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.
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.


  1. So that's interesting about the MFA. Although I've never felt pulled in that direction, I do see articles and such from time to time asking the question is it worth it. It was interesting to hear what this writer had to say about what she felt she got out of it.

    1. I agree! I'm interested in hearing more from others who have gone through the process to compare experiences.