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Here’s how a writing workshop encouraged this doctor’s enthusiasm.
When I left New York City in the summer of 2020, as did many others (especially those like me who are at high risk for COVID-19), I left the "Writing for the Lay Public" workshop that I cofounded with Deborah Cabaniss, MD. That moment meant losing the ongoing, exceptional personal and professional privilege the workshop afforded me. No more thinking and writing with some of the most generous, thoughtful, and dedicated people I have known. No more of the heartening feeling (in short supply nowadays) I took from witnessing the trust and support the group members gave one another. And no one to teach me!
Once a month, repeating each academic semester, those who had signed up to attend gathered for 90 minutes. We were all there to listen and respond to a fellow workshop member’s draft—an approximately 800-word article written for the workshop and read aloud there. Because this workshop was hosted by the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia Medical School, attendance was limited to members of the department, including residents, fellows, graduate students in psychology, junior and senior faculty, and members of the neuroscience community. The department chair came for 1 meeting to read and hear comments on an essay he wanted to publish—a kind endorsement of the workshop.
As I recall, there were 10 participants 9 years ago, and 30 at the end of the 9-year run. Workshop members’ nonfiction commentaries and essays found their ways into dozens of online publications, including Psychiatric TimesTM.
Some workshop members came for 1 semester; others for a few sequential semesters. Some left and returned, and a handful of die-hards have participated for about all of the 18 semesters.
I co-led the workshop with a senior faculty member in the Psychiatry Department’s Resident and Fellow Training Division. As a psychoanalyst and writer of professional books, she was a great complement to what I had to offer—which, I think, was mostly a faith in those seeking to give voice to their professional (and personal) experiences, latent without a medium for expression.
This was not a didactic course. There was no homework, either (except for writing). Collectively, participants and coleaders created a safe and supportive environment for all who wanted to build on the craft of nonfiction writing. The workshop members were the best teachers: They listened and commented as readers, as might the intended audience for the article. The discussion often considered who the audience was for the written piece. We frequently asked, what is your message or point of view?
Clarity of writing, not literary or grammatical skill, carried the day. Essay beginnings and endings, brevity, and a steady, narrative line that carried the reader from the first to the last paragraph were stressed—humor and levity, as well, to help the “medicine” go down. All of this was done virtually once COVID-19 emerged.
The topics were as varied as the participants. Though, to my mind, they all sought to make sense of being human and our so very transitory lives. The writings were about loss; wonder; transitions; setbacks and successes; love and attachment; mental and addictive disorders; our brains and bodies, inseparable; trying to comprehend a paradoxical and ironical world; those individuals and communities who seemed to have lost their moral mooring; those who have abandoned the common good; professional experiences that taught or transformed; change or the impediments to change; and more. In other words, whatever the author set out to portray. Inescapably, the last few semesters had many essays about life surrounded and invaded by the viral demon, COVID-19, including virtually practicing the art of psychiatry and psychotherapy.
At times, I also provided the writing workshop (or a variant of it) at the New York Academy of Medicine; at professional meetings; and at workshop lunches with residents, fellows, and psychology trainees after a Grand Rounds. These workshops were remarkable in their energy, creativity, participation, and wise consideration of grave (and humorous) happenings. What was missing from these one-time events, however, was the power of a group that had come together, built trust over time, and sought to learn how to write well by encouraging and teaching one another.
I write this remembrance on the eve of starting again—as the only remedy I could divine was starting again, somewhere else, with a different community of participants.
Dr Sederer is a psychiatrist, public health doctor, and nonfiction writer.