Reading and Writing: The Examined Life

I’m on a reading binge at the moment. This is not my usual type of binge-ing when I read for work purposes or general news interest or to do research for whatever it is I’m writing about. I’m currently reading for enrichment; some people call that pleasure. I recently finished writing a new manuscript and am in the wait-and-see period that follows. Is it any good? Could it be saleable? Will it require major revisions? Don’t know yet. I’ve decided to not make myself crazy by continuously revising the work while certain people look at it. I feel as though it’s finished, but is anything ever finished?

So while on this reading binge I came across The Examined Life, Stephen Grosz’ elegant collection of vignettes about his psychoanalytic patients. I could not have picked a more timely or apt work to enjoy following what I’d just written. My own manuscript deals with my parents’ lives, my own journey into medicine, their end-of-life issues, and what I learned from them as well as my own patients along the way. My original goal when I started was not to write about my parents, specifically. It was to write about the topic of end-of-life care. But I began to see the subject as too laden, too politically pitched, and too overwhelmed with statistics to make interesting reading material. In fact, the books I found about the topic suffered from just these problems. So I decided to make the story personal. That decision brought its’ own set of problems.

I loved Grosz’ book on several levels; as a life-long student of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, I enjoyed the way he teased out the causes of current behaviors from past memories. And as someone who has had a lot of therapy, I could relate to the insights and see bits of my own behavior in several of his patients. Though I’ve never been analyzed, I know enough to have an inkling of where the process might take me. And as a physician, I felt jealous of his ability to put his experiences with patients so beautifully into a thoughtful and well-written story.

The manuscript I recently completed is written as memoir, but only because that is the structure that best holds what I want to say. It is about family because caring for parents at the end-of-life is primarily the domain of family and they make the important decisions. Consequently, in the process of writing about my mom and dad, I went back into my childhood and beyond. I researched their lives and my ancestry. I thought about my parents in a new way. I had to confront all my memories—good and bad. I had to find a way to put their stories into words. I had to get the part about me out of the way because what I was trying to say was not about me. The story is about what they taught me; their legacy informs my views on end-of-life care.

The past year has been one of the toughest in recent memory. Not because I suffered any particular hardship, had any particular health problems, or had anything terrible happen. The trouble arose from writing this book: not only because of the difficulty inherent in writing about and contemplating death, but also in writing about my relationships with my parents. In order to write their stories, I had to write the dark underbelly of my own story, think through my childhood and remember it honestly, the good and bad parts, what was true, what seemed true, what I might have imagined, and especially confront the emotional baggage I’ve carried around for decades. I had to air it, think it through, edit it, and then let it go. I had to hit the delete button on a lot of old crap. The end—written—product is still true, but it is free of the child’s voice. Only my inner grown-up told the final version. It was the only way I knew to do justice to the gravity of the subject matter.  Stephen Grosz does an excellent job in his book.  I hope I got it right in mine.

An interesting and completely unexpected bonus of this process – of having written it all down, of having suffered through a literary analysis, if you will –  is that I feel fantastic!  I am exactly where I want to be.  Lucky, happy, fit, feeling great.  I cannot ask for more.IMG_1161