Authors & Events
Leah Kaminsky is an award-winning writer and a practicing family physician. She is the author of four books, including Stitching Things Together, a collection of poetry. She has studied writing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, New York University, and Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is currently at work on her first novel. She lives in Melbourne, Australia.
PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE: What was the experience of editing like? Did you find it hard to select the right pieces for the collection?
Leah Kaminsky: I was like a kid in a candy shop. I made a wish list of all my favorite doctor-writers, people who had inspired me and whose work I had admired for many years, and within a week after asking them to contribute to the anthology they had all come on board, knowing that a percentage of proceeds would be donated to the Foundation for Sick Children. Then the hardest thing was choosing my all-time favorite pieces from each author’s body of work. I wanted the pieces to speak to each other too, in the same way that a bunch of doctors on a ward round discuss a patient’s condition. I wanted these stories to reveal something about what emotional price doctors often pay in their attempt to keep a professional distance. I hoped that placed together they might reveal some truth about the balance we need to maintain between scientific rationality and emotional truth.
PRH: Did any pieces in the collection strike you on a personal level? They’re all wonderful, but were any standout favorites?
LK: Each one moves me in a different way; I love them all. Fiction is my passion, and I still weep every time I reread Ethan Canin’s short story about loss, love, and ageing. Abraham Verghese’s brilliant essay on the lost art of physical examination, and how important that can be as an opportunity to develop trust between doctor and patient, is especially dear to my heart.
PRH: Why do you think there are so many doctors who are also drawn to writing fiction and essays?
LK: We are privileged as doctors to bear witness to the raw emotions of human beings at their most vulnerable, and also at their bravest. Some doctors use writing as a means of processing their experiences, in a therapeutic sense. Any creative outlet is important to provide balance. Not every doctor who picks up a violin is going to be a virtuoso, just as not everyone who picks up a pen will be a brilliant writer. I’m sure there are many plumbers who write too, but I guess doctors are exposed to a wealth of stories in their everyday lives. Caution must be taken regarding the ethics of using these narratives as material for writing. I think reading good literature and poetry is an important thing for a doctor to gain a deeper understanding of the human condition.
PRH: How do you think understanding a doctor’s experience helps the patients? Do you think the public is reluctant to see doctors as mere mortals?
LK: People seem intrigued to know what goes on behind the professional mask of a doctor. But it can be a two-edged sword — surprise, surprise — they discover that their doctors are human, and that we are often deeply affected by what we experience in our working lives. Although our training teaches us to maintain strict professional boundaries, it can sadly be at the cost of empathy and understanding. Jerome Groopman says a doctor needs to always check his own emotional temperature; that it is often when he turns from the clinic to the page that we see what truly lies behind his mask. Demystifying the profession may help promote better doctor-patient understanding and trust.
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