Why I Write (and Why You Should, Too)

There are more days than I wish to count where self-doubt arrives like an unwelcome party guest in my consciousness, drinks too much, and ad libs an awkward toast to my failures. I’m months away from becoming a physician, and my anxieties are only mounting. I’m sure someday soon I will be longing for my short white coat, synonymous with the status of a medical student. Mistakes are expected, even encouraged, when your coat doesn’t even grace the tips of your fingertips or cover the coffee you spilled in your lap on the drive to work. All of this is to say that, as I begin residency, writing is a more valuable tool than ever for nurturing my sense of self-worth.

I have a confession. In the title, where I suggest that you should write, too, I mean it in the broadest sense — writing as a means of creating. You should create things, too. Creating is an act of processing. It also provides you, as a healthcare provider, an insurance policy for your sense of self for the days and nights in the hospital that seem like they tally more failures than successes.

What you end up creating may never be what you intended. When fully engaged in a craft, I can sense the self-aware elements of my consciousness seceding the reins. Writing, creating, is where I find out what I’ve been thinking all along. The thrill of writing is watching what floats to the surface. It may begin with a simple thought or observation.

One night, as I was 18 hours into a 24-hour trauma surgery shift, a man arrived in the emergency department. He had been shot several places in the chest. A LUCAS device, which provides CPR in place of a person, had already been placed over his chest. The rhythmic thump of the mechanical arm forcing blood through his inert heart filled the room. One deep and dreamless sleep later, I began: “Bullets are funny things/That something so small/can hurt so much.” The senseless act of a shooting, and his ultimate death of him, were starkly disproportionate to the size of the bullet. The equation was broken. None of it made sense, and maybe it shouldn’t.

Sometimes writing just means stowing away lines of poetry or sentiments for later use. I can’t remember the context now, except to say it was in the gastrointestinal clinic and the woman was suffering. She had come to the emergency room the week prior in severe pain and had left the hospital with a sense of being disregarded, the reality of her pain denied. What she said was, “The doctor only touched me once.” It was weeks later that the line resurfaced, and subtext emerged. I wrote, “Only one doctor touched me/as if to say, that was how little they cared/that is to say, see how little they cared.”

Writing is also a chance to be newly inspired by medicine, patients, and colleagues. During a surgical rotation, I helped care for a patient whose cancer had progressed so far as to become obstructive, preventing the possibility of any food from passing through the large intestine. The surgeon sat on the edge of his bed from him, eloquently explaining the impossibility of a surgical cure for cancer that has metastasized: “It is like a starry sky, and maybe one star went out, but there are so many of those stars left .”

The patient’s daughter was 7. The visiting hours were short but not short enough. I don’t want her to see me like this. He never thought of himself, only the inevitable inadequacy of his ability to prepare her for his absence in her life. In the operating room, his insides of him were a galaxy, the peritoneum speckled with throngs of those tiny stars.

While medical schools and residency programs increasingly champion work-life balance, the reality is, there will always be something competing for your time and energy. The “life” part of work-life balance feels like another thing on the to-do list. We are asked to alternately be a student or physician, a confidant, caretaker, teacher, mentor, and maybe a partner, sister, child, and parent. But I promise you, finding time to pursue a creative hobby is worth it. Hobbies have been shown to significantly decrease rates of burnout and long-term stress.

So, maybe it’s been a long time since you’ve pulled out the box of paintbrushes under your bed or played with chords on the guitar — more aspiration than instrument — in the corner of the bedroom. But I urge you, take that time, do it even if you don’t think you have anything to do. Because it’s not what you make, it’s who you become in the process.

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About Liana Meffert

Liana Meffert is a fourth-year medical student at the University of Iowa’s Carver College of Medicine. She has previously been awarded an Academy of American Poets Poetry Prize, Stanford’s Irvin David Yalom Literary Award, University of Iowa’s Carol A. Bowman Creative Writing Award, honorable mentions for the William Carlos Williams Poetry Award, and the F. Sean Hodge Prize for Poetry in Medicine. Her work by her has been featured in
The Examined Life and
The Healing Muse, among others.

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