Christine Montross, author of Body of Work and Falling Into the Fire (just out from The Penguin Press today!), worried that changing careers would compromise her writing. Here, she tells how taking a risk unexpectedly deepened her writing practice—and opened the doors to the publishing industry.
It was just two years after finishing an MFA in poetry that I unexpectedly started thinking about medical school. I was not that kid who always knew she wanted to be a doctor, taking my stethoscope to teddy bears and dissecting squirrels in the backyard. I was the kid who carried around a poetry journal and a separate notebook dedicated to my favorite words; the seventh grader who wrote an (admittedly terrible) novel after school hours for fun. In college, I shook my head in disbelief as my friends wrestled with chemistry equations and spent mind-numbing hours in the physics lab. I’d sleep in, read my stacks of fiction and poetry in the most beautiful corners of the campus, and then stay up all night writing papers about Zola and Rousseau.
The MFA in poetry that followed was a dream—two years on fellowship to read and write! But in the writing and reading I found myself returning to themes of madness and questions about the mind. After two years of teaching writing—first at a prestigious university and then at a floundering high school—I was increasingly preoccupied with my fascination with the brain. Eventually, I decided that I wanted to become a psychiatrist, implausible as it was. But even as I grew more and more certain, I felt disloyal and afraid. I knew that becoming a psychiatrist meant medical school and residency: an all-consuming career path of many years and legendary eighty-hour workweeks. I feared that it also meant abandoning writing.
My partner Deborah always says that in making a major life change you know exactly what you’re giving up, but that it’s hard to know what exactly you might gain. She’s right, of course. The old friends you leave behind when you move to a new city are concrete and real; the new friends you will surely make are an uncertain abstraction. You know you’ll miss your favorite take-out joint, but you can’t know yet about the bar you’ll discover with the impossibly good chocolate bread pudding.
That was how it was for me with medicine. I knew I would lose out on writing time, and on the ability to immerse myself solely in literature. What I didn’t know was the evocative nomenclature of the anatomical landscape. I didn’t know blood cells were so beautiful beneath a microscope. I didn’t yet understand that doctors are present in the most human, and poignant, and unscripted moments of life: birth, death, diagnosis, relief, devastation, cure. I didn’t realize that becoming a doctor would open a whole new world to me—a world that demanded to be written about.
I figured it out pretty quickly. My first day in the anatomy lab, as my classmates and I prepared for dissecting our human cadavers, I knew that I wouldn’t get through the semester unless I wrote about it. How could I possibly make sense of it otherwise? So just as I had always done, I jotted beautiful words in a notebook (epiphysis, ischium, foramen ovale) and wrote my thoughts in a journal. Some days I wrote only a sentence, some days page after page.
Before I knew it, I was writing a book manuscript. I hadn’t abandoned writing at all. In fact, writing kept me sane in medicine, and medicine kept offering up fascinating things to explore in writing. The pairing felt so natural that I could barely understand how I didn’t foresee the symbiosis.
That manuscript became Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab. The irony of my pre-med fear is that Body of Work quickly found a good home at the Penguin Press where it became a beautiful book that people still buy and read. Unlike the handful of poems I’d had published when I was writing and teaching full-time, Body of Work has allowed my writing to have a broader reach. I speak widely at universities and conferences, and I have the chance to write articles in a range of publications that interest me. My second book, Falling Into the Fire: A Psychiatrist’s Encounters with the Mind in Crisis, was also published by The Penguin Press, and it comes out today. In Falling Into the Fire, I drew on a series of my most severe cases— including a woman who swallows bedsprings and knife blades, and a normal-appearing man who is convinced that his skin is horribly disfigured—to examine the human costs of mental illness and the challenges of diagnosis and treatment.
I love my job in a psychiatric hospital, and I feel that my work there is important and good. My patients’ illnesses offer me mysteries to unravel, and lead me to dig deeply into the questions that their symptoms pose. I’m grateful that I followed that persistent tug toward psychiatry and the brain, and that it led me into this rich confluence of writing and medicine. I’m glad I didn’t let my sense of what I might lose prevent me from gaining this fine balance of creativity and science. And don’t even get me started on that ridiculous bread pudding.
For more about Christine, visit her website, www.christinemontross.com.