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Entries in Medical Writing (11)


Physician Poetry

By Dr. Jon Wolston

“Bitch is... we’re all close.”

When I heard a patient speak those words years ago, something happened to me that I still don’t fully understand. I felt like I had just been bestowed a gift in that moment, a gift that had to somehow remain unspoken about between us, but that nevertheless deserved to be acknowledged more widely somehow and eventually recognized publicly in some sense.

My outpatient practice began to take on an added dimension of “word mining” so to speak. The enduring value of certain words in and of themselves seemed to blossom overnight, yet the nature of their power remained mysterious to me. I couldn’t deny the potency of this experience, but I was still at a loss as to how to account for it except that it reflected some aspect of an intimate moment.

Eventually I learned about the tradition of “found poetry” and began to write what I heard in poetic format. I looked into poetry therapy as an adjunctive treatment modality, because I could sense its transformational heft. The National Association for Poetry Therapy is a wonderful organization, highly recommended, but it still wasn’t quite what I was after. Meanwhile, the poems continued to appear. Would they continue to emerge or would they mysteriously wane, like so many of the other things we hold precious? In a way I had difficulty claiming sole authorship. It seemed like the intimate moment was the author and I the transcriber.

Fortunately, I signed up for Dr. Julie Silver’s course in 2007, which was a godsend. Here were established authors of all stripes with tales to tell, professionals from all facets of the publishing world, and bemused newbies opening to the power of words. Julie helped me accept that I was evolving into a physician-writer and that I had good company among other emerging practitioners of this art. I’ve enjoyed keeping in touch with many of the participants since. One lasting understanding that I gained was that any book you see reflects the work of many different individuals, not just the author. Maybe this is a lesson of particular value to physicians.

Soon I began to attend all the poetry readings I could muster in my hometown, dragging friends along whenever possible. I met some inspiring poets, particularly on the nearby Brown campus, and corresponded with those who struck a chord and were kind enough to respond to me. I joined the writing group at the venerable Providence Athenaeum, an invaluable source of support and former hangout of Edgar Allen Poe. I started compiling first email lists and later blogs to send out poems for critique. Readings came by invitation. My favorite is probably the Super Bowl halftime reading my son Chris requested. You had to be there.

With the help of my good friend and publisher Bill Connell, I put together a manuscript of a poetry collection, “Paradise Root-stock,” printed in April 2008 . Bill’s advice was, “Publish when you feel like you have a certain ‘body of work’ that you’d like to represent.” In this collection I look to capture the sense of awe I still feel about where this all came from. The process still mystifies me. The title comes from a Galway Kinnell poem called “The Stone Table.” He names the most common apple-tree cultivar in New England as emblematic of his tenacity in the face of our notoriously tough growing conditions.  The title also alludes to what is probably my favorite poem in the collection, called “Nor’easter”:

     Poems are windfall
     of the orchards of my soul. . .
     some bruised some glowing,

     all with secret seeds
     ready to be swallowed up
     when God is hungry.

In hindsight, my friend the historian Dr. Doug McVicar was also a big help in getting PR-S into print. He issued a “dare” in 2007 to see which one of us would publish first! I think physicians thrive on healthy competition. If you’re feeling a little stuck with your writing, consider old-fashioned dares.

Four of the poems in PR-S were selected by the Poetry Society of New Hampshire for inclusion in their 2010 Poets’ Guide:More Places, More Poets. In doing promotion, I found that smaller independent bookstores love to have you read for them to help draw business. They are also more likely to be interested in stocking your poetry book afterwards than a chain or large bookstore would. Two of my all-time favorite bookstores: in Virginia and in New Hampshire. Both these wonderful venues allow an intimacy to develop, on account of their size, that is distinctive, and particularly conducive to poetry readings.

For physicians interested in developing as writers, Dr. Julie Silver’s Harvard course is invaluable and highly recommended.

About: Dr. Jon Wolston is a psychiatrist who transitioned to retirement by finding unexpected pleasure and meaning in writing poetry and publishing it, both in print (“Paradise Root-stock” 2008) and online at

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Physician: 11 Reasons to Write Your Book in 2011

If you're a physician considering writing your first book, here are 11 reasons to go for it.

As a physician, maybe you’ve already written a book for a technical/medical audience, but when you write for a lay audience at a national level, here are some ideas of what your book can do for you:

1. Increase Your Influence: after publishing The Favorite Child with Prometheus Books, Dr. Ellen Weber Libby appeared on the CBS Early Show and became a blogger for The Huffington Post and Psychology Today. Her first Huffington post article got 273 comments. If you want to reach a national audience with your message, a book is one of your most potent tools.

2. Add Fuel to Your Entrepreneurial Engine: Whatever your enterprise, your book can bring in your ideal clients or customers.

3. Double or Triple Your Speaking Income: No question that most speakers get paid more (and get higher profile speaking gigs) when they become published authors.

4. Retire from Your Day Job: If you’re still working your “day job” and looking for a way to move into your new career more quickly, consider this: Pat Hastings retired from her job as a substance abuse counselor nine months after publishing her first book, Simply a Woman of Faith, and launched her career as a speaker, retreat leader and life coach. What’s your dream?

5. Get that PR: I’ve had many an expert tell me they couldn’t get on TV until they became a published author. Your book makes it much easier to get coverage (especially at the national level).

6. A Boost for High End Sales: One of my clients, Evana Maggiore, says that a $25 book sale off the internet often results in someone devouring her book, Fashion Feng Shui: The Power of Dressing with Intention, in one sitting and then registering for a $3,000 seminar. What could your book do for you?

7. Meet Interesting People: When I became a published author, I met stimulating and inspiring authors, speakers, TV and radio hosts and others. Becoming an author will expand your circle and your world—leading to personal growth and the expansion of your own ideas and enterprises.

8. Be Known as the Expert You Are (and not just by your colleagues): If you want to be seen as a top expert in your field and reach beyond your colleagues, write a book! (Your competition probably is…).

9. New Experiences:  Exciting opportunities will show up in your life as people read your book and want to connect or partner with you—things you may not have even dreamed of.

10. Tax write-offs: Ask your accountant: You may be able to write off expenses that are related to your book (travel, research, classes that inform your book, etc.).

11. The Feel Good Factor: Writing a book provides a powerful sense of accomplishment. According to a New York Times article, it’s on 80% of people’s bucket lists. Most people never make it happen. Think of how you’ll feel when you hold your published book in your hands.


New Year's Resolution: Make Time to Write

One of the most common questions I am asked is, "How do you find the time to write?" 

To me, this is a lot like asking how one finds the time to brush and floss or exercise or do any one of the many things that we map out as habitual priorities. Over the years, I've thought a lot about this question and what it means to different people. Out of this contemplation, I have arrived at a few tips that may just help you find the time you need to write in 2011 and beyond.

Finding the Time to Write

Insert writing into your life regularly. If you are the type of person that likes to keep a strict schedule, you might find that reserving a specific block of time works best. You might also consider parameters such as writing 500-1000 words at every sitting. Or, 2-3 pages. There are many ways to build a framework around the task. Personally, my schedule is different nearly every day, so I don't stick to a strict schedule. But, I write several times a week and always make sure that I have some time set aside to meet deadlines.

Write whether you are in the mood or not. Don't worry if you are not in the mood to write. Do it anyway.  It's almost impossible to only be creative when your muse is at its best. Sometimes writing is fun, but a lot of times it's just work. Professional writers have spent many hours writing useless material.  Ironically, your best writing may come forth when you least want to do it. 

Set some deadlines. Even if you haven't sold an article or a book, it's good to have some deadlines that you adhere to. Many writers become very frustrated and spend years working on the same material over and over. For a lucky few, that's the ticket to success. However, for the vast majority of writers, it's time spent on a project that likely won't ever be published. So, consider what you want to write and set some realistic deadlines. If you don't meet them, consider how you might want to change course. This doesn't necessarily mean giving up the project—maybe all you need is to work with a book coach or a freelance editor. 

Just write. Really, it all boils down to just doing it. Yup, Nike has the right motto when it comes to writing—just do it!


Publishing Contracts & What To Expect From Your Publisher

Answers to physician publishing questions.

In a previous blog post, 5 Reasons Your Book Isn't Published Yet (And The Cure For Each), Arlen had asked about negotiating points in a publishing contract, as well as what publishers are responsible for and what they expect their authors to do. It seemed a big enough group of questions (he had 10) to warrant a separate post. I'll get us started with Arlen's questions and feel free to add your own as a comment. 

I will say, as a book coach, I almost always recommend authors sign with a reputable literary agent rather than negotiate their contracts themselves. Even when you're signing with a small publisher, the advantages of having a qualified agent far outweigh the cost (typically 15% of your royalties, but can often be negotiated to 10% if you already have a publisher and they are just negotiating the contract).

Here are answers to the questions about some of the main negotiating points:

Royalties: While a typical royalty percentage is 10%, I have recently seen several authors earning and even 20% in unusual cases.

Royalties are typically paid quarterly and authors should receive quarterly reports. If you have an agent, your royalty is actually paid to the agent, who then pays you.

Copies of the book: Publishers tend to provide from 20-100 free copies of the book to the author. This is often an item that can be negotiated, especially if you have a solid marketing/pr plan for additional copies. Authors can usually buy additional copies at a discounted price.

Due dates and turnaround times: I've also seen agents negotiate dates that chapters are due or turnaround time for revisions.

And here are my answers to questions about what a publisher will do and what they expect from the author:

What tasks are the author's responsibility and what will the publisher do in terms of rights and permissions? In my experiences, the author would be responsible to get permissions, waivers and copyright releases. One of my clients had to pay to use the lyrics to a song. He hired an attorney to find out who owned the rights and make arrangements (he did not have a literary agent).

Design and art: Generally, the publisher provides graphics, art and layout. However, there are times that an author may provide a cover design--one of my recent clients liked an image and suggested it to his publisher who accepted it. The publisher often shows from 1-3 different cover designs and gets the author's (and agent's) input. However, the publisher almost always has the right to final decisions on cover and title.

Marketing and promotion: Generally, as an author, you are expected to market and promote your book. The publisher may pitch your book to the media along with other books, during meetings with national producers, but the lion's share of publicity is yours to develop and implement. This is a really critical point. If you are writing a book proposal for a trade book, be sure to include a robust promotion plan (that includes online promotion) and demonstrate that you have a following and/or reach a good-sized segment of your audience (we call this author platform in the industry).

Pricing: This is determined by the publisher.

And, to answer Arlen's last question, if only a few books sell, your publisher may sell the books at a discount to resellers. Sometimes you can negotiate to buy back the rights to your book.

Arlen, thanks for these great questions. Let's hear from other authors about your experiences with publishing contracts and responsibilities. And do post additional questions here, too.

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