Monday, August 24, 2015

The Culture of a Monthly Column

Regular readers of the veterinary industry magazine DVM360 may recognize this name: Dr. Michael Obenski. For those of you who don't, Mike, a retired feline practitioner in Pennsylvania, was a columnist for the magazine for 37 years. 37 years. 37 years. 

Holy cow.

You understand, I just had to talk to this man. Here's what he had to say about life, vet med, and writing to a monthly deadline for over three decades.
Michael Obenski, DVM
"I was in a small animal practice in 1972," Mike says. "It was my first job out of school. A very nice job. I stayed there for six years. Around 1974, it was decided in the practice that it would be a good idea to have all the veterinarians go take the Dale Carnegie course, How to Win Friends and Influence People. This course is largely public speaking and as part of the course, you are called upon to tell the group something about your life. So, I found immediately that when I got up to tell a story, it was phenomenally received. It was fun. So having seen that I could tell stories and people loved them, that got me to try writing."

Mike wrote a few columns and sent them off. Initially, magazines weren't biting, but Mike caught the interest of a brand new veterinary publication, the now-known DVM360. "This magazine was just in its first year and trying to build itself, so I decided to give it a try," he says. "And that's it. I continued with them for 37 years."

Having retired from writing late last year, Mike has hundreds of columns to his name. Hundreds. I asked him where all his content came from and how he stayed fresh. "The thing is that when you practice veterinary medicine every day, I mean, come on," he says. "Strange stuff happens so consistently. And when it didn't, veterinarians from all over the world would occasionally send me some story or unusual thing that happened to them. You might notice that I was a cat specialist exclusively from 1978 on and yet I wrote stories about horses and cows and dogs because not every incidence necessarily happened to me."

"The thing is that when you practice veterinary medicine, strange stuff happens so consistently."

As we've read about in this blog before, both veterinarians and physicians have a tight rope to walk in memoirs when it comes to patient confidentiality. Mike had a fantastic tool in his writing when it came to tackling sticky issues. "In my columns, I have a "friend" whose name is Arnie and he practices down the road," Mike explains. "Well, Arnie of course doesn't exist. If something was a little controversial or a statement was going to be taken wrongly by somebody, I often attributed it to Arnie."


Mike continues. "Arnie's existence has been questionable over the years. I've had veterinarians from other states ask me exactly who is Arnie, really? There was a vet in Florida who wrote me a letter describing exactly who Arnie was. He quoted Pogo and said: 'We've met the Arnie and it is us.' Anyway, Arnie was supposed to be the well-established, big hospital veterinarian and he was a reflection of many of my friends but he wasn't a real person."

Another method Mike used for protecting privacy actually added to the entertainment value of his columns without belittling the character in a personal way. "One of the things my writing became known for, if you could call it known--I don't want to act like I'm a household word or anything--was the use of names. I made up hundreds of names over the years. I always used what I called medically humorous names. My cantankerous colleague was called A. Brasive, my large animal colleague was called Juan Armup. I never used names like Bill Jones or Mary Smith."

Perhaps the strongest feature of Mike's columns was his sense of humor. "Everything I've written was light," he says. And then an interesting comment on the state of people nowadays reveals itself: "People have become so much more serious. I think a lot of people have lost their sense of humor. Once in a blue moon I'd hear from someone who would be very upset and say that I was mocking my clients or I'm biting the hand that feeds me. And that was usually one person who read one column and took it the wrong way. Anyone who read my columns for years knows that I mocked my colleagues, I mocked the clients, I mocked myself, I mocked the technicians. You weren't immune."

"I mocked my colleagues, I mocked the clients, I mocked myself, I mocked the technicians."

Speaking of now versus the 1970s, Mike and I discuss the changes seen in veterinary medicine over the past few decades and the emergence of the specialty doctor. "If you come to me with a broken leg, I'll fix it," Mike says. "Does your cat have an endocrine disease? I'll fix it. But now, I have to tell every single client: well, you know, I could send you to an orthopedic surgeon or endocrinologist. When I was a kid, if you broke your leg, your family doctor set it. Now, if you tweak your pinkie, you're sent to an orthopedic surgeon. Veterinary medicine has become the same way."

"I wanted to be a veterinarian my whole freakin' life."

Mike has had two books published, both compilations of his columns in DVM360. With his extensive column experience and two books under his belt, however, he still strongly puts vet med first and foremost. "I did enjoy the writing but never ever ever did I look at myself as a writer or someone who wants to be a writer. My entire life I wanted to be a veterinarian and that's what I was. I wanted to treat animals every day and what's what I did. The book thing and the column thing were totally off to the side. I don't look at myself as a writer. I don't think: oooh, now that I'm retired I'm going to work on a screenplay. No. I wanted to be a veterinarian my whole freakin' life and I practiced every day."

"I did enjoy writing but never ever ever did I look at myself as a writer."

Admittedly, this black and white cut off of writer/non-writer struck me. How can you write regularly for 37 years and then just turn it off? Retired now also from practice, Mike says he's moved on. "I'm just living out my golden years happy as a clam," he says. "Works for me."

Monday, August 10, 2015

Believable Blogging

A few weeks ago I had the chance to chat with Dr. Jessica Vogelsang, veterinarian and social media maven, commonly known as Dr. V. Some of you may be familiar with Jessica's popular blog, Pawcurious, or her numerous other writing activities, such as blogger over at petMD and frequent contributor to DVM360, not to mention other national publications and media appearances. Most recently, this summer Jessica's first book came out--All Dogs Go to Kevin--a veterinary memoir. Jessica and I talked about writing for the masses via social media and she offered plenty of sage advice. Let me share that with you.
Jessica graduated from UC-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine in 2002. Having always enjoyed writing, Jessica turned her hobby into something more substantial as blogging gained a foothold. "I've been writing forever," she says. "I had never envisioned it actually being an effective way to educate large groups of people, it was just sort of me writing to friends who were interested in hearing what life was like as a vet." As technology became more on-line friendly, and with some help and encouragement from her husband who has IT experience, Jessica discovered blogging was a perfect fit as a writing outlet.

"The idea of using social media to educate people on a larger scale really became more front and center," Jessica says. "One of the things that is challenging for professional people on social media is that you really need to engage people on a personal level and that's really hard for a lot of people who want to write things very informational and very impersonal. That's not really what people are looking for. So, blogging has been an exercise in trying to strike that balance: to give accurate, professional information while still being relatable. That's what I've been trying to do."

A reader of Pawcurious will quickly notice Jessica's writing voice. Although veterinary in nature, Jessica weaves in her own life experiences between the science. Her's is not the "Ten Tips to Treat Fleas" site. Instead, Jessica shares her life as a vet, a mother, and an individual with her audience. "Everything I wanted to say medically I did in the first year," she says of her blog, which started in 2009. "Vaccines, nutrition, everything. Now I like writing about what I do in the voice that I have. I write about things going on in my own life and own work. If I can't tie it back to something that's going on in my life or in the news, then it's not as interesting to me. There are only so many times you can write about core vaccines." TRUTH.

"There are only so many times you can write about core vaccines." 

Blogging about how you vacuum your carpets is one thing, but blogging about vet med for general public education is an entirely different monster. Jessica knows this first hand and discusses what she views as the pros and cons of social media for those in the vet biz. "The pro of social media is that everyone has a voice," she says. "The con is the same thing. It is good and bad. Social media is a great way to talk to people that you would have never come across, but on the same token, you have people who are really good at establishing a personal relationship but they don't necessarily use that to share appropriate information. Someone can have a million fans and spout stuff that makes zero sense. It is frustrating when you see somebody selling snake oil and undoing all the good work you've been doing for so many years just because he or she as a good graphic designer."

So, the book. Jessica describes her memoir process as backwards because she was approached by a publisher who asked if she would write a book. Of course she said yes (duh), so then she acquired an agent and only then did they decide what the book was going to be about. Crazy, right? Normally, the book process goes: write, submit, rejection, rejection, rejection, (x 104392), then agent and then publisher. (But, my dear readers and writers: NEVER GIVE UP.)

Jessica admits her version of the writing game is unique. "Traditional publishing is so much work," she acknowledges. "If I had to do it the traditional way, I don't think I would have the tenacity to keep going. These novelists are incredible, given the rate of rejection they receive. I was fortunate that I had a lot of guidance and I knew that at the end of the day this was going to be a published book."

OK, so now that we are all incredibly jealous of Jessica's backwards path to publication, what is her book about? "The book is a memoir about three dogs that I had at three interesting points in my life," she says. "My Lhasa I had as a child, the Golden Retriever I had as a graduate student, and the crazy Lab I had as I got older. It features personal stories and stories from the vet clinic. I wanted to share the wonder of what these little guys bring to our lives and how they have this purpose that we may not even recognize until they are gone."

"I wanted to share the wonder of what these little guys bring to our lives."

The memoir writing process has always been a source of fascination to me. How can a writer dig deep enough to make the language compelling? Is there a chance of digging too deeply? Is it a fine line? "It was an emotional process because when you are writing a memoir, you are really trying to revisit those moments and find the words to describe the emotions you are going through," says Jessica. "I write about the deaths of my own pets in detail and it was hard. I spent some times at one in the morning typing and crying. It does take a lot out of you. But you have to be willing to go there if you want your writing to affect people. If you write detached then the reader will be detached as well."

"If you write detached then the reader will be detached."

Naturally, the conversation turns to time. Where is it? Can you buy more of it? Is there a vending machine that dispenses half hour chunks for a few quarters or part of your soul? For those particularly in the veterinary field, finding time to write or do another hobby or even brush your teeth on a regular basis is sometimes a challenge. These "other" things are part of what is called self-care and there is a lack of it in the vet med world. This is a problem.

"I think we are conditioned to feel guilty either by colleagues or by clients to want to take time for ourselves," says Jessica. "That's crazy to me. We get it more than any other profession out there. I don't understand why that is. Why do people feel perfectly free to demand ownership over our lives, over this professional decision we made, and think they have the right to tell us that we should sacrifice everything? This has to be something that is discussed by the profession as a whole. Self-care has to be obligatory in this type of profession if you want to maintain your sanity."

This concept of self-care and its deprivation in the vet med realm is something that social media has helped moved to the forefront. "When we had several high profile suicides in the last couple of years and everybody was shocked and started talking, it was like: oh, me too," says Jessica. "It was like every single person was going through the same thing. [Sharing] has really opened the dialogue. That's just as important as the self-care itself: having that ability to speak with other colleagues who validate those feelings."

Jessica and I ended our conversation with some words of wisdom to impart on those intrepid would-be bloggers. "First thing, anonymity is a lie," she says. "Do not think you can post anonymously online. You have to be careful. The other thing is be aware. Of course you want to educate and enlighten people but people will take what you say to justify what they already believe, for good or bad. You can control what you write but you can't control what people do with it once it's out there."

"Anonymity is a lie."

At the end of it all, whether you're looking to create your own blog, or post pictures of your amazing Pug or Persian or Palomino on Instagram, or write the most amazing, fascinating, refreshing articles on core vaccines, just remember to do your best. And of course you will. "I'm going to write what I care about and create quality content and hopefully that will be enough," Jessica says. "I just want to be true to the things I think are important. And I think that's really the best anyone can do." Amen, sister.