so glad to hear that Son is all right.

    I had a real life crisis one time. I went from being a nurse at the bedside talking to a patient’s relative, to being a relative of a different patient, 2000 miles away and 12 hours later. And I finally figured out that relatives don’t really “hear” what the nurse is saying. They hear what they want to hear, and they cling to words that suggest any hope.

    Jan, I admire how you can write about this with your trademark humour and your ability to make writing parallels. I’m really looking forward to reading your novel!

    • says

      It’s very different from the other side of the stethoscope, isn’t it, Suzanne? When I taught, I could often tell who’d been there, because they had a degree of empathy that wasn’t present in their peers.

      And thank you, chica. You know how much that means to me.

  13. says

    We writers are truly vultures, eh? We never let an experience pass without making notes for future reference–even other people’s experiences. I find it’s an excellent way to process those events in our hearts and minds. Just like you did in your wonderful post. Thanks for #6.

    • says

      That’s me, Joan, carrion-eater. ;) And you’re spot-on about the processing. It’s like the literary version of “pictures or it didn’t happen.”

  14. says

    SUCH a creative post! I thoroughly enjoyed all the connections between storytelling and medicinal practice. I sent the link to a nurse friend of mine, because I know how much she would enjoy the comparison! Also, I’m VERY glad your son is on his way to healing!

    • says

      Very kind of you to pass it on to your friend, LM. I’d love to know what she thinks. As for my son, thank you. We’ve been fortunate.

  15. says

    Now that’s a truly creative spirit!

    This post is amazing on several levels. The way you dealt with your son’s injury and the pleasantness of being purged through the health-care system, and managed to extract things pertaining to writing and make it entertaining and useful for us to read — just blows me away!

    Thank you for a really inspiring and wonderful post, Jan!
    Wish you and your family the best!

    • says

      Thank you, Vero. I must emphasize I had a ton of support. And one always wants to be at their best when they’re functioning for their child. Appreciate your comment.

  16. says

    Hey Jan – I’m glad your son is mending.

    What a relevant analogy this is for me!

    I’m a survivor of a near-fatal bicycle/car accident (I was on the bike) and now I’m an author.

    I use the pain I went through, the therapy and God’s hand in it, constantly in my stories.

    Ever the what if? author, I wonder where I’d be, what I’d be doing had I not had been on S. Milledge Avenue that fateful day…

    THANKS! Truly, Julie

    • says

      Wow, Julie. Sounds like you’ve been through the ringer. I’m glad it turned out well health-wise! And that you’re using the experience to push into places you might not have otherwise gone.

  17. says

    Only a writer would find such a marvelous way to cope! Quite brilliant. Thanks. As to personal medical crisis & story, I learned that doctors could scare my mind and help my body, but I was the only one to tenderly nurture my spirit.

    • says

      I’m sorry you found physicians wanting in the hope department. It’s a long story, but I understand even while I’m optimistic you’ll have better experiences in the future. It’s good you’re not giving up on you!

      Thank you for the kind words. They’re appreciated.

  18. says

    Beautiful post! So glad your son is recovering. And yes, your #6 has given me a whole new way to look at what I’m writing. Thank you for that!

  19. says

    Dear Jan,
    What a relief that you have a happy ending. I’m writing a memoir where the precipitating event is a death. There were powerful experiences during my husband’s illness, but the positive ending comes from my new life in the second half of the book. Out of grief and tragedy, creative opportunities are available for the grieving individual and for the writing of the story.



  1. […] Diagnosis: Storyteller is an interesting post at Writer Unboxed in which the author describes doctors thinking of diagnosing ailments in terms of  “selecting the most plausible storyline for your illness.” It caught my attention because it’s an example of how the whole concept of “story” is so important to our lives, and because I saw a video this past winter in which Lee Gutkind talked about narrative medicine. […]