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Doctor/Writer: Richard Selzer MAG
Dr. Richard Selzer, 72, retired from practicing surgery and teaching at Yale Medical School in 1986. He has written ten books and received many writing grants and awards. He describes his experiences as a writer and doctor.
How did you find enough hours in a day to be a doctor, teacher, writer, husband and father?
I had been a surgeon for a good long time, when all at once the energy to write appeared. I was 40 years old when I began to write. It came to me late, like a wisdom tooth. I decided to teach myself the craft of writing. I gave up practically everything but my work as a doctor, my family and writing. I didn't play bridge, go to the movies or to dinner parties. It was the life of a paramecium, only without the rapture of binary fission. I would finish my work as a surgeon, come home, visit with my family, have dinner and then immediately go to bed around 7:30 or 8 o'clock. I was the first grown-up in the state of Connecticut to go to bed, and my children were humiliated by this.
At 1a. m. , I would get up, make some tea and, with the rest of the world sound asleep and all the light in the universe directed on a blank sheet of paper, I wrote. I wrote dozens of horror stories in the dead of night, just as an exercise. You don't need much psychological complexity or philosophical profundity, all you need to do is scare your reader and then you've succeeded.
After three or four years, the stories began to be published. So that's how it started. But my family did have to accept the fact that I was launched on a different path and wasn't going to lead my previous life. For me, the decision to write was not a frivolous thing; it was a passion from the beginning, and I knew I had to doit.
What have writing and surgery taught you about life and death?
I think both medicine and writing have helped me be more mature about death. Being a surgeon, confronted with death on a daily basis, it becomes an old adversary - one you recognize and deal with. I've learned more about life and death from the body. I gaze and gaze at it until what gazes back is what some might call the soul, and I am well aware of the transitory nature of life. I have a certain acceptance of death that many do not. I find it to be the natural course of events and don't fear it.
You know, the engine that drives modern culture is the denial of death. Look at all the plastic surgery and cosmetics people use to make themselves look young. It's an unrealistic way to live.
Can you talk a little about how you connect the scalpel and the pen?
For me, the body is a sacred space. Now, you will be amused to hear words like piety, sacred and blessed from a person who claims not to believe in God. I am a highly spiritual person, so evidence of the spirit is present in many things - in people and in the body especially. I am always touched by the revelation of the human spirit when I look at the body, a wound or a lesion. I can see the spirit of the person - the aura of the spirit - in the wound.
The healthy, robust individual doesn't arouse the tenderness, the empathy, if you will, that the wounded body does. It touches your heart to see someone suffer. The body is the only thing that, the more wounded it is, the more beautiful or holy it becomes.
I wrote an essay called "The Exact Location of the Soul. " I was being mischievous. I asked, 'Is it under the kneecap or in a fold of the baby's neck? Where is it?' But now I would look at a body and find where it is wounded. It is most likely to be there, so that medicine, for me, was a spiritual endeavor. It always was, but only when I began to write did that knowledge - self-knowledge - become apparent.
Although you don't believe in God, have you ever observed a miracle?
I prefer virtues, they're more reliable. I wouldn't say I've ever witnessed anything as supernatural as a miracle. I have witnessed surprising cures. Probably the biggest, saddest thing about my own life is that I never had faith in God. I envy people who do. Life without faith is rather a hard proposition. On the other hand, I have tried to live as if I did believe there was a God.
Has anyone you've written about recognized him or herself and confronted you about it?
I always wondered about that, particularly when I was practicing medicine and writing about patients. They never did. Not one person ever recognized him or herself in my work. In fact, they would often say, 'That was me on page 52, wasn't it?' But it wasn't. More often than not, patients would ask, 'Are you going to put me in your next book?'because their illness was the most important one.
Did you face opposition when you set out to be a writing doctor?
Yes. In those days, surgery was a male world. It was rather like a priesthood: you all went to a place where no one else was allowed; you donned special raiment; you washed your hands; and at last you stood before the open ark of the body and performed the sacred rites of surgery. And for a member of that priesthood to stand up and reveal the rites and secrets was not kosher. I was not looked upon kindly by my colleagues. I went through a period of seven years of - not ostracism - but distance from others. That hurt very much because I have always enjoyed the friendship and collegiality of surgery. But when I began to be published and the public became my readership, the medical profession followed. Now they think of me as their voice.
Who did you look to for encouragement?
Myself. There wasn't anyone who encouraged me - not family, not friends, not colleagues - so it had to come from within. After I had been writing for a few years in private - secret really - I told some of the Yale English professors who are my friends and they asked to see what I was writing. Then they encouraged me.
What are you working on now?
I am giving a series of lectures at the Yale Art Gallery on individual works in a collection. I am not an art historian or an art critic, I approach these works from my own sensibility. I am also writing short pieces, brief prose poems. The piece I just finished is a letter from Babylon. I sent myself there in a dream and tried to recreate the city of 600 B. C. where I actually walked around the city, saw things, introduced myself to people - it was a flight of fancy but it gave me a chance to exercise my literary inclinations.
I am also editing my diaries for publication, which will be three volumes, since I have been keeping a diary forever. The first is about ready. It seems no matter what I write, it gets into print. One has to be very careful.
Have you ever published anything or has anything been published about you that you wish you could take back?
Well, there's so much written about me, and a lot of it is not true. This includes material that I would never want published, but someone else is writing it and they can say whatever they want. I try not to read what people write about me. Someone is presently writing my biography, which is ridiculous and I have asked her not to, but she is doing it. She has a publisher and is investigating everything about me. I told her I would neither help nor hinder her. To write a biography while a person is still alive is a dreadful mistake.
Was receiving the Guggenheim Fellowship as satisfying as receiving that silver dollar from your father when you first learned to read Jonah and the Whale?
No. Getting the silver dollar from my father was worlds better than getting the Guggenheim. Those awards and prizes - one just has to accept them. They don't change your life. They don't confirm that you're a great writer at all because many inferior people get prizes and honorary degrees. So these prizes, their worth is dubious.
Are there any stories you are particularly proud of?
Yes. I'm proud of the first three chapters of Mortal Lessons. They have become required reading in all the medical schools in the country, as has my bookLetters to a Young Doctor. I'm proud of those because they make me feel useful, that I'm teaching through my work.
In Mortal Lessons you described your own chivalrous rescue of the beautiful Margaret Byrnes from a raging Latin teacher as "an exchange of the heart . . . one of the half dozen most important events of my life. " Can you comment on this?
Well, that was a story of boyhood love and it gave me the opportunity to be the hero: Perseus rescuing Andromeda from the dragon. It has to do with testosterone . . . you know about that. But I think every young boy would like to have a chance to be heroic.
You have written that your story "Imposter"might be considered autobiographical.
I think that every doctor, if truly honest and gazing at his or her deepest self, would think that maybe he is an imposter. When a patient comes to me and says, "Do something. Help me, "and I do, one might get the idea that the doctor is divine - God's surrogate -and that causes many doctors to become full of self-love. But for me it was otherwise. I always thought, I don't deserve this praise. I don't know enough. And I would always think that maybe I'm pulling the wool over people's eyes. Maybe I am an imposter. And I think many doctors have had that secret feeling.
How do you feel when you look back on your earlier works?
Sometimes I think, Did that come out of me? In some instances I'm embarrassed, because I have evolved. But in others I'm proud of the work.
My first book, Rituals of Surgery, has absolutely nothing to do with surgery, but the publisher thought that title would sell books. He was wrong. But, I can open to a page and read part of a story and think, You know, that'snot bad - I wonder if I could still do that. I have a love/hate relationship with my early work.
Where do you think your love of words came from?
From my mother, originally, and reading. I have always been a reader. It came quite early in life and I never lost it. In fact, it's just developed more and more.
Your mother had such a colorful personality. Did she ever embarrass you?
Mothers always embarrass their children - don't you know? But I loved my mother. I was fascinated by her. She was outrageous, she was a diva. She gave recitals in the music hall in Troy wearing veils, sashes and feathers. I have a photograph in which she seems to be wearing an entire owl on top of her head.
At 16, what did you want from life?
I wanted love, which is what everybody wants. I wanted to realize my potential. I wanted to be a doctor, I knew that. My mother was an opera singer and my father a general practitioner during the Depression. We were very poor and my father wanted me to be a doctor, but my mother wanted me to be a poet. I hope, at last, they're both satisfied. If they're not, too bad!
Do you feel your work will withstand the test of time?
The books that I wrote 25 years ago are still in print and people still read them. Last week I was in New Jersey at a medical school speaking to 180 incoming first-year medical students, their families and the faculty. At this ceremony they are each given a white coat and a copy of Letters to a Young Doctor. One hundred and eighty new medical students will be reading this book that I wrote 25 years ago which makes me feel wonderful. I think that, in all honesty and immodesty, some of my work will last. It's lasted 25 years, it will last another 25.
Do you have any advice to offer others wishing to become writing doctors?
Become a doctor first because a writer doesn't make a living - you have to support yourself and your family. But writing is a very individual thing. It's like your fingerprint -no one else has exactly your style. A lucky writer will discover his or her style but an unlucky one will always be trying to force himself into an unnatural writing style. It's uncomfortable, and for them, writing is painful. I've never suffered. My life has been a series of small, everyday events. If I feel I have rendered one little bit of life in the most compelling language I can find and am satisfied with it, that is an event I cherish.
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turn a mess into a lesson
a test into testimony
a trial into triumph
and a victim into champion
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Life isn't measured by the number of breaths you take, but by the moments which take your breath away.
You are only as strong as your weakest link.