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Writing the Stories of Health Care

Jack El-hai.jpgSplit Rock Arts Program instructor Jack El-Hai has made a successful career out of "telling the great untold stories" in science and medicine. For the author of many medical science books, articles, and essays, writing scientific nonfiction is a spellbinding form of storytelling.

"Medical science is inherently dramatic--you have at least two engaged protagonists: the sick person and the one helping. You have a host of interesting conflicts...between the protagonists and their own internal conflicts, and between the medical personnel and the community. Stories about medical science really are true-life, life-and-death tales."

It was during the writing of one such dramatic tale, his most recent book, The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness (John Wiley & Sons, 2005), that El-Hai became interested in the intersection of an individual's career and his or her personal life. "Here was this story of a brilliant medical mind [Walter Freeman] who became obsessed. The story shows a real parallel between the rise and fall of Freeman's career and of lobotomy as a common medical practice, with the rise and collapse of Freeman's personal life.

"It made me wonder--what would motivate someone to behave as he did? What is the intersection of my OWN career and personal life? Who is looking out for the personal lives of our health-care professionals?"

Individuals working in the health-care field, El-Hai says, are just that: individuals. "They are trained to focus on the patient or case--sometimes to the exclusion of their own feelings. But doctors are people, too. As are nurses, administrators, therapists. They are thinking, feeling people. And being able to explore their own thoughts about their work, their coworkers, their environment--can help them personally and professionally."

El-Hai created the Split Rock offering Creative Nonfiction for Health-Care Professionals to address such a need. "Very often, after a lecture or a presentation, I'd be approached by a doctor or nurse or therapist who would say, 'I want to write about my experiences...but I have no idea where to start.'

"This class is designed to give students that place to start, as well as help them use writing as a way to facilitate an exploration of the intersection between personal and professional lives."

The retreat, which runs October 21 to 24 at the Cloquet Forestry Center, is designed for all levels of writers, and encourages participants to write about "their own thoughts and experiences in their career--what happened, how it made them feel, what struck them about a particular moment. It will help them find that place to start writing, and help them infuse their passion, their obsessions, their voice into their work."

In addition, the retreat will also address the idea of what is "allowable," as well as ethical concerns and boundaries, and other conflicts and dilemmas that are unique to professionals in the health-care industry.

"Health-care professionals are sometimes the most detailed observers of the world around them--but because of their training, they can sometimes have difficulty making those observations without dispassion. I want to help them find their voice, their own presence that they can infuse into their writing," says El-Hai.

"In doing this, giving voice to their personal insights, viewing their patients and workplace with fresh eyes...I think they can become better professional caregivers as well."

The Split Rock retreat Creative Nonfiction for Health-Care Professionals runs October 21--24 at the Cloquet Forestry Center, and is one of four retreats being held this fall.

For more information, visit the Split Rock Web site.

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