Friday, October 18, 2013

Listening with our pens: Narrative humility for writers

I spend my life at the intersection of the stethoscope and the pen. Although I was originally trained in pediatrics and public health, as a writer, as well as a faculty member in Columbia University’s Master’s Program in Narrative Medicine, and co-chair of Columbia’s University Seminar on Narrative, Health and Social Justice, I spend most of my days writing, teaching, and thinking about the role of stories in healthcare.

Narrative Medicine is the clinical and scholarly endeavor to honor the role of story in the healing relationship. Long before doctors had anything of interest in their black bags – no MRIs, no lab tests, no fancy all body CAT scans – what they had was the ability to show up, what they had was the ability to listen, and bear witness to someone’s life, death, illness, suffering, and everything else that comes in between.

And so, I spend most of my days teaching clinicians-to-be how to listen. I do this by having them read stories, and take oral histories, and study lots of narrative theory. I teach them the work of scholars like medical sociologist Arthur Frank, who explains that when illness or trauma interrupt our life stories, we need new stories to help navigate these uncharted waters. Although it was always there, illness and trauma bring into sharp focus our basic human need for narration. We are, after all, fundamentally storied creatures.

But besides all this, what I also do is teach my students to listen by writing stories. I have them do listener response – writing in reaction to a poem or story we read in class. I have them write to a prompt – ‘when was the last time you witnessed suffering?’ I have them write ongoing personal illness narratives – weekly narratives in which I ask them to tell of the same experience but from a different point of view or genre or form to help unpack not only their own personal stories (stories which inform how they in turn will listen to the stories of others), but discover how stories work – in regard to plot, form, function, and voice.

So yes, I’m training people to be better doctors by teaching them how to be writers.

Over the years, I’ve explained some of how this all works with a philosophy of listening I’ve been callingNarrative Humility. Narrative Humility is not about gaining any sense of competence or mastery over our patients, or their stories. Rather, it is about paying attention to our own inner workings – our expectations, our prejudices, our own cadre of personal stories that impact how we react to the stories of others. You can hear me talk all about it here, during a recent TEDx event at Sarah Lawrence College (where I also teach).

But it serves to reason that if doctors can borrow skills from writers to do their jobs better, then perhaps the reciprocal thing can happen as well. In other words, does narrative humility have any lessons for those leading the writing life?

1.     Active Listening – This is an easy one. Writers are told all the time to listen: for regional accents, for scraps of interesting dialogue, for pieces of intriguing stories. We listen to ourselves too through journaling, going on writing retreats, and digging deep into our cadre of personal and familial stories for sources of inspiration. We even talk about listening to our characters, and letting them co-create the story that we’re telling. For writers, as for doctors, listening is a necessary adjunct to action. It is a way of filling ourselves up – like blood into the heart, air into the lungs – before we breathe out stories, images, words onto the page.

     To read the rest of this essay, please visit Uma Krishnaswami's Blog Writing with a Broken Tusk!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Racy, Sexy, and Culturally Appropriate-y: It's Halloween Again, Folks!

Okay, someone tell me – since when did Halloween become a time to fly your racist and sexist flags without censure? I, for one, am tired of it.
So, hopefully we’re all on board by now with the idea that dressing our daughters up as ‘naughty’ leopards and ‘sexy’ nurses might be, say, a tad disgusting. As much as we may be told to ‘take a joke’ and not ‘take ourselves so seriously’,sexualizing young girls is a thing, patriarchal thing that reduces girls and women to their bodies and body parts rather than their intellects and personalities, and a thing that suggests that girls and women exist simply for the sexual pleasure of heterosexual men. (And it’s not so great for young boys either, who are told to conform to certain muscle-bound macho-man stereotypes.) Don’t believe it still? Here’s some side by side comparisons of boy vs. girl costumes and – gag reflex warning—men’s vs. women’s costumes.
But let me use this opportunity to remind us that racist cultural drag – where real life people’s ethnic dress is co-opted into Halloween costumes – is equally gross. As this brilliant series of ads from a anti-racist college student group in Ohio reminds us, a white faced geisha or a sombrero-clad ‘Mexican’ or a feather-headbanded ‘Indian’ costume reduces entire communities of people to simplistic, offensive stereotypes. Such costumes erase our rich and varied cultural backgrounds, and effectively dehumanize people of color – serving us up as cultural jokes rather than equals.
And just in case you thought that racist drag was only something that gets trotted out in late October, let’s remember that ‘racist rages’ happen on plenty of campuses all year round. From ‘Cowboys and Indians’ or ‘Mexican’ themed frat parties to white students wearing blackface or dressing in stereotypical ‘hood’ drag to ‘celebrate’ Martin Luther King Jr. day! Ugh! So enough with that thing, too.
But what can we do about it? Well, I’m so glad you asked. Here’s some thoughts:
  • Use this handy anti-racist costume checklist – useful not just at Halloween! Created by students at Hampshire College, this checklist of questions including Does my costume represent a culture that is not my own? and Does my costume packaging include the words ‘traditional,’ ‘ethnic’, ‘colonial,’ ‘cultural,’ ‘authentic,’ or ‘tribal’? is a handy guide for those, erm, unintentional racists and xenophobes among us. (But seriously, my advice? If you have to ask yourself ‘is my costume racist?’ maybe that’s a good sign you shouldn’t be wearing that costume. And if your frat brother or sorority sister suggests a party involving sombreros or changing everyone’s skin color – DON’T!).
  • How about finding a non-tarty Halloween costume for our toddlers from this list of Empowering Costumes for Little Girls; I’m thinking Amelia Earhart or Hermione might be a better role model for a little girl than, say, a sexy pirate? And here are some related ideas for grown-up women including Baba Yaga, Athena, and Frida Kahlo that might help us plan a cleavage- and fishnet-free holiday.
Amelia Earhart and Hermione Granger costumes via A Mighty Girl
Amelia Earhart and Hermione Granger costumes via
  • What about having an explicitly political Halloween – tongue-in-cheek suggestions courtesy of Feministing – by dressing up as a Radical Militant Librarian, or the Ghost of Health Care Bills Past? You get Nerd-lady props along with extra points for being non-racist and non-sexist.
To read the rest of this essay please visit Adios, Barbie!

The Children's Hour: Poetry Study With Middle Grade Readers

It started this summer, when we visited Boston. We had just been to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s house in Cambridge. We were relaxing on the Harvard University lawn, and, inspired by the uber-intellectual environment, I asked my then eight year old to read me one of Longfellow’s poems from the slim volume we had just bought. I half- way thought she would refuse. But she good-humoredly began to read The Children’s Hour, delighting in Longfellow’s description of his own daughters:
From my study I see in the lamplight,
      Descending the broad hall stair,
Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra,
      And Edith with golden hair.

A whisper, and then a silence:
      Yet I know by their merry eyes
They are plotting and planning together
      To take me by surprise.
 And for the last number of months, my now nine and eleven year old have indeed taken me by surprise with their enthusiasm for our daily poetry study. On the way to school, I ask them each to read me a poem of their choice from a collection of famous poems we keep in the car. What has surprised me is how much more their enthusiasm is for these poems than Shel Silverstein or the other ‘children’s poetry’ we have in the house. There is something about the ‘big topics’ addressed — love, death, yearning, freedom, God — that fascinates them. So too does the vulnerability of these long-ago adult poets appeal; although they don’t say it, I hear the amazement in their voices when they read the stanzas aloud. (And I imagine their inner dialogue: Adults feel scared or confused like we do? Adults that long ago were so inspired by love and beauty?) For instance, the courage and perseverance of the speaker in William Ernest Henley’s Invictus seems to speak to my son, who comes back to this poem again and again on our morning read-alouds,
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
It makes sense. After all, a primary developmental task of the middle grader is defining of the self in relation to the environment. And what older elementary schooler/middle schooler wouldn’t be inspired by the majestic inner strength of the lines
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
His love for this poem have allowed us to discuss Nelson Mandela, who — or so the movie says — recited this poem to himself during his many years of captivity in South Africa. We discuss how an idea, an image, can give someone strength to endure the apparently unendurable. We discuss the power, and comfort, of words.
For my more whimsical daughter, William Wordsworth’s Daffodils seems to hold particular resonance. So much so that she’s been heard now reciting the lines to herself all around the house:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Like Invictus, the ultimate message of the poem is about building – and relying upon – one’s inner resources. A message utterly appropriate to a young person who is relatively powerless in this world so defined by adults:
To read the rest of this post please visit From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors!