Monday, November 12, 2018

Flash Bright: Fiction & Poetry in Bursts

Last week I was sitting on a plane coming home from a veterinary conference in Chicago. Planes have always been a
great source of writing time for me -- an imposed finite bubble of singularity where the options for distraction are so limited that it's freeing. On liftoff, along with the funny feeling in the pit of my stomach, I also have a lightness, a sense of freedom from all the clutter of life on the ground. My mind is stripped bare and I'm left to focus on my very immediate environs. I try my best to utilize this space.

On this flight I was going through back issues of Poetry. In the October 2018 issue, the editors included a section titled "The View From Here" which is an occasional addition where people from different fields comment on their experience of poetry. While there were two fantastic essays from teens about how poetry has impacted them (do yourself a favor and read "Teenagers Are Not Exempt from Poetry" and "Smells like Teen Poetry" when you get a chance), Greg Pak's "Thanks, Poetry!" rang true to certain aspects I've been chewing on as they relate to flash fiction recently.

Enter my primary thesis of this month's post, dear readers: for me, the similarities between flash fiction and poetry are so intertwined that their creative processes are the same. Greg makes the point for me in a more coherent manner. Here, look:

  • Just writing. Greg writes, "One of the hardest things for many writers and would-be writers is simply beginning the physical act of writing. But when I was a kid, poetry gave me permission to start writing instinctively, with almost nothing in my head. The stakes were low -- how much trouble could I get myself into in a single page of writing?"
The stakes are low -- that struck me, big time. Writing a novel is intimidating to me. I have a fear of commitment; what if I'm 40,000 words in and discover a massive plot hole? What if I write myself into a corner? What if it's boring? The stakes are high for that sort of length; imagine the time lost to that many words. I shudder.

But a piece of flash that's 1,000 words? Now we're talking. No plot holes, no corners to find yourself in. There's not enough room to be boring. At 1,000 words, the stakes are low. If it sucks, so what? A handful of stinky flash pieces feels more like practice writing than a few attempts at a novel. Maybe it's something about the finish-ability of a flash piece. This is not at all meant to downgrade flash fiction in the eyes of other lengths of work. Flash is serious business; it's raw, honest, emotional, weighty, and tricky. Writing good flash is hard. Writing great flash is very hard. But the stakes? Somehow the blank page isn't so intimidating when my intention is 1,000 words, not 60,000.

  • Love of language. "Poetry gave me permission to put words together in any way that felt true and sounded right -- or even just sounded interesting." Greg writes comics and says "Comics letterers play with type and punctuation and sizes and fonts, separating dialogue into balloons and captions, spacing them across the page in specific ways to create specific rhythms and emotions in a reader's mind and heart. If that's not poetry, I don't know what is."
I love language; most writers do. I find the ability to write more lyrical, highly descriptive language in flash more welcoming than in a longer piece. That's not to say that beautiful words don't belong in longer pieces. But I think they're framed especially well in a short piece of flash--their shine is brighter because they're not drowned out by all the other words. I think what I'm trying to say segues into Greg's next point:
  • Concision. Greg mentions the old cliche: a good poem doesn't waste a single word. He casts  reflection on the dubiousness of the word "waste" and I tend to agree. "Still, writing poetry as a teenager challenged me to explore a single idea in a concentrated way, building each element of the work toward a final effect." 
In flash, you are granted the superpower to face the challenge of writing beautifully but in the period of a heartbeat, nothing more. Peel back the oyster because we want to gaze at the pearl. 
  • Heart. " . . . I learned that poetry was a safe place to express all of those confusing, painful, earnest emotions." 
I read somewhere recently on Twitter about how an author finally acknowledged her internal anger on various subjects and started letting this rage onto the page. Since then, she stated her writing has been
more visceral and genuine. I am slowly starting to learn this, too. It's hard to write from the true gut--I'm talking accessing those dark corners. It's scary and makes you feel really vulnerable. But sometimes it brings out the best writing. That's true for every form of writing, be it flash or poetry or graphic novels or YA books -- the list includes all genres. But that's also exhausting to write like that, so why not train in short bursts?

I am slowly working toward the idea of starting a novel, but it's going to take quite a while and I have a ton to learn and practice in the meantime. When gearing up for a big project, I'm reminded of the saying: "How does one eat an elephant? One bite at a time." (I used this mantra to help me study for the national veterinary board exam.) If a novel is the elephant, let me cut my teeth on a few mice first.


Monday, September 3, 2018

Found in Translation

I focus somewhat on creative writing on this blog, but let's not forget about our scientific writers and editors. I recall when chatting with Dr. Laurie Anne Walden last year, she mentioned editing scientific articles written by authors whose native language was not English. Today we get to see another variation of working with linguistic challenges from a scientific perspective as we chat with Dr. Nathalie Fernandez Cubas: veterinarian, writer, translator, and founder of NFC Linguistic Services which she says is, "one of the best decisions I've ever made in my career."

Nathalie received her veterinary degree in Spain in 2007 and after graduation, moved to France where she focused on equine medicine and became fluent in French. After a year, she returned to Spain and, she says, struggled to find professional and personal stability.

"I did not know it yet, but I was about to discover a new passion."

"I gave myself some months to think about my future," she says. "During that period, I met a professional translator by coincidence who told me how difficult it was sometimes to find translators for highly specialized, scientific texts." It was then that something clicked. Given Nathalie's love of English and her bilingual skills in Spanish and French, she developed a plan. "I would study translation and interpreting at university and try to make a living from veterinary editing and translation. I did not know it yet, but I was about to discover a new passion."


On a typical workday, Nathalie spends a majority of her time translating veterinary texts from English and French into Spanish. She covers a wide range of subjects, including texts ranging from ophthalmology and parasitology to swine and poultry production, with occasional translations on topics like tourism or cosmetics. "It pushes me a little beyond my comfort zone," she says of these non-veterinary topics.

Given that veterinary medicine is highly specialized with its own terminology, it might not come as a surprise that the most common issues Nathalie encounters in her translating involve vocabulary due to the author either having scant scientific background or a human medical background, which does not necessarily cross over to the veterinary world. "As we usually say in the veterinary community, 'a cat is not a small dog' and a dog or any animal is not a human on all fours!"

It's hard to deny Nathalie's enthusiasm for her work. "Translators are not merely readers," she says "They are the best readers. They need to read between the lines, they break the texts down in pieces, they strive to understand every word, every nuance, every concept and then transfer the overall meaning to another language. Isn't that magic?"

"Translators are not merely readers. They are the best readers."

Being a linguist, Nathalie has a unique perspective on the differences in veterinary medicine, animal health, and animal welfare across many different cultures. Before she began freelance work, Nathalie was an editor in a veterinary publishing house which allowed her to work with veterinary authors across the world. "This allowed me to learn a lot about the reality of the veterinary profession in other countries," she says. "In Latin America, for example, they are now more concerned about animal welfare in production animals." This has resulted in an increase in the number of publications on that topic from those countries. "In Turkey and India, the poultry sector is a leading edge industry," she continues. "In Europe, the pet sector is very dynamic, particularly in the fields of prevention, feline medicine, nutrition, and senior medicine."

Being fluent in a language other than your mother tongue is a skill that is typically lauded by those who have it
and with today's growing global network in terms of everything from tourism to IT to yep, vet med, learning a new language in some ways can seem essential. "Languages give you an incredible opportunity of discovering other cultures and other ways of thinking," says Nathalie. "I believe it is essential to transmit to the youngsters the important of learning languages." Apart from Spanish, French, and English, Nathalie speaks a little Portuguese and says she would love to learn a Nordic language, too.

"What I like most about my job is that I learn new things every day," she says. "I am always studying, deepening, and perfecting myself on the most varied subjects. Every day is a new adventure!"

You can't argue that level of enthusiasm. Until next time, happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting.



Monday, August 13, 2018

Degrees of Learning & Writing

I'm not one to believe that things happen for a reason but it is tempting to think of serendipity as a helpful nudge in the right direction every once in a while. This past spring, I was perusing the shelves at my local Barnes & Noble, as I'm known to do on any given Friday evening prior to diving into a cupcake at their cafe to celebrate the end of the week.
CELEBRATION CUPCAKE
A recent release caught my eye: My Patients and Other Animals by Suzy Fincham-Gray. Flipping straight to the author bio, I found what I needed to know: veterinarian, author, and holder of an MFA, a degree I've been pondering for several years now. You see where this is heading.

Dear readers, I present to you my interview with Dr. Fincham-Gray.

Suzy graduated from the Royal Veterinary College in London in 2000, after which she came to the US and became board-certified in small animal internal medicine. "After almost a decade as a small animal internal medicine specialist in private practice, I was struggling to find balance in a life that was increasingly centered on my career," she says. "I made a decision to step back from practice and at that time I rediscovered writing, initially as a form of expression and then in a more structured way through the MFA program."

To get or not to get an MFA (that is, a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing): that is the question for many writers, including me. What does it "get" you? Or, more bluntly: what's it good for? Is this a career move? Is it for people who want to further hone their craft in literary writing? Is it just for the literary types or is there room for those interested in genre writing? Is it a bunch of navel gazing or a gate keeper to secret literary clubs and opportunities or a way of surrounding yourself with like-minded familiars for support and creative growth? So. Many Questions.

Suzy applied to low residency MFA programs across the US and accepted an offer from the University of California, Riverside-Palm Desert which, she says, was a top choice due to the school's emphasis on the practical aspects of writing and publishing as opposed to an academic focus on literature studies. She chose non-fiction as her focused genre.

"The benefits of studying for and obtaining my MFA were many," she explains. "Expert input on my writing from professors; residencies that gave me the opportunity to meet literary agents, editors, and successful authors; and the support from the program, even following graduation, has been excellent."

Although Suzy's first published book is a veterinary memoir, she says when she began the MFA program she had no intention of writing a memoir. "My initial goal was to explore my writing and gain understanding of the craft, rather than to write a specific piece," she says. "However, in the first few months of the program I realized that most of my work swirled around my experience as a veterinarian." The first ideas of a memoir surfaced during a chat with an editor and aspects of the book evolved from there. "I wrote a proposal and sample chapters and acquired a literary agent," she explains. "We worked on the proposal for around six months and the finished proposal was purchased by Spiegel and Grau. I then began work on the final manuscript with input from my editor. The project took around five years from starting the proposal to the book arriving at booksellers."

"Those rare glimpses of the fluid perfection of writing are the reason I keep sitting in front of a blank page."

Having read several veterinary memoirs, I'm interested in how an author chooses which stories to tell. In Suzy's case she mentions having some patients that have remained etched in her memory years after seeing them; those were cases she was compelled to write about and include. "Writing was alternately frustrating and rewarding," she admits. "There were moments when I was certain the book would never be finished and others when I was surprised how the writing shaped an idea I'd not consciously formed. Those rare glimpses of the fluid perfection of writing are the reason I keep sitting in front of a blank page."

Suzy says she has cut back her days in the hospital to protect and dedicate regular time for her writing. As always, I'm interested in how a veterinarian's scientific and creative sides mesh. Suzy says for her, these two sides complement one another. "Although I sometimes dream about giving up my 'day job' to focus my energy solely on writing, I know that to do this I would also be giving up my inspiration," she says. 

Creating an overall "message" in a veterinary memoir is also something I find interesting. Some books lack one completely and read as a laundry list of memorable cases and you-wouldn't-believe-it stories, while others try to mold an overarching narrative from a life's worth of experiences. In Suzy's case, she wanted to portray veterinary life in the truest way possible in an effort to counter what is sometimes portrayed by the media. "I wanted to explore the many dilemmas--the philosophical, ethical, social and economic--that veterinarians face in their daily practice," she says. "In particular, by finding the universal narrative of caring for our loved ones who cannot advocate for themselves. I hoped to draw out a new perspective."

"Creative outlets could provide an avenue to draw our [veterinary] community together."

On Suzy's blog, she states her writing explores the role veterinarians play in the human-animal bond and in the narrative of caring for those we love when they are sick. This hits home alongside the concept of narrative medicine which is sometimes defined as the narrative between the caregiver and the patient. Used mostly with human medicine, I asked Suzy how she applies this to veterinary medicine. "I took inspiration from Atul Gawande, Abraham Verghese, and Danielle Ofri, all of whom are human doctors writing about the challenges of practicing medicine," she says. "I found when reading their work that many of their dilemmas were similar to those we face as veterinarians, in particular when approaching end of life care in patients who cannot advocate for themselves."

Suzy points out that the relationship between humans and animals continues to evolve and this relationship is arguably deeper and more significant now than it has ever been. "I think it is essential that as a community, veterinarians explore ways to discuss and express the many frustrations, challenges, and difficulties we face in practice." She points to the relatively recent revelations on the high suicide rate in the vet med profession that highlights in a way the challenges we deal with. "Creative outlets could provide an avenue to draw our community together," she says.

While still working on promoting her current book, Suzy says she is starting to gather ideas for a second. "I'm also continuing to write shorter pieces that expand on the concept of narrative medicine within the veterinary field," she says. "I would love to see my writing in the literary canon of narrative medicine alongside Atul Gawande and Siddhartha Mukherjee. There are so many areas I've yet to explore through my writing and I'm excited to see where my writing takes me over the next ten years."

And on that uplifting note, I'll leave you to it, dear readers. Until next time, happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting.






Sunday, July 1, 2018

Summertime Somnolence

Hello, dear readers. We're knee-deep in summer heat now in Maryland and it looks like many others across the east coast are experiencing the same. I think it's too soon to call it the dog days of summer, but it sure feels like what I've always come to associate with that term: long days of oppressive heat and accompanying somnolence (if you let it).

First tomato of the summer: a delightful yellow pear
I have some more interviews coming up over the next few months so stay tuned if you're foaming at the mouth for more veterinary creativity. Until then, my garden is flourishing with color and tomato plants that defy the orderly staking process and therefore have arms that are reaching out for salvation.

In some of the quiet spaces I've found over the past few weeks (still healing a collarbone that had the nerve to break at the end of April), I've tried to nurse some creativity and have fallen short. Instead, I've been prey to lots of distractions -- some good, as I've been reading plenty -- that sap my desire right out of me.

However, I've come across an excellent quote form Mary Oliver (which is redundant as all her quotes, by definition, are excellent) that has kicked me in the pants when I needed it the most:
"The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time." -- Mary Oliver
Volunteer sunflower from dropped birdseed. An unexpected delight.
I don't know which part about that declaration I like the best -- the bit about creativity needing "power" or it needing "time" -- but the time part in particular speaks to my core. As a heavily Type A personality, I get very caught up in to-do lists and place an overemphasis on productivity with a resultant feeling of despair if something (or far too often, many somethings) doesn't get accomplished. The fact that creative juices need time to marinate and that this time is not only OK but necessary, is such a relief. It's like giving myself permission to take the time to think, all the time I need.

I came across another quote recently that emphasized this concept of taking time, but under a different context. In November 1958, John Steinbeck's son, who was away at boarding school, wrote his father about falling in love. Steinbeck wrote back a lovely, thoughtful, empathetic response but it was the ending that spoke to me and even though it was in reference to love, I'm going to take the liberty to apply to many other things in life, like creativity:

"And don't worry about losing. If it is right, it happens -- the main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away." -- John Steinbeck

That declarative "nothing good gets away" might be overly-romantic but my gods doesn't it feel freeing? To know that if there's really something there (love, an idea, whatever -- again, I'm extrapolating) then baby, it's there. I just like the feel of that.

An explosion of lilies in the front yard -- my own fireworks show.
And, here's another one from Mary Oliver. This quote is in full view in my office: "Things take the time they take. Don't worry."

But I also have to laugh. I just finished a collection of Ursula Le Guin's blogs, No Time to Spare. It's a joy to read as her voice shines through in all its clarity and down-to-earthness. It's a comfort. But her message (granted this was written when she was in her 80s and perhaps feeling fatalistic) was focused on dwindling time. No time to spare. Get it done. Hurry. Life is short. Make your mark.

What to do when your heroes are telling you opposing things!?

I'll have to go ponder that in my garden.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

A Dose of Reality

Sometimes things just fall into place while you remain totally unaware. Fate is too strong a word here but it does feel a bit whimsical. Here's what I mean.

A month ago I came across a veterinarian on Twitter: Emma Milne from England. After reading her thoughts on various animal welfare issues and seeing that she's written a few books, I reached out to ask if she'd be interested in participating in this blog. After she agreed, upon more research I found she'd been one of the vets featured on a British reality TV show called Vets in Practice from 1996 to 2003.

Here's where it gets interesting:

I lived in England from 1998 to 2001. When my family moved there I was in high school and watched Vets in Practice religiously, wanting to be a veterinarian and all. I soaked it up. I remember a blonde vet. . . and squinting at Emma's photo now, twenty years later, I remember her from the show. My teenage years have come full circle.

Folks, I am star-struck by a veterinarian.

When I told Emma this, in self-deprecation she laughed and called herself a "proper z-lister" these days. No matter. It's all about personal connections, right?

So that's my introduction to Emma Milne, veterinarian, author, speaker, and champion for animal welfare. Let's get to know her a little better, shall we?
Emma Milne
As a new veterinary graduate, Emma entered the work force in front of the entire UK while appearing on VIP, which followed a handful of vets in their daily lives, showcasing events ranging from treating animals to personal issues. The US (and the UK) has more of its share of reality TV now, including some vet shows like The Incredible Dr. Pol, which come with their own controversies. I asked Emma about her time on TV.

"In general I loved my time on VIP," she says. "It gave me opportunities that I never would have had.  Also in the sphere of welfare, it has let me reach many more animals and owners than I perhaps might have in practice. At the time, the show was very different to anything we'd had. We were all new graduates so of course we made mistakes and there were older vets who felt the show was detrimental and that it 'demystified' the profession. I am a huge fan of honesty and vets are only human. I think any show that shows the strains and stresses placed on us is good. My main problem was that the show didn't tackle the gritty subjects I wanted to tackle like tail docking, hunting, farm issues, and pedigree health issues. It was a bit too fluffy. In fact to this day I think there is a huge scope for some really hard hitting veterinary shows." 

"I am a huge fan of honesty and vets are only human. Any show that shows the strains and stresses placed on us is good."

Subsequent to her time on VIP, Emma has been able to take advantage of numerous media outlets as co-presenter on various TV specials, doing guest appearances, and as a guest expert, judge, and columnist. Emma says this has helped enormously in getting the word out about animal welfare. 

"I think VIP has been incredible for my welfare opportunities and I always think people in the media should do their utmost to use it for the biggest positive impact they can, be it for animals or humans," she says. "The pros are huge, like the satisfaction of changing perceptions and meeting incredible and inspiring people. The cons are that it's never easy to get across everything you want to, especially in short, live TV slots. Even the written word is hard to disseminate unless you have a huge, rich publisher that can market you. The biggest con is probably the hate and vitriol that I get for things like my stance on hunting with dogs and now my views on pedigree health issues. The lovers of our most extremely diseased breeds can be unbelievably hurtful and I've had all manner of threats and comments. Most of the time I'm OK and I know I'm doing the right thing but I am human, too, and sometimes I hit some real lows and my friends and family see the impact of that."

She adds, "As for resonating with the public, I think that being down to earth and honest helps. I had to work very hard to get to vet school. My family was not at all well off and it was all done on sweat and tears. I think (and hope) that many people view me as someone they can trust."


Emma is steadily growing her list of book by-lines along with her media experience. Her first published book, The Truth about Cats and Dogs (2008), tackled pedigree health issues. She followed it with Tales from the Tail End (2013) which was more a veterinary memoir.

"TFTTE came about purely by accident," she says. "I had written The Truth about Cats and Dogs before and as an author and a vet, I had been approached to give a pre-publication quote for another book. During the discussions around that the publisher asked me if I would be interested in writing a book for them and suggested a compilation of humorous/emotional stories from my time on TV and as a vet. I loved the idea. I've done so much serious, sad stuff it was actually a really welcome relief to do something light-hearted. All vets have plenty of such stories so it was just a matter of sitting down and trying to remember all the ridiculous, happy, funny, mad, and sad things that had happened. It was the easiest book to write by miles!"

"Children can change the world and I really mean it. They have the power to change how future animals are kept."

Emma has another series out for children, called The Pet Detective Series which she says she dearly loves. This series teaches kids about the five basic welfare needs of pets. "I was a trustee of a charity called the Animal Welfare Foundation for a long time and helped write some of their client leaflets, all using the five welfare needs as a template," she explains. "I have long believed that happiness is just as important for our pets as healthiness and the social and behavioral needs of pets are so often neglected. I’ve also worked with incredible charities in poorer countries and have seen how they use education and children to change long-standing traditions. I decided that teaching children the five basic welfare needs and trying to get them to empathize with animals was the way forward. Children have a natural affinity for animals and the books try to get children to think about how a rabbit might feel lonely in a hutch or a cat might feel threatened by other cats or a dog might feel sad being alone all day. I say at the end that children can change the world and I really mean it. They have the power to change how future animals are kept much more than we vets do."

"After twenty years as a vet and twelve years in practice I am, frankly, outraged."
 
Most importantly, perhaps, is Emma's work on animal welfare issues. Most recently her work has had a strong focus on pedigree dog health issues, specifically brachycephalic breeds. "I think the arrogance of humans and our treatment of animals is often appalling," she says. "As for pedigree health I am absolutely mortified. The fact that we have got to a point where some people feel it is acceptable to deliberately select for deformity and disease in the name of the breed standard absolutely beggars belief. That may sound unbelievable to many people but it’s true and it’s why, ten years after my first book on the subject, I have decided to re-write it. If anything the health issues have become worse, especially with the exploding popularity of flat-faced dogs and quirky cat breeds. Breeding animals that are likely to suffer because of their body shape is fundamentally wrong. Even at uni when we had exam questions on breed-predispositions I thought it was odd that everyone just seemed to accept it as normal. After twenty years as a vet and twelve years in practice I am, frankly, outraged." 
 
"The fact that we have got to a point where some people feel it is acceptable to deliberately select for deformity and disease in the name of the breed standard absolutely beggars belief."


Emma's next book, Picking a Pedigree? How to Choose a Healthy Puppy or Kitten, is scheduled for publication in September of this year. As far as how the UK is moving in terms of animal welfare issues, Emma mostly admits it's a mixed bag. "Some good things are happening in the UK with welfare like the banning of wild animals in circuses, compulsory CCTV in slaughterhouses and the like but we also had the utterly ridiculous backward step in Scotland of the reversal of the ban on tail-docking," she says. "The fact that money not welfare and expert opinion drives these political decisions is a constant disappointment. Rumor has it though that we are about to see a huge overhaul of breeding and puppy sales laws which may include the equivalent of the Qualzucht or torture breeding laws. This would mean that you could prosecute individuals for producing litters that are likely to suffer due to extreme conformation. This could be absolutely huge as our laws have never covered future offspring. A test case would be very interesting indeed. 

"I'd love the western world to stop being so obsessed with breeds and start thinking about dogs as a species. Dogs are such wonderful animals. They should be healthy, proportioned, and happy. Health and temperament should be way above looks on the breeding priority list."  

"Dogs are such wonderful animals. They should be healthy, proportioned, and happy."

For someone who has worked diligently to be an animal welfare advocate, it was only natural for me to ask Emma how others can try to make positive impacts as well. 

"The biggest thing I would say is stick to your guns," she says. "Don’t lose your ideals and don’t be afraid to take some flak to stand up for what you really believe. And finally if any of you feel so inclined please join the global voice of www.vetsagainstbrachycephalism.com. We have 53 countries represented now, many organizations and practices, and almost one thousand individuals signed up. It is a standing open letter to show the global level of expert opinion that extreme brachycephaly is wrong on welfare grounds. Have a read of the homepage and sign up if you agree."

On that note, we'll see you soon, dear readers. Happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting. 




Monday, March 5, 2018

Small Fiction, Small Truths

Over the past several years, short stories have become my fiction outlet de jour, both for reading and writing. The stack of to-read books on my nightstand (ever-growing and ever-threatening my safety as the tower sways) has noticeably switched from predominantly novels to half novel and half short story anthologies and dammit, who can blame me? Short stories are so good: a captivating chunk of creativity, just enough to sate the appetite without the commitment to full-out novel-length development. Plus, the language has to be water tight. What a challenge to write, for sure. And what a delight to read.

Imagine my excitement when I recently came across Dr. Ray Morrison. Ray is a small animal vet practicing in North Carolina and in his spare time, he writes. He writes short stories. In fact, in 2012, he had his first collection published: In a World of Small Truths by Press 53. Naturally, I asked him some questions and happily, he answered.

Ray says his writing has had two distinct phases split apart--not surprisingly--by his endeavor to become a vet. "As a young teenager in the early 1970s I loved to read science fiction and horror," he says. "Yet at the same time I'd also spend hours reading classic short stories. In high school I discovered creative writing and although by that time I'd known I wanted to become a veterinarian, I would write short stories and poems for fun. In college, I read a lot of Raymond Carver and Flannery O'Connor so my affection for short fiction solidified."

Although running the pre-vet gauntlet as an undergraduate offers little time to explore interests other than science, Ray says any time he had an elective opportunity he'd take a creative writing class. However, once vet school began in earnest, followed by graduation and marriage, the first stressful and tumultuous years of practice, then buying and managing his own clinic (with his wife who is also a veterinarian) created a gap in creative production. Happens to the best of us.

"Writing was the farthest thing from my mind in those days," Ray says. However, as their practice grew, Ray and his wife were able to hire associates. This meant a bit more breathing room for the practice owners. This is where Ray's second writing phase began.

"I penned a dreadful novel that I will always love because it served to get me writing again."

"One evening, while having dinner with some friends, one of them mentioned he was writing a novel. It was literally like something snapped in me when he said that. I want to write a novel, too! I thought. Which I did. Over the next two years, I penned a dreadful novel that I will always love because it served to get me writing again. Upon completing this massive endeavor, though, I was slightly intimidated by the thought of spending another two-plus years on another novel. Another friend said one day, 'Why not just write a short story?' And that was that. I found what I loved and have to date written more than a hundred short stories, nearly half of which have been published."

Ray has since taken serious steps in his writing career, starting with attending writing workshops and fiction classes. After winning first place in a short story contest held by the publishing company Press 53 in 2011, Ray was asked--by the same publishing house--if he had enough stories for a collection and, by golly, he sure did. In November of 2012, In a World of Small Truths was published by Press 53.
Ray Morrison, DVM

There's a wonderful interview of Ray done by TSP, the blog of the Story Prize (read here) where Ray talks about how his writing focuses on everyday truths. This sort of writing about everyday things--but somehow making them incredibly rich--reminds me a bit of Elizabeth Strout and her book Olive Kitteridge (which is lovely, go read it). I asked Ray how he does this.

"The most important thing I have learned about writing is that, as the famous saying goes, 'writing is rewriting.' Are some people naturally better writers than others? I think so. But it is, at the end of the day, a craft; one that requires learning and practice. If there is any aspect of my ability to create vibrant descriptions, it is my knack for observing people and translating what I see into words. But rarely, I think, do I get it right the first time. That takes revision."

"Animals often find their way into my stories but I am not another James Herriot."

I'm always curious about how writers (or artists or musicians) balance their veterinary profession with their creative calling and how, if at all, one might influence the other. Ray elaborated on his own balance. "I would say the biggest impact that spending thirty years as a veterinarian has had on my writing is that when I write it is my escape from that side of my life," he says. "People, especially my veterinary clients, when they find out I write short stories, nearly always ask if I write 'animal stories.' I answer that animals often find their way into my stories, but I am not another James Herriot. On the other hand, everything I've learned as a vet has accumulated in the well of experiences I draw on when I write. My career in veterinary medicine, and the thousands of people I've met during it, can't help but influence how I create characters, even if the stories themselves are not specifically about veterinary things. I have written exactly three stories, all unpublished at this point, with veterinarians as protagonists or main characters. I struggle with them, however, because I think I end up writing about me and not the fictional character. I like to stay out of my stories--bad things usually happen to my characters."

Ray has a second collection of short stories coming out in May this year, so keep your eyes peeled. I asked about any novels in the pipeline. Here's how he responded: "I rarely get the bug to write a novel, but once in a blue moon I toy with the idea. Who knows? I'd like to think I could write a (good) novel. But for now I still am too much in love with short stories."

Until next month, dear readers: happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting. 


  


Monday, February 5, 2018

Poetry for Pets

Poetry is . . . what is poetry? High school English class taught us it doesn't have to rhyme and the work continually featured in literary and poetry magazines shows us poetry can almost be damn well anything as long as someone believes in it. OK, maybe that's getting a bit too Disney but in all seriousness, poetry is still a bit of a mystery to me yet I find myself continually drawn to it, trying to understand, trying to learn, and in the process of it all, collecting more and more pieces that I like. It's like broadening one's palate. On that note, I was delighted to snag Dr. Marjorie McMillan to ask her about a recent book of poetry she's published. Marge, owner of the Windover Veterinary Center in Walpole, MA, and board-certified veterinary radiologist, has recently published Cold Wet Noses, Whiskers and Tweets, a book of poems for and about animals. Here's what she had to say. 

"I have been seriously writing poetry for about five years," said Marge. "I belong to a poetry writing group and we meet to encourage each other and critique each others' work. Much of my poetry is about nature and animals and I finally had enough poems to publish a collection. I also wanted to be able to convey to my clients and the general public some of the emotions that go along with being a veterinarian."

"I wanted to convey to my clients and the general public some of the emotions that go along with being a veterinarian." 

Most people have an inclination toward a particular breed of pet for a plethora of reasons. I wondered if a certain favoritism found its way into Marge's poems, but she emphasized the individual. "It's not so much a particular species or breed," she said, "but what inspires me as a poet is a certain animal or situation or emotion that I want to express in powerful language." Evoking emotions in those who read her poems is the aim. 


Tackling the subject of rhyme in poetry, Marge said she's in it for the challenge. "I like to write in rhyme and meter; it's harder than open style, so I like the challenge, but not all topics lend themselves to rhyme and meter. It's hard to get it really right like the great poets. Most people who are not serious readers of poetry seem to prefer poems that rhyme."

Given the intricate, intimate, and sensitive nature of most poems, it seemed to me there must be a certain level of empathy required to write poetry. Herein lies my connection between the creative arts and veterinary medicine because to truly connect with patients and clients, a veterinarian (this also applies to physicians and others in the wide spectrum of medical sciences) should also be highly empathetic. I asked Marge if she thought attributes of poetry writing crossed over into the successful practice of veterinary medicine and vise versa.

"Poetry allows me to connect on a deeper level with clients and it also gives them insight into the depth of my feelings. It creates a stronger veterinarian-client bond." 
"There has been much published lately about the mental health of veterinarians and the suicide rate," she said. "Poetry allows me to process the very difficult emotions around ending animals' lives, the difficulty of dealing with angry and sometimes impossible clients, and the joyful experiences. It allows me to connect on a deeper level with clients, especially around the loss of their pets, and it also gives them insight into the depth of my feelings. It creates a stronger veterinarian-client bond." 

This connection between the sciences and arts is occasionally nurtured at graduate school; see the elective course at North Carolina State University's College of Veterinary Medicine featuring writing, reading, and discussing poetry, short stories, and novel excerpts in order to "help engender empathy for clients, encourage moral reflection, and sustain the joy of being a veterinarian." See VetWrite's interview with Dr. Elizabeth Stone for more on that. Another example is the Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities, and History of Medicine at Duke University. 

What's more is Marge's fulfillment from having others read her work. "A poem isn't a poem until it is read by someone else," she said. "Writing poetry has allowed me to connect in a deeper and more spiritual way with animals and nature."

What's extra special about Marge's clinic, Windover Veterinary Center, is that the creativity does not stop with her. Cathy Symons, a certified veterinary technician and certified canine rehabilitation professional is an associated specialist with the clinic and has written a book titled Blind Devotion: Enhancing the Lives of Blind and Visually Impaired Dogs. Joan Powers, Windover's hospital manager, was the photographer for Cathy's book. "I have a wonderful staff of creative women," said Marge. "The writing is a way of helping clients and animals in a right brain way. It allows us to step out of our usual medical roles and left brains and relate to clients in a different way. I also think it allows us to listen differently and hear beyond the factual medical history." 

Marge has a second collection of poetry in the works as well as a book half finished about her lawsuit for gender discrimination. She also confirms that her favorite poet is indeed the wonderful Mary Oliver

Until next time, dear readers: happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting.