Monday, June 6, 2016

The Textured Life

This month I spoke with Dr. Sid Gustafson, equine veterinarian and author who lives and works in Montana. Sid has just published his third novel, Swift Dam, a story of a veterinarian, Native Americans, and the land. Sid is also the author of numerous short stories and non-fiction pieces, including magazine articles, and a New York Times column. His take on the balance of veterinary medicine with a hobby is refreshing and inspiring for those of us looking for a creative outlet. Here's what he had to say.
Sid Gustafson, DVM, teaching at the University of Guelph
Sid has always written. As a young man in the Air Force Academy and even prior to that working at a cattle ranch away from home, his letters to his parents received accolades. "I didn't think they were any big deal but my father just appeared stunned and commented several times on the nature of the writing in an approving way," Sid says. "When you get patted on the back for writing when you are young, you keep doing it."
Sid's third and most recent novel
Somewhere in the combination of Sid's love of horses and the fact that his own father was a veterinarian, he found himself in the mix and graduated from Washington State University's College of Veterinary Medicine in 1979. His debut novel, Prisoners of Flight was published in 2003. So, how does one go from a history of writing to vet school, only to produce a published novel almost 25 years later? "All I can say is that's how long it takes to learn to write a novel that a publisher would be interested in," he says patiently.
Sid's debut novel available here
Sid acknowledges there wasn't much time to write in college. I can vouch for that. "Through the entire education, I felt deprived," he says, "because there were no humanities required. Everyone else [in undergrad] was taking philosophy and literature and I was taking chemistry. So I wasn't able to write but I could see in vet school, along with the fact that my father was a veterinarian, that there was a lot to be written about."

After graduation, Sid worked on the track with racehorses. "I was fascinated with horses and still am," he says. Returning to Montana to raise a family, Sid was able to find the time to work on the craft of writing. "What I had to do was read an awful lot of novels," he says of those years. He also took college classes on literature, writing, and poetry.

Prisoners of Flight, although published first, was not Sid's first novel. His second published novel, Horses They Rode, was actually his first written novel. "The first novel I wrote could not get anyone interested," explains Sid. The advice from local writing circles was: "Write another one." And so he did.
Sid's second published novel available here
After the success of his first published novel, he was able to then follow with the second.

I like to bother veterinarians with questions about how they find the time to pursue their creative outlets. I bothered Sid with this question as well. "I've always chosen to live in places where there are a lot of veterinarians," he says. The logic was that then his particular practice was never overwhelmed. "I never had a busy veterinary practice and that in fact was one of the things that inspired me to write. You're expected to be in the office during a certain set of hours so I thought I needed to do something to take up the slack while I'm sitting around waiting for the phone to ring. So I started writing--I've always had free time to write."

"Writing seems to be a more textured life than just being a veterinarian alone."

Sid acknowledges, however, that it's not just time that's needed. It's motivation. "Really, [time] is not an issue for writers. They can have all the time they want. It's just finding that space or motivation to write. You have to find the zone. I was always careful to find that. Somewhere back there I always wanted to write. I don't know what the reason is. You want yourself to be published; you want affirmation; you want dialog. It seems to be a more textured life than just being a veterinarian alone."

Sid not only practices veterinary medicine and writes, but also teaches at the University of Guelph as an equine behavior educator. Animal behavior is Sid's passion and his interest in the subject is seen in his non-fiction writing and how he practices veterinary medicine. "The most interesting aspect of veterinary medicine I've ever encountered is animal behavior," he says. "My point has also been to start educating veterinarians about animal behavior because it is the basis of animal welfare." Sid is a strong promoter of adding animal behavior to the educational repertoire of veterinarians. "My last novel tries to educate people about animal welfare and animal behavior."

"I honor every single veterinarian. What a rugged way to make a living."

It's an awesome thought to combine one's creative outlet with a subject that one advocates and this seems like a good tool to prevent burnout. "I was careful not to let veterinary medicine overwhelm me like it seemed to overwhelm a lot of my associates," Sid says. "I think you have to do other things to survive. It's a brutal business. I honor every single veterinarian. What a rugged way to make a living. You got to diversify, get out of the trench a little bit. Avocations of veterinarians are equal to their vocation."

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