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Diagnosis: Storyteller

[1]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:

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. [2]

About Jan O'Hara [3]

A former family physician and academic, Jan O'Hara [4] left the world of medicine behind to follow her dreams of becoming a writer. She writes love stories (Opposite of Frozen [5]; Cold and Hottie [6]; the forthcoming romantic-suspense, Desperate Times, Desperate Pleasures [7]) and contributed to Author in Progress, a Writer's Digest Book edited by Therese Walsh.