“I believe in telling the total emotional truth, or as much of it as I can clasp.”
Gail Waldstein is author of To Quit This Calling, a memoir of her 35 years as a pediatric pathologist, and Afterimage, a poetry chapbook. Her stories, essays and poems have won numerous awards and have appeared in New Letters, Carve, The Potomac Review and many other journals. An excerpt from Mind Riot, a memoir about her disintegration into schizophrenia, is available to read at Solstice Literary Review. She lives in Denver, Colorado.
As a pediatric pathologist you routinely conducted autopsies on dead children, as well as diagnosing leukemia and brain tumors on very sick children. How did your career choice impact your creative life?
I had always wanted to write and a few years after a grueling internship in pediatrics, ’68-69, when I also gave birth to my first child and worked every-other-night for the rest of that year, I did write about that and was published in the early ‘70s. By then I had two more babies and my marriage was fragmenting. I was divorced in ‘76. I put aside all hopes of writing then, continued in pediatric pathology full time and solo-raised three children for fifteen years.
The truth of what I did daily in the morgue, the operating room, at the surgical bench and microscope, diagnosing tumors in babies and children drained my humanity. Said another way, in order to stay reasonably sane I shut down empathy and worked, wrote medical articles, book chapters and never accepted career advances that would require working evenings, which were dedicated to being home with the children.
“Creative” for me during those super-busy years equaled crocheting, cooking, embroidery. I kept a journal, always have, but didn’t venture into serious writing again until a poem seized me in the early ‘90s, when I pulled over, parked and wrote. By then the children were off at college or into early careers and I was remarried, another adventure that was going to hell. I continued in pathology, but increasingly found that the armor I had to wear to muscle through the surgeries and autopsies was diametrically opposed to my being able to peel my skin off and write from a raw place, which is how I wanted my work to be. I want to move a reader’s heart, to create in them the emotions that sweep us, almost slay us, move us deeply. Eventually, this dichotomy between how I had to present myself, and how I wanted to be caused (or contributed to) several severe diseases. Later, after lots of drugs, surgeries and wrestling with part time work, I quit medicine, primarily because of rheumatoid arthritis. Economically, an insane decision, but personally fulfilling and the right thing for my writing and my body. It took a few years before I noticed my body had begun to unclench, cells were breathing again.
The story of your health is story itself. You’ve survived cancer of the cervix, rheumatoid arthritis, and schizophrenia (for which you were treated in a mental institution). Do you consider writing a form of therapy?
I have been asked that question many, many times or told that my writing is therapeutic, that it’s so confessional and out-there that it must bring closure or relief or healing. And while writing, the way I approach it is very interior, visceral and (hopefully) deep, it is not therapy.
I was in intense psychotherapy after my hospitalization at age 30 for three years. That experience was painful, self-revealing, transformative. I have been blessed not needing psychiatric drugs afterward, but I remain connected to therapy and assume I will return for “mini-fixes” forever. While it’s easier now, having lived with my disease for decades, and recognizing danger and mental disorder faster than ever, I can say that the worst day of writing, when I’m stalled in front of a legal pad or computer, desolate and dry, the most difficult dark places I visit in my work, the most eviscerating confessions I decide to expose, is like eating a thick slice of chocolate cake compared to those early years of therapy. There is no comparison.
You are a later-in-life writer. How did you come to writing?
I am definitely a late-life writer, but as I said earlier, it was something I always wanted to do. I read poetry and novels in med school, sometimes secreted paperbacks inside medical texts. I would’ve graduated higher in my class had I read more medicine, no doubt, but I majored in both English Lit and Biology in college, and I desperately missed literature in the sterile, memorization-oriented sphere of medical school.
My writing began as my second marriage was crumbling. I saw lovers kissing on a Denver street in a snow storm and it reminded me of my first kiss and I wrote what I saw, what it renewed in my body. That opened some connection with the muse, some daring. I had always wanted to write about my hospitalization and had made weak stabs over the years. In the mid-90s, as more poems, stories and essays arrived, I began work on my book, Mind Riot, which I’m still wrestling.
You write in many forms: essay, poetry, short story, memoir. Which came first, and what does one form offer that another doesn’t?
Poems came first, and still, if I’m lucky enough to feel one bubbling up, I stop whatever I’m doing and write. It’s not automatic writing, but I do want to honor the impetus.
Prose writing is more work, more struggle, more muscular for me. Not that I don’t work hard on my poetry, I do, but the end is always close, the rhythm set, the music compact. For prose I try to remember Ron Carlson’s advice, where in the body does this happen and write toward that. I have a erratic approach to writing (as do most women writers). I may see a shape, a floating color, a locale where I realized something novel, a vision of a loved one in a particular slant of light, an argument, and that starts things. I don’t read for plot and if it shows up in my work, great, but I’m not primarily interested in it. Occasionally I think I know where I’m going, but I don’t outline. I think the delight of “first writes” for me is discovery and planning would ablate that.
As I reread an ugly first draft, I’ll see ten or twenty pages without a single scene. Revision time. It took me many years to learn that revision is not simply editing, but seeing the whole piece anew. I now love revision as much as a fresh start, which I never thought I’d say.
I realize in rereading your question I haven’t answered what form offers what. That’s probably because in pathology I considered myself a “lumper,” not a “splitter.” I saw similarities between tumors; I noted the dance of malignant cells and their relationships, and found that more interesting than individual characteristics that subcategorize and define individual malignancies. I certainly could and did break things into small cubby-holes; that was my job, my career. But I’m not sure I ever subscribed to the concept that such minute distinctions were as important as medical professionals insisted.
I feel the same way about prose. I’m not a strict nonfiction MUST be TRUE kind of woman. I believe in telling the total emotional truth, or as much of it as I can clasp, but I often have no idea whether I’m writing memoir, short story or creative nonfiction. And to add to my personal confused philosophy, many of my pieces, which invariably contain autobiography, have won awards in two or three of these “classifications.”
(I first read this question as to what informs my work, so as a “bonus,” I’ll leave what I wrote to answer this unasked question: My obsessions inform my writing, love and its foibles, observed and experienced, is a theme I come back to often. My long exposure to medicine and my experiences in it as a doctor and then a patient colors my work and infuses my vocabulary. Feminism is also woven deeply in my writing.)
For many years you served as a creative writing mentor for Denver Public Schools (earning teacher of the year in 2003), and also taught at the college level. I have been the beneficiary of your insightful and incisive editing. What do you find turns a piece from ordinary to extraordinary (and how do we do it?!)
If I could answer that, I’d win some prize. There’s something about the strength of truth that hits the reader in the gut. I know it when I see it, the old Supreme Court comment about pornography, applies. You feel it in your cells, you gasp, your nose starts running and you know you’re about to cry. Sometimes pretty prose alone, the music of it, catches my breath, or a strange, mystical image; sometimes it’s a peculiar juxtaposition, two ideas that are unrelated are mashed together and I’m forced to rethink reality. As far as I know there is no simple rule for making writing extraordinary. Except, maybe the old saw, How does one get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.
I do know though, that without risk there is little but ho-hum. You hear risk easily in humor, people have to go over the edge, insult or offend (and often apologize), but without the courage to try something wild and new, there’s no extraordinary, just rehash.
I encourage that risk-taking in writers all the time. A lot easier if I don’t have to do it myself. But of course, I try and make myself tell the absolute truth, the fullness of what happened and what an idiot I was, or how base and mean and petty I was. I think we all need to tell the full truth as best we can. I believe writers are obligated to show pimples, prejudice, injustice, corruption, at least on the page, and hopefully kindness and perhaps redemption, or at least an inclination to reform.
I still teach and mentor in the public schools, now through a program run at Lighthouse Writers Workshop and when I get something from a student that evokes a visceral reaction I try and let the reaction show. I applaud these young artists who exhibit courage, and am humbled and inspired by their fertile, fervent minds.
Bonus Question: I’m a word collector, and encourage writers to gather words with interesting textures, sounds and significance. What are your favorite words?
yes, love, hope, simple, laughter, truth, courage, writing, grace, chocolate