Through the Looking Glass: #HarvardWriters2018

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I was a fish out of water.

It started with Boston. Coming from in-the-middle-of-nowhere Upstate New York, the tangled concrete wet oppression that is Boston is a shocker. Harried people everywhere, crowding each-other while acting as if they’re all alone in their PJs. Nobody’s making eye contact unless they are offering you a paper cup to drop some change. Half look like CEOs in full garb, half look like they don’t own a mirror, the rest look like the circus is in town.

Fairmont Copley Plaza when it ran out of rain

The Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel, with its uniformed superior butler standing by the now empty dog house, the arresting flower arrangements under glowing chandeliers and gilded ceilings, the mosaics, the Picassos hanging in the hallway, the fur store showcasing the dyed remains of minks, coyotes and foxes that one shouldn’t buy unless they plan to get mobbed, the breakfast of transparent coffee, tired bagels, dysfunctional toasters and no protein but the walnuts.

The conference itself was held in the stupendous ballroom. I got strategic: I hogged the last seat on the right in the last row, because it was close to everything that mattered: food, the panel of editors and agents we all mobbed during the breaks, the door for quick escapes, and an outlet to charge my computer.

I placed my backpack on the next seat to prevent mingling. I hate mingling: it’s speaking to people you don’t know about things that you don’t care about. Regardless, for this conference social interaction was not only encouraged but demanded. I avoided it like the plague. I limited my interactions to saying “Thank you” when somebody held a door.

I compensated by tweeting like crazy. Or maybe twittering? I did lots of it from the safe anonymity of my phone. I facebooked, I instagrammed and I messaged through the long hours of sitting and listening to many of the same things I’d listened to last year. Oh, I didn’t mention it? I’d been here before.

Last year’s conference had been an avalanche of information pouring over me. I learned about platforms, about blogging, about owning your domain name (your virtual real estate), about Twitter. I got dizzy with new knowledge. I was excited and overwhelmed. I was sure I’d missed half of it so I went back this year.

I was mistaken. I had actually grasped most of it. I’d processed it and I worked through it. I bought my domain name — four of them in fact, GoDaddy had a good sale. I created a website. I started a blog that nobody looked at. I scrapped it. I started another one. I started to tweet but soon fell off the wagon, since I tweeted to the Universe and the Universe didn’t tweet back. I started working on my platform (that’s a four letter word, by the way). I bought Writer’s Market. I wrote an article which got accepted. I’m waiting for a check. You wonder what it’s about, I know. It’s called “A Mammogram in Thailand”. Can you top that?

This curriculum wasn’t new to me. What was new was listening to the book pitches.

Last year I had been so infatuated with my own vague idea of a memoir about something in my extraordinary unique fascinating life that “the others” were the competition. They were stealing MY spotlight. I knew damn well that their ideas were less interesting than mine, their lives less unusual, their problems less daunting. They had to be; after all, they weren’t mine.

This time it was different. I struggled with the memoir. I couldn’t do it. I just wasn’t ready to bare it all. I’d rather go naked — and it’s cold — than open the windows to my soul, maybe even to myself.

I therefore took my protagonist and I dressed her in somebody else’s clothes. I removed her husband, I took away her dog and I gave her an obnoxious teenage daughter. I fantasized about killing some of her colleagues and doing some terrible things and I called it fiction. That made me an outsider in the nonfiction club.

Since I was hors-concours and no longer competing, I was actually able to listen to the others.

Some were well rehearsed. Some were breathless. Some took too long and some not long enough. Some had an accent, some were smooth as glass. They were all passionate and they all had fascinating stories.

A mother of twins, one with ADHD.

A ketogenic diet for medication resistant schizophrenia.

An infertile infertility doctor.

Burnout in doctors.

A young woman dying from breast cancer.

A mother of a transgender daughter.

Dealing with suicide in college kids.

Burnout in doctors.

End of life issues.

Refugees from the Middle East whose families stayed home.

Bipolar medical professionals.

Paraplegic brothers.

Weight loss in sexual assault victims.

Depression.

Dying young mothers.

Living in the moment.

Did I mention burnout in doctors?

I’d tried to avoid them. They were too confident, too well dressed, too forthcoming. They were intruding in my personal little bubble, trampling the little confidence I had.

As I listened to them, they became real people with real torments. My problems paled by comparison. Who knew there are so many different ways to suffer?!

They think they are writing for their readers. More than that, every one of them was writing from inside, trying to set something free. A memory, a pain, a person, a burden. A dream.

Listening to these brave people baring their soul, I learned a few things.

  1. We, health professionals, are a community.
  2. Doctors are people too.
  3. Pain comes in countless flavors.
  4. When you listen, you are never alone.

Rada Jones, MD, is an Emergency Physician. She practices in Upstate New York where she lives with her husband, Steve, a German Shepherd named Gypsy Rose Lee and a deaf black cat named Paxil. She is finishing her first novel, “Overdose, an ER Thriller” where a lot of people die in unnatural but exciting ways. You can find more from her at RadaJonesMD.com, instagram RadaJonesMD and twitter @JonesRada.

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