Monday, March 2, 2015

The Writing Way

If you think about it, veterinarians are writers in their own right. If we practice medicine, we write medical records; if we do research, we write study protocols and publish our results. We also provide information to the public via webpages, blogs, brochures, magazine articles, and of course books.

But what about writing for pleasure? How often do we do that? (Not enough!)

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure to talk to Dr. Courtney Diehl, a veterinarian in a mixed practice (mostly horses, with some small ruminants, alpacas, and cats and dogs thrown in to keep things exciting) in Steamboat Springs, CO. A practice owner and mother of two, Courtney has found the time to write, and in fact published her first book just a year ago, in February 2014: Horse Vet: Chronicles of a Mobile Veterinarian. I wanted to catch up with Courtney and steal some of her secrets.

"I wasn't very organized at all," Courtney says of her writing process for her book. "I just sort of wrote down the stuff I would think about, or I'd have a run-in with someone and it would trigger my memory and then I would think of all the other stories that relate, so then I'd have to sit down and write them all out."

Horse Vet, in Courtney's own words, is a compilation of tales from the vet's perspective. "Good, bad, and ugly," she says. "A lot of it related to how I dealt with some of the more difficult personalities. We are all aware of the pretty high rate of suicide in our profession and I was actually struggling. Not with suicide, but I was definitely feeling down. I was just trying to feel like where I was at was OK."

Difficult personality types, whether in client (or animal!) form, colleagues, neighbors, or family, can be trying for even the most stoic of souls.

"I was giving these personalities way too much power in my life," Courtney continues. "They would not only wreck my day, but also my month and make me feel bad about myself. Finally, I was like: nobody can make me feel bad about myself. I thought maybe it would also be helpful to some of my colleagues who were dealing with the same things for me to say, hey, I struggle, too, and I still struggle, of course, but here are some of the tools I use to help cope with these people without losing my sanity."

Many scenarios that Courtney writes about contain elements of the dynamic and multifaceted vet-client-patient relationship. There are good days and there are bad days in these relationships and Courtney felt the need to express the full spectrum of what this means. "I wasn't writing to make friends," she says. "I was writing because it was real and that's what we have to deal with. It was time somebody told the story from the vet's perspective and how we make our lives work."

In the end, Courtney found the process immensely therapeutic, keying into one of the greatest benefits of writing for pleasure. On a side note, as I struggle to continue a journal, something I've done since senior year in vet school, I have to cue myself in to the known benefits to personal writing. Look here for a wonderful collection on great writers' reasons for keeping a diary.

"It was cathartic for me in so many ways, just to get it down," Courtney says. "After writing through some of the difficult parts and really looking at myself, I was like: whoa, I really have changed. I've gotten better and stronger and wow. Before, I hadn't really stopped to measure my own progress. Writing this book was instrumental in helping me do that."

After finishing the book, Courtney describes it as having a new best friend, a confidant who knew her strengths and when she faced something challenging, she knew she had faced something similar before, and documented it. The book was saying: don't worry, you got this.

Courtney's target audience was her veterinary colleagues as well as people who were thinking about going into the veterinary world. "I wrote this book to say hey, here's a cross-section of my life as a reality check."

One of the most telling aspects of my conversation with Courtney (telling about the veterinary profession, that is) was when she elaborated on her intended then omitted chapter on finances. "I had a whole chapter in there about numbers and finances," she says. "It was so grim and miserable. I couldn't find a way to make it fun or even readable and I finally gave up and took it out. It was all just lists of numbers and I was like, OK, this isn't working. Unless someone finds a fun way to write about this, no one will want to read it."

Student loan debt, often in the neighborhood of six figures, along with an average salary that isn't increasing comparatively with tuition and a mismatch between the increasing numbers of vets being produced without a workforce that can employ them all are grim realities of the industry. Are these issues that bad that we can't even find a way to express them on paper in a compelling manner?

But enough about the doom and gloom. We're here to celebrate creativity, not roll in self-pity. Go ahead, put your party hats back on.

I like to talk to veterinarians who are writers about the venerable James Herriot because I feel he is the quintessential veterinarian in literature. Read and beloved by millions in a fandom than now spans generations, is it time for a 21st century version? Is that even possible?

Courtney makes an interesting point: it may not be possible. "A modern version of James Herriot, with so many modern concerns like student loan debt, the supplement industry, crazy horse lady stuff... old Herriot would have gone: what in the world? What am I doing here?"
It's all fun and games until someone steps in the cow pie.
"We're just not the martyred figure that he was," she continues. "The man just worked around the clock, had no time off, and worked for peanuts. In this day and age, we just can't be that martyred figure anymore. We have to say: look, we have to charge more and we're worth it and here's why. I think in a firm voice, an advocate for the indebted veterinarian needs to happen."

So, maybe James Herriot did have a few crazy horse ladies to deal with (and sounds like some crazy pig owners and cattle owners and dog owners thrown in there, too) but one thing's for certain: he wasn't competing with Dr. Google. Perhaps the vets of today are to James Herriot what apples are to oranges. Yeah, we're all a little fruity, but there are now fundamental differences in the way we are cultivated and what we are exposed to.

Looking to the future is sometimes the most exciting thing to a writer, with the possibilities just multiplying on the horizon right in front of your eyes. For Courtney, oh yeah--she's got plans. A second book on her vet adventures is two-thirds written and a fiction book about anthropomorphic animals is in draft as well. Courtney has also started a monthly column in the magazine Horse Illustrated called "Vet Adventures." Of course she continues to practice as well, allowing for a continual production line of experiences to draw on for future book chapters, columns, and other venues.

Stay tuned for the next blog, Monday, March 16.

No comments:

Post a Comment