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Physician-Poet’s Writing Program Melds Art and Medicine

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More Americans are reading poetry now than they have since 1992, according to results of a National Endowment for the Arts survey. Coinciding with this comeback is the rise of Narrative Medicine as a discipline. Physician-poet David Watts and his wife, Creative Writing Professor Joan Baranow, PhD, know this well. They have put together a number of conferences on the topic and recently launched a Low-Residency Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program with a Narrative Medicine focus. Dr. Watts, who has previously been featured in Op-Med's Medical Humanities series, talked to us about his path to poetry and their new program.

A Conversation with David Watts, MD, MA

Can you tell us about the new MFA program?

Dominican University of CA has launched a new Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing that offers an optional track in Narrative/Poetic Medicine. The track is designed for those who share a passion for writing about illness and healing.

For those unfamiliar, how does a Low-Residency program work?

Faculty and students gather together twice a year on Dominican's pastoral campus just north of San Francisco for a week of workshops, lectures, panels, and readings by nationally recognized writers and poets. The rest of the year fits well into the life of a busy medical professional, time spent working with your mentor by email, writing and revising, creating and giving thought to the form and style of the piece materializing between you. At the end of two years you have an advanced degree in creative writing and a finished project.

This is the first time I've seen a Narrative/Poetic Medicine track. How did that come about?

The idea for the track grew out of the summer writers' conference I created, Writing the Medical Experience. The conference first met in 2003 as part of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers in the Sierra Nevada and continued for the next four years on the campus of Sarah Lawrence College, attracting participants from all over the country. Faculty members included notable writers and poets such as Richard Selzer, Frank Huyler, Courtney Davis, John Fox, Ted Kooser, Jack Coulehan, and Alicia Ostriker. The idea was both to foster great writing and to build bridges of communication between doctors, nurses, patients, and caregivers.

The conference then moved to back home to the west coast. The Dominican campus was an ideal location — my wife Joan Baranow, who has supported the conferences in myriad ways, is a professor there and facilitated the move. After co-directing the conference in 2010 and 2012, we conceived of the idea of expanding the summer conference into something more on-going. Dominican's MFA Narrative/Poetic medicine track was born.

What led you to poetry?

As physicians, nurses, therapists, and healers it is a great privilege to observe and respond to human nature during the most difficult and revealing of life challenges. The medical encounter offers an immediately intimate interaction at the core of human existence. It is the making of great literature.

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