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Friday, April 28, 2017

Writing About Empathy

the ability to understand and share the feelings of another

All the political intrigue and infighting going on about healthcare in America reminded me of the last time I had health insurance* (when I was in the hospital in ’14).

I volunteered to go to the emergency room when I realized something was terribly wrong. Doctors came to my side for hours trying to figure out what the problem was. It was well past midnight when they transferred me to a bed, and it took over a week to figure out what the problem was.

Since it was a teaching hospital, doctors came by with interns doing rounds. They do ask for your cooperation. You are not required to participate. I am student-friendly and allowed interns to examine me, ask questions, and make homework of me.

I was very popular. There were consults with a number of department heads, each one trying to determine the nature of my pain. Everybody got to prod, prick or send me into cold rooms with loud machines. I was treated well, but not everybody showed empathy. Empathy requires understanding and action; it is more than words, there must be intent to soothe the soul of its pains as well.

The head of oncology was a lovely man, tall and imposing, but also very polite and transparent. After our first visit and a round of tests, he did a personal consult to inform me that the problem was not cancerous in nature, and asked if I’d allow him to return with his students on rounds. I agreed.
Mom happened to be visiting when he rolled around with his interns. She was sitting back, catching her breath after a hot and humid commute on a slow bus. I was laying back in the Wonder Woman socks Barbara sent me, playing WWF with La Belle Dame de Baton Rouge, while he lectured the interns on what they could expect on a worst-case scenario (with varying degrees of horrific details).

Somehow, Mom missed a word or two of the intro; and, when I looked up, she’d blanched to the point I think she was ready to drop (whether faint or to a stroke was unclear). It quickly dawned on me what was happening.
“No! No, Mom!!! That’s just for them, not about me,” I tried to explain but words got twisted in the delivery.
The doctor stopped, and both he and a dozen students turned to watch my mother’s eyes watering, her skin pallid, her breath clearly gone. 
{Houston, we have a problem: complete meltdown in three, two, one…}
“Mom?” She couldn’t hear me. Her eyes were fixed inward in the horror of the words she had just heard—
She just heard a man tell a bunch of strangers her baby girl was dying!
A good number of the interns were still taking notes or trying to digest the gist of their mini-lecture on differential diagnoses. The doctor, on the other hand, immediately realized the problem, stepped forward toward Mom, and shielded her from the students’ view.
“I apologize,” he said. “The worst case scenario I just mentioned is for academic purposes only, not at all the case with your daughter. The problem with her pain is not an oncology problem.”
He dismissed the students and asked that they wait outside. He hugged Mom and reassured her. His voice was soft, the delivery self-assured and authoritative…

“We have a few very capable teams on the case,” he told her. “She is a strong young woman and I’ve no doubt you’ll have a diagnosis soon.” He spoke to her for a few minutes, and offered to answer any of her questions. Despite not having concrete answers, he gave her enough of a foundation for hope by simply addressing her personally.
He stopped short of promising her they’d fix me, but his moral support implied it. That was all she needed. Slowly her color returned to her lovely face—though she was tired and worried still.

Empathy and excellent bedside manner can be an elixir in itself. Even if applied to someone other than the patient herself.

In writing that scene, with no other details, I wonder if the empathy is palpable on its own. Perhaps it was a combination of the doctor’s no bull approach coupled with an Old World genteel civility. Maybe that was all that it took to perceive empathy. Or perhaps we desperately wanted to see one of these authority figures to possess empathy.

Showing empathy can be tricky in writing—you always run the danger of making it all exposition. And while I don’t necessarily condone profiling, I bet those who literally felt the empathy knew how unusual the main character here is from the archetype of an institutional doctor who is also an administrator (I wrote the anti “House”). 

*For the record, I have health insurance, although I did spend about two years without, and am likely to lose it again soon enough, but that's another story and there is no empathy involved.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Overextend Yourself to Build Something Durable

It has been a long time since I’ve been so busy.

Sadly, busy these days does not always translate in the same return on time invested. No longer a corporate drone, as it were, I am not exactly entitled to time and a half or even overtime pay…

On the other hand, I get to help authors put their work out into the world, and it is fun!

I love the part where I get to build these professional relationships, and my work ethic and work product gets me good word-of-mouth and new clients. That feels fan-freaking-tastic! Truthfully.

I tried to pursue an opportunity and it turns out that it probably wasn’t for me for a variety of reasons. That’s okay. Some of it was interesting and it helped to remind me that I don’t need to water-down my standards (in terms of what I want or don’t want to do for a living), and that my greatest asset is creative problem-solving. 

There isn’t a hurdle I won’t try to jump over. I will not be beaten by details! If I cannot perform a task, I am always honest about it. But that rarely means that I will accept it and leave it at that. I conquer it. I must.

Freelancing has the power to push you intellectually and you learn new skills, you adapt and move on or fall flat. But it also can exacerbate doubt especially during lean times. And this is why you must not shy away from opportunity, even if it means overextending yourself a little bit.

You will sleep little and you will be tired, but in a good way.

I haven’t been doing a lot of writing, but I just did my taxes and was so darned proud to be able to fill in royalties again on my forms. It’s not enough to buy a house in Malibu, but that was never the point!

A couple of stories remain very active in my head, as I try to make some details work. And I know I need to get back to my writing soon.

Sometimes you have to overextend yourself to build something durable. 

Sometimes focus needs to shift to other areas of operations—focus from yourself as author to authors as clients (or possibly part of your own catalogue).

Learning new tricks, that opens new pathways in the brain, and knowing you can still do that is worth the effort – not just for the financial benefits but for future reference. The one piece of rewriting that will happen soon is on the CV.

And until I can get back to my stories – writing and editing – I will have no regrets that I used my waking time to elevate my game, maintain the freelance practice running, and contribute to the world of publishing from the backend of the business. I will proofread others' stories, I will build linked table of contents, convert manuscripts to electronic formats, tweak book jackets into ebook covers, submit the books to vendors and e-commerce apps, and design the interior pages for print on demand books. It helps pay the rent and put food on the table. And anything I learn I can always use in my own writing life. 

And make no mistake, this writing life is a long-haul thing. I'm in it now. There's no way out.