Making Space for Writing During a Busy Medical Career
by Dr. Irène P. Mathieu
Q. Tell me about your poetry.
A. I write about a variety of topics, from current events to history to eco-poetics, or environmental poetry. I write about family, relationships, and my experiences traveling and living abroad. I’ve published three collections to date, including a chapbook, or shorter collection, entitled the galaxy of origins (dancing girl press, 2014), and two full-length collections, entitled orogeny (Trembling Pillow Press, 2017) and Grand Marronage (Switchback Books, 2019). Although I don’t often write poetry explicitly about medicine, I find that medicine and poetry arrive from the same impulse for me, which is the desire to connect with other humans in a healing way. Therefore I find myself writing about the big-picture, socio-political forces that shape our health and define our lives. I’m curious about how human experiences are embodied and transmitted across generations, which is important both on the page and in the clinic.
Q. What made you start writing?
A. I always say that I have been writing since before I could physically write. As a toddler I would dictate “journal entries” to my mom, who would dutifully write them for me in a Composition notebook. These early works mostly contained observations such as, “we made cookies today” and “Grandma and Grandpa came over.” My mother also taught me how to read before I started kindergarten with a curriculum she invented and taught, during which she called herself “Miss Flower.” So I suppose my mother was the first catalyst for my literary interests. Later my father told me about William Carlos Williams, the giant of American poetry who was also a pediatrician. As I got older writing didn’t feel like a choice as much as a way of processing information and organizing my world. For my whole life writing has been a regular practice for me, and if I go for too many days without doing it I can feel the difference in my mind and body.
Q. How long have you been writing?
A. It’s been close to thirty years – nearly my whole life!
Q. Why is it important to you?
A. Writing makes me feel like me. Without it I’m a less well-adjusted, organized, and creative person. When I began publishing my work about a decade ago, though, I started to understand the power of sharing one’s work, and the vulnerabilities, responsibilities, and ethics around what we choose to share with the world. Now I would say that my writing is important to me not only for how it impacts my own life and mind, but also for how it potentially affects others. Pediatrics and poetry arise from the same impulse for me – the desire to connect with other humans in a healing way. I have always been interested in stories, especially those that don’t make it into dominant narratives, and the therapeutic potential of listening to and telling these stories.
Q. Does this impact your work with patients?
A. Writers have an attention to language that certainly impacts the way I listen to and make sense of patients’ stories. It also makes me appreciate the myriad ways in which people express themselves – I think everyone can be poetic. Reading impacts my work with patients maybe even more significantly, though. By engaging with the work of other writers from many parts of the world and walks of life I expose myself to a wide variety of stories. This variety helps me to have an open mind when I meet a new patient, because you can never know a person’s story until they tell it to you.
Q. Is there one piece that stands out to you?
A. Perhaps my most popular poem is called “soil,” which appears in orogeny. Here it is:
the way you say soil sounds
like soul, as in
after we walked through the woods
my feet were covered in soul
when it rains
the soul turns to mud
the soul is made of decomposed
plant and animal matter;
edaphology is the study of the soul’s
influence on living things
while pedology is the study of how
soul is formed, its particular granularity.
you are rooted in a certain red patch
of soul that bled you and your
hundred cousins to life, a slow
warm river you call home.
maybe there is soul under everything,
even when we strike rock first.
the way you say soil you make
a poem out of every speck of dirt.
Q. What’s next for you?
A. I am currently on book tour for my third poetry collection, entitled Grand Marronage. Last year I wrote my first completed novel, a young adult book, and I’m looking for an agent for it now. I’m also writing new poems, but I’m not sure when they will coalesce into another book. Grand Marronage was heavily researched and based on specific (mostly family) stories. Right now I’m enjoying just writing individual poems without a plan for how they’ll come together. Finally, I’m working with others in the Department of Pediatrics and across the School of Medicine to develop curricula using poetry and other forms of literature in medical education.
Q. What else should we know?
A. I’m often asked by med students, residents, and fellow physicians how to make space for writing during our busy medical training and career. My advice is to read! Read deeply and widely. Read works by people whose experiences you know nothing about. And then write. It’s hard for most medical professionals to find the time and space for an ideal writing practice, so make up a non-ideal writing practice. Write when and how you can, whenever you can. Identify why you are writing (coping mechanism? Advocacy? To create something beautiful? To make sense of something you feel?) and keep that drive close. Figure out what conditions inspire you (late at night, on your couch with a cup of tea? Sitting in the park on a Saturday afternoon?) and try to put yourself in those conditions as often as you can. Finally, build community. This could mean creating or joining a group of other writers with whom you can share your work, listening to poetry podcasts, reading interviews with writers you admire, reading and writing book reviews, staying in touch with (and accountable to!) your fellow physician-writers, near and far, and/or regularly attending readings and other literary events in your city.
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