I had a moment while programming our fall Festival when I realized that most of all that I know about neonatology, the niche within medicine that focuses on the care of the tiniest of babies, is from the writer Perri Klass’s The Mystery of Breathing; a book I read in manuscript form as an editorial associate at Houghton Mifflin as an assistant to Klass’s then-editor, Janet Silver. Klass was on my mind because she was the first doctor-writer we lighted upon when conceiving of a program we’re calling "Pen & Stethoscope."
Klass it is often called a present-day superwoman – a pediatrician, the medical director of the national literacy organization Reach Out and Read, professor at NYU’s Journalism Program, regular contributor to the New York Times, wife, mother, and fiction and nonfiction writer, she has been keeping this immensely varied and energetic pace going for nearly 30 years. Her fiction is imminently readable, with likeable, easily relatable protagonists who are often working to negotiate the stressful worlds of medicine and love. I’ve spent plenty of Saturdays engrossed in her prose, simultaneously navigating the foreign world of hospitals and laboratories (which she delivers with a deft hand) while appreciating her tremendous insight into affairs of the heart.
She’s one of the few who continues the literary legacies of William Carlos Williams, Anton Chekov, and Walker Percy. Each of those men‘s work and perspective on the human condition utterly and uniquely defined by their training in medicine, a career each abandoned for the somewhat less tidy profession of writer.
In addition to Klass, we’ve been lucky enough to round up a contemporary cadre with this unique distinction of doctor-writer for this fall’s Festival. She’ll be joined by Chris Adrian and Rafael Campo, both of whom write with a distinctive blend of doctorly precision and writerly imagination. Moderated by author-interviewer dynamo Victoria Lautman (from the recently retired WFMT “Writers on the Record” series), this panel will give each of these writers a place to reflect on how medicine influences their creative work. I’m hopeful, too, that they’ll be willing to tackle the other side of this dynamic – how writing impacts their respective medical practices. Considering how the skills of narration and storytelling play into the empathy and perspective necessary for caring for patients is just one of the things I am interested in learning from these incredibly accomplished writers.
Chris Adrian, trained at Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, in pediatrics, and then at Harvard’s Divinity School, is a short-story writer and novelist. Recently recognized by the New Yorker as one of the "Top 20 Under 40" writers, his fiction is marked by eerie, almost supernatural storytelling.
Rafael Campo, a physician and director of Harvard’s Medical Program in the Humanities, casts his considerable talents to verse. In tackling birth, death, sexuality, and culture, Campo’s poetry has been recognized by the Lambda Foundation, among many others.
I have a different interest in neonatology these days, what with a bevy of friends aflutter with first pregnancies right now, and look forward to a nonfiction cast on the subject with a program happening at our Hyde Park day in October. Jeremy Marks, associate professor of pediatrics and neurology at University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine, will lecture on, “Making a Body from Scratch: Human Development Before Birth,” which will focus specifically on fetal organ development, providing us insight into the formation of the incredibly complex systems we rely upon for the rest of our lives. It will be another incredible insight into the “mysteries of breathing” for sure.
#605: Sat, Nov. 13 12:00 - 1:30 PM