Friday, June 25, 2010
Ars Medica, a journal of medicine, the arts and humanities
We are often asked about which qualities we look for when we select a piece for publication in Ars Medica. Members of our Editorial Board and our Advisory Board come from diverse healthcare and literary backgrounds, and the short answer is "We know good writing when we see it."
Those of us who do clinical work and encounter narratives of illness everyday have come to identify what feels honest, fleshed out, embodied. We have become demanding readers to the extent that familiar stories of diagnosis and treatment have to bring something new and particular to the telling and to our experience.
All of the usual rules of storytelling (and writing workshops) still apply: Create characters we care about and let them speak through dialogue. Show us their world through almost cinematic detail, don't just tell us it exists. Build dramatic tension within a structure of a beginning, a middle and an end. If you're writing non-fiction, let yourself enter the piece so we know why you were moved to write about it. Keep up the pacing so we want to know what happens. Leave us feeling something, be it confused, uncomfortable, enlightened, curious or wanting more. Work on your voice as a writer. Readers, like patients, want to be in good hands and to remember what was told and how.
Endings don't have to be happy or tidy. As Board Member Rebecca Garden says: “I look for work that defies expectations and conventions, whether formally or in terms of content. We all shoulder the burden of conventional narratives and tropes of illness and medicine. The work we publish should communicate in surprising and arresting ways and break through the dominant narratives of illness (e.g. courageous battles ending in triumph or uplift)."
Some of us also like to become disoriented, "defamiliarized," to turn a conventional description on its head. (The images we publish can do this too. Some of you will remember Jane Martin's cover of a bouquet of roses juxtaposed against her husband's fresh post-op cranial scar. Beautiful and unexpected).
We primarily receive submissions from writers about being a patient (or their family member) or about being a professional (a doctor, nurse or healthcare worker).
From patients, we sometimes encounter unprocessed details which have specific, charged meaning for the teller but which are unclear to the reader. These pieces in many ways resemble journaling or therapeutic writing. The author is too close to the events or uses personal code and short-hand which leave gaps. As a result, we are not fully invited into the experience. Stories of trauma and loss are often fragmented, because they remain so for the writer and have not yet been crafted through the personal and creative steps which render them coherent and universal.
Writing personal narratives may indeed be healing, but to be literary, there needs to be distance, an "observer's eye" which allows us to see the full picture.
From healthcare professionals, we often see too much detachment. Diagnostic efficiency cuts to the chase, abbreviates or over-simplifies the story and fills it with jargon, acronyms and even cliché.These narratives are journalistic or more like a rushed case presentation . The subjective is edited out and the reader may know what to think, but not what to feel.
Sometimes, we get the sense that a story has been misappropriated, that the author-clinician has not obtained permission to tell it from the client or patient who lived it or else the author has not fully moved the piece from fact to fiction. Our position is that re-telling something shared in confidence in a defined therapeutic context is unethical unless the patient's co-construction is fully acknowledged or else the narrative has moved well beyond the personal and particular.
In contrast, some of the most compelling pieces we receive are written by doctors or nurses who have become patients themselves. Suddenly the world they know so well has to be re-explained and re-examined, as if encountered for the first time. Everything is suddenly new. And terrifying.
Each issue of ARS MEDICA embodies many of these ingredients in its stories and poems of birth, illness, ageing and the death of loved ones. We are introduced to doctors, nurses and other clinicians who either care too little, too much or struggle with finding the right balance with each patient. We meet patients trying to find their way as they navigate illnesses and forge new identities.
Email submissions are preferred, with Microsoft Word attachments only, sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Full submission guidelines here: http://www.utpjournals.com/ars/submissions.html
For information about Brian Henry's writing workshops and creative writing courses, see here.