Science and art too often find themselves in combative corners, but the disciplines have a surprising intersection for writers. University-sponsored literary journals have served as platforms for writers for decades, but some medical schools host their own journals that publish writers who explore the connections between creativity and healing.
Health professionals have vowed to uphold the Hippocratic Oath for more than 2,000 years, and the modern version, based on the ideas of the original Greek manifesto, includes a nod to the muses: “I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug.”
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That line describes the opportunity and the necessity for literary magazines that focus on the medical community, both for patients and practitioners.
“Humanities backgrounds and tie-ins used to be quite common,” says Dr. Carol Scott-Conner, a surgeon and the nonfiction editor for The Examined Life Journal at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. She points out that well-known writers such as Anton Chekhov and William Carlos Williams also practiced medicine, but similar overlaps decreased with the rise of technology and modern science.
“There’s so much students have to know,” Scott-Conner says. “A scientific background was needed more than a humanities background. The pendulum swung. It’s great – this is where our cures are coming from – but people noticed something was missing.”
That absent component is empathy, says Ivana Viani, editor-in-chief of thirdspace, affiliated with Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Dental Medicine. She says the proliferation of technologies have shifted the workflow of healthcare providers “further away from patients, further away from connecting them to why they’re doing what they’re doing.”
“You went from this elated feeling, of these white coats being a kind of wings, to realizing they’re not wings. It’s like a metal jacket.”
The associated stresses of an emotional job can also prevent time for self-reflection. Viani recalls the day she received her white coat, when she went right from pictures and celebration to listening to a patient describe an abusive situation.
“You went from this elated feeling, of these white coats being a kind of wings, to realizing they’re not wings,” she says. “It’s like a metal jacket. It’s really heavy and hard to be there for people when they need you most. There’s no time for you to be anywhere else.”
That loss of self-reflection has driven the rise of medical literary journals that can offer outlets of expression for medical students, practitioners, and their families. But because any writer can submit, many of these publications become educational catalysts.
“As much as you can learn what it’s like to be a medical student from a medical trainee, you can learn just as much from someone who imagines themselves being in those shoes,” Viani says.
The staff at Blood and Thunder, a journal associated with the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine, sends copies to all medical students, residents, and faculty.
“We’re hoping that our students will benefit from it and use it as a tool to be able to understand aspects of the healthcare community,” says Sara Bellatti, staff coordinator for the journal.
Healthcare – from psychiatry and dentistry to ophthalmology and standard annual check-ups – creates a network of influence that encompasses almost everyone at some point in their lives.
“Whenever we step foot in the medical world, we’re stripped of our normal persona,” says Danielle Ofri, a physician and editor-in-chief for Bellevue Literary Review at the New York University School of Medicine. “We have so few tools as patients. Literature is one way we gain back some of that agency. We can be making decisions about how we process the issues of being infirm, being ill, facing mortality. Things that are profound, and we’re often not given avenues other than writing letters to the Patient Advocacy Department, which is not that mollifying for our angst.”
This opportunity for so many contact points generates a broad wellspring of potential topics that writers can fold into their submissions to these seemingly niche literary outlets.
Yet writers should craft their pieces with as much care as they would for any top publication. Some medical literary magazines receive thousands of submissions each year from around the world, and they won’t accept subpar work. As with any publication, read some stories in the archives to gain a sense of each magazine’s aesthetic. Always follow any formatting guidelines listed on the websites, where you’ll also find submission dates and calls for special issues. For some insider advice, check out these tips from editors:
Tips from medical school journal editors
“There’s something in words – it’s not a pill, but it can be every bit as important. What I look for is something that isn’t letting the writer go. It’s a sense of something on the heart that must be lifted.”
—Paul Shepherd, editor, Hospital Drive, University of Virginia School of Medicine.
“Medical students don’t live in isolation. We come from families. We have partners. We have friends. What a wonderful submission it would be from someone who is dating a medical student, or a parent of a medical student, or a sibling, or a friend. How are they experiencing that person changing?”
—Ivana Viani, editor-in-chief, thirdspace, Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Dental Medicine.
“We’re looking for the best written pieces we can get. We’re not stressing the medical aspect of the writing but the introspective aspect.”
—Dr. Carol Scott-Conner, nonfiction editor and former editor-in-chief, the Examined Life Journal, University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine.
“We have a limit of five submissions for each contributor, and I would say take advantage of that.”
—Sara Bellatti, staff coordinator, Blood and Thunder: Musings on the Art of Medicine, University of Oklahoma College of Medicine.
“We prize accessibility. We don’t do genre. We don’t do experimental. If the structure or gimmick overwhelms the content, it’s not for us. We also don’t look at the cover letters at all. It really is blind.”
—Dr. Danielle Ofri, editor-in-chief, Bellevue Literary Review, New York University School of Medicine.
“Write what you know, at personal or social levels, or both.”
—Dr. Michael Rowe, editor-in-chief, The Perch, Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health.
“Pieces that capture the complexity, challenges, and beauty of health care and health science seem to be especially well-received. Any individual member of our board can lobby for a piece’s inclusion, regardless of the preliminary vote, so work doesn’t necessarily have to appeal to the masses if it really strikes a chord with even one person.”
—The editorial board, The Human Touch, University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.
Dustin Renwick writes, runs, and does not drink coffee. His latest book, Beyond the Gray Leaf, is the biography of a forgotten Civil War poet. Find him @drenwick110 and @swimbikerungram.
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