Just Looking

When I was 18 years old, I declared my college major even before I’d set foot in the first class. A lot of students hold off–and I knew many of my friends were–but at the time, there was only one thing I wanted to do with my life:

Be a doctor.

Looking back, I don’t know where the inspiration came from. I used to attribute it to having watched my grandfather lose a battle with prostate cancer when I was four years old, but I’m not so sure. It certainly sounds like a good story though, doesn’t it? Maybe even then I was telling them.

“Be a doctor” was what I told everyone I wanted to be when I grew up. Maybe I thought the question was more than just a thought experiment, and becoming a doctor was less about luck than, say, become a ball player or a firefighter–or even a writer. Becoming a doctor is one of those rare professions wherein you put in the time, dedication, and effort, and you emerge as what you set out to be. There’s no guarantee taking acting classes will make you a movie star (perhaps far from it); there’s no guarantee excelling on the college field is going to get you to the big leagues; there’s no guarantee that going to one of the most prestigious universities in the world to study the craft of writing is going to get you a publication contract with a giant conglomerate (trust me on that one).

But you go to college to study some science or other–often biology, which usually also requires semesters of chemistry (both general and organic), physics, and basic anatomy and physiology–and then you take the MCATs and go to medical school, and four years after that, you’ll be a doctor.

Well. A resident. Or a doctor. To be honest, I’m not sure how it all works. I never got that far.

When I got to Saint Peter’s, I declared a dual major: biology and English literature. Literature was secondary. I had always wanted to be a writer, but I’d always wanted to be a doctor first, and my plan was to go to med school, become a doctor, and at some point use a sabbatical or something to write a book. I don’t think I even really knew what a sabbatical was at that point, but I’m reasonably sure some well-meaning family member used the word in a conversation we’d had, and I’d liked the sound of it.

“Sabbatical,” after all, sounds way more important and official than “some time off to write a book, maybe.”

My aim, then was a bachelor of science degree in biology, and I pursued that pretty hard. I took an intense general chemistry course that met four days per week, every morning, for two hours, and then had lab three days per week in the afternoon for four hours. It lasted, I think, four weeks? Maybe six. I don’t remember. All I remember is the day it took me four hours to figure out how to balance a single, molar, ionic equation. I think that’s what I was doing, anyway. My memory’s a bit hazy due to the whole brain-mushed thing.

For three years, my intentions remained resolute. I kept with my double major. I knuckled down; at one point, during one semester, I took 23 credits. The following semester I thought I’d go a little easier and took 19.

I was in the honors program, too. I figured it would look good on my CV when I applied to medical schools. Which is laughable, but I had a good time in the program, and did a lot of study I otherwise might not have. If I’d never wanted to be a doctor, I might not have had the privilege of studying theology with Robert Kennedy, S.J., roshi.

As part of the honors program, I had to complete a thesis during my senior year. I’d written five- and seven-page papers for other honors courses, but this was independent study, and as such, it was supposed to be more intensive and, I think, no fewer than thirty pages.

Which, for me, wasn’t really intimidating. By then I’d finished a draft of my first novel, and I’d been handing in ten- and twelve-page papers in lit classes for a while. I’d also become the editor of the school’s literary magazine.

Basically, it was becoming increasingly clear that maybe I enjoyed the whole literature thing more than the whole science thing. I never did as well in the science classes as I did in the lit classes. Which isn’t to say I did poorly; my worst grades came only from the math courses I had to take, and even then I used to score at least high Cs. Not great, but average. You try getting higher than a C in integral calculus or laboratory physics–which are related, in ways, because of all the sine and cosine stuff one has to do, and man, my brain already hurts. When it comes to physics, give me Schrodinger’s cat and uncertainty principles any day, and let me leave the math alone.

Even the MCATs were an indication. Normally, prospective medical school students take the MCAT–that’s Medical College Admission Test, I think–in April of their junior year in college; that way, their scores are all ready when they’re applying to medical schools. The MCATs are only offered at one other time, during August, which isn’t too late for admission, but sometimes those scores don’t make it to med schools promptly enough.

As the deadline for the April exam loomed, I started putting it off. I was burnt out, and one more test? I was already taking 19 credits. Where did I think I was going to in addition study for this huge exam.

And then I started thinking, well, if I’m burnt out, why not take a year off? I’m in New York. I could work for a year. I haven’t worked–really worked–in several years. Why not take a year off, get out of school before I devote another four years to it. I figured I’d take the test in August, but then found myself figuring I could just wait until the following April, given that I was taking that year off from studies (like a sabbatical!).

*

For my honors research project, a trusted advisor made a great suggestion: why not combine my two passions, she asked? There were lots of writers who had medical training, and lots of doctors who had written books–she might have mentioned Chekhov straight away. She thought it would be a good topic for me, who was so fired about literature and the arts but still took an approach she could only call scientific to craft.

Which still seems to hold. Artistic inspiration is great, but for me, it’s only a tiny portion of what writing and literature are really about, and that’s not even to mention that I value objectivity in an otherwise subjective arena. Taste is subjective, no doubt, and no doubt style and voice are subjective, as well, but structure? One of the reasons I kenned so well and so completely to the idea of three-act structure might have been that it’s so easily quantifiable and measurable. One of the ways Meets Girl is so meta is that it acknowledges each of its act breaks, and the plot points themselves are relatively easy to spot if you know what you’re looking for.

So I like measurability in an unmeasurable realm. I like quantification when such is impossible.

The idea of studying the relationship between science and literature, or medicine and writing, seemed really exciting to me.

And so I did.

*

Just Looking: How the Revolution in Medical Education Influenced the Lives and Works of Arthur Conan Doyle and William Carlos Williams draws a connection between science and medicine and the work of both authors. During the late 1800s, medical education in Europe experienced sweeping changes due to some scientific discoveries that led to a more clinical, evidence-based method, and moved away from things like bloodletting and the humors. Edinburgh University had just changed its curriculum to focus on diagnosis and scientific observation three years before Arthur Conan Doyle arrived to study medicine there; the fascinating thing was that William Carlos Williams studied at the University of Pennsylvania several years later, but the information had really just gotten across the Atlantic.

What I discovered fascinated me, and I really enjoyed the new insights into medicine, literature, writing, and two great authors.

*

It’s been a lot of years since I was a junior in college. More than a decade.

Over the years, I’ve considered what I might do with the research I did. It seems sad to leave it unshared; there are some legitimately interesting connections made, some interesting conclusions one can draw. Thing is, it’s long.

For a while, I considered breaking it in half by author, but I think that negates some of the power. One of the most interesting connections was that each author had a similar education despite being so far apart in terms of both years and geography, and I think that fact corroborates the claims made, which is why it would be a shame to remove either from the essay. Focusing on Doyle would merely restate what a lot of other scholars have already said, in terms of his education and the origins of Holmes and etc.; focusing on Williams would force a concentration on poetry that lacks some of the power of the connection. The most interesting thing–at least to me–was that there were these two writers on different continents in different times, whose writing couldn’t have been more different (one achieved universal popularity and got rich off Holmes; the other maintained a medical practice for many years and in general disliked the idea of compensation for his poetry), and yet there was something deeply and fundamentally similar between the two men. What was interesting was not just what they shared in common but also how they then diverged.

So I wanted to keep it as a cohesive whole, and it’s too long for any scholarly journals, really (it’s basically a novella), but it’s definitely not long enough as a book . . .

You probably see where I’m going with this.

You can now purchase Just Looking: How the Revolution in Medical Education Influenced the Lives and Works of Arthur Conan Doyle and William Carlos Williams for your preferred Android device.

It’s long-ish, but not book-length. And it’s just 99 cents.


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