It’s important to me to take time to self-reflect. After studying today, I walked to the river by my apartment to read and write. Some poets recently made me aware of an extensive list of poetry books related to medicine and illness, and I carried three of them with me to the riverbank:
Poetry in Medicine: An Anthology of Poems About Doctors, Patients, Illness, and Healing, edited by Michael Salcman
Scissored Moon, by Stacy R. Nigliazzo
and Little Spells, by Jennifer K. Sweeney
I had already read Little Spells in its entirety–the poems are stunning–but I brought it with me because I am obsessed with it. I was less familiar with the other two books, but I was eager to dive in. There’s something about being by a river that encourages me to look through the perspective of someone else. Maybe it’s the sound of the running water, constantly in the background, reminding me that I am a small part of something beautiful. The smell of summer leaves, fiercely green. The playground off to my left, rattling with little feet.
After reading some remarkable poems in these books, I took out my poetry journal (which also doubles as a random notes journal sometimes when I’m out of paper) and began revising an old poem, something I had written as part of my creative writing thesis back in college. In the process of editing it, I couldn’t help but consider the relevance of some aspects of poetry to my current life as a medical student. For one, I had submitted the poem I was revising four or five times already to different literary magazines, and it had been rejected by all of them. Of course, everyone is familiar with rejections, but I think few people deal with rejections more frequently than writers–you put your heart into your work, you put your work out there, but you know in your heart that it will probably be rejected. Given that most literary magazines have an acceptance rate between 1 and 10%, you submit work to multiple places, meaning that every other week, you will probably be getting a rejection: “Dear Ting, thank you for sending us your work. However, at this time, we’ll have to pass on these pieces….” When I get these emails now, of course I’m a little disappointed, but I see each one as a chance to revise the poem at a later date (I’ve told myself that if I really believe that a piece should stay exactly as is, I won’t revise it, but that has yet to happen). Sitting by the river, revising this poem, I’m thinking about all the things I can improve on in terms of my current M3 Ob/Gyn clerkship for this upcoming week, realizing that becoming a better physician requires a similar mindset as the one needed to continue writing despite rejections–one of humility, one that trusts the process of practice, one that looks forward to challenges.
As I’m revising the poem, I’m also thinking about the importance of seeing things from the perspective of someone else. Given that I first wrote this poem over five years ago, it’s like I’m reading it as someone else, and not as the person who wrote it. I can look at it more objectively. I’m not as influenced by my own memories, thoughts, experiences. As medical students and future physicians, shouldn’t we take the time to step outside of ourselves, shed our medical jargon, see the situation from the perspective of the patient? I often think about this when I’m revising poetry, especially if it’s something I haven’t touched for a couple months.
I started this post wanting to just share some pictures of a lovely hour spent by the river, but clearly things circle back to poetry for me. I think I’m drawn to poetry for the same reason I’m drawn to medicine–they are both fields that require complex sets of skills in which success is measured as the ability to connect with someone else. Maybe if I get good enough, I’ll be able to heal. I think I’ll leave this note with a few images:
By my spot on the river, there is a quaint-looking structure, blue and white stucco. As inviting as it looks from the outside, it’s completely empty inside. Concrete walls, concrete floor. No chairs, no table. You could see it as a desolate place, just as you can see an unfinished poem, an unmastered skill as a source of frustration. But just as easily, I think, you can see it as a place for reflection, for growth. Just because there are no chairs doesn’t mean that you can’t sit down. Just because there is no door swinging on a hinge doesn’t mean there’s no door.
Ting Gou is a fourth-year M.D. candidate at the University of Michigan Medical School, interested in psychiatry. Her first collection of poems, The Other House, is forthcoming this November from Blue Lyra Press. As a student in the IMPACT pilot program, she is working on her second poetry collection, inspired by patients with memory loss. When she is not seeing patients, she is either writing/reading/editing poetry or attending one of the many literary events in Ann Arbor. Connect with her on Twitter @tinggou.