I’ve been thinking about writing and surgery quite a bit lately. Usually, I think about writing a lot because I work all day in The Writing and Research Center at a community college, and I write both fiction and nonfiction in my spare time. I’ve also been thinking about surgery recently because I’ve been reading the works of Richard Selzer, a surgeon who also devoted much of his free time to writing. And the more I read by Selzer about his medical experiences and his writing, I realize that writing is, in fact, a lot like surgery.
Selzer commented on the similarity between the two professions in a 1992 interview with Publisher’s Weekly: “A pen is the same size as the scalpel. When you use a scalpel, blood is shed; when you use a pen, ink is spilled on the page” (Steinberg).
As I pondered that quote, I recognized both a similarity and a difference between the two activities. Writing is like surgery because both writers and surgeons are going below the surface. Both practitioners are trying to determine if something within the body needs to be inspected, cleaned, or removed. The difference, however, is that surgeons are operating on others while writers are operating on themselves.
Something needs to be inspected. I once worked with an older gentleman who had undergone numerous medical procedures, some of which were quite complicated and invasive. At one point, this man wasn’t feeling well at all, and he was convinced that something was wrong inside. He was so convinced, in fact, that he pestered his surgeon to perform exploratory surgery to discover the problem. Only when the surgeon consented and, subsequently, operated and discovered that everything was working smoothly did my co-worker finally convince himself that he was okay.
Writers sometimes experience a similar uneasiness about their lives, and these writers may need to perform exploratory surgery on themselves, often in a journal. One cliché about writing asks the following question: “How can I know what I’m thinking unless I write my thoughts down on paper?” The writing serves as a form of therapy to help the writer clarify his thoughts. Selzer himself experienced such uneasiness in 1986 when he was sued for malpractice by the family of one of his patients. By the time the trial took place, Selzer had retired from surgery and the patient was deceased, so Selzer wrote that the experience “was like two ghosts being brought to the courtroom to do battle” (Steinberg). Even though the case was eventually dropped, Selzer found the whole experience disheartening, and he claims that he survived only by writing about it: “My only defense was to take my notebook to court every day. That was all I could do to converse with myself” (Steinberg).
Something needs to be cleaned. Recently, a good friend had to go in for surgery. He was experiencing unusual back pain that wasn’t related to physical exercise or strain. His doctor thought the pain might be related to the heart, and, sure enough, when the surgeon operated, he had to clean out my friend’s arteries; if they had not been cleaned, my friend may have died.
As human beings, we, too, may have certain experiences from our past that we need not remove necessarily but to clean out. For example, if we’ve endured an extremely difficult experience that has helped us in some way, we may need to write about that experience in order to reap the true benefit. For example, when I was 12, my four-year-old sister, Peggy, died from various medical complications. This was my first experience with death, and I found myself reflecting often on Peggy’s short life, her unexpected death, and the wake and funeral that followed. Consequently, I found myself writing about Peggy for various school essays, and later, I wrote both a poem and a short novel about what had happened. Though I will never remove Peggy from my memory, cleaning up those memories and making sense of them through writing has helped me to appreciate the delicate and precious thread that is our life here on this earth.
Something needs to be removed. When I was teaching at the high-school level about 25 years ago, I was also coaching the girls’ tennis team. While the girls were running laps one day, one of the girls came up to me and said, “Mr. LaBate, I don’t feel well; may I go home?” Part of me, the hard-nosed coach part, wanted to say, “You’ll be fine; just keep running.” Fortunately, the softer part of me said, “Sure. I hope you feel better tomorrow.” When she got home, however, she felt even worse, and her parents brought her to the hospital where the surgeon later removed her appendix.
As individuals, do we have things in our lives that we may need to remove, as well? Of course we do. Isn’t that what songwriters do all the time? After all, most love songs deal with either the initial period of a relationship, where the two individuals are totally enamored with one another, or the breakup that often follows. Unfortunately, most of us have been through similar breakups at one time or another, and we may need to express our anger or frustration and remove that hurt from our lives before we can move on to another serious relationship.
So, if writing is, indeed, like surgery, do we have to be medically trained in order to inspect, clean, or remove the experiences of our lives. No. All we really need is a willingness to explore, to go below the surface of our lives. As Red Smith, a sportswriter for the New York Times once said: “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein” (Charlton 39).
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Charlton, James, ed. The Writer’s Quotation Book: A Literary Companion. Penguin, 1981.
Steinberg, Sybil. “Richard Selzer: The Surgeon/Writer Reflects on Youth in the Depression and His Two Careers.” Publishers Weekly, 10 Aug. 1992, pp. 48–49, Literature Resource Center, 26 Oct. 2007, galenet.galegroup.com.