Recently I was involved in teaching a workshop to Internal Medicine residents, presenting a topic somewhat unique, a bit different than our usual educational offerings. I was talking about therapeutic aspects of creative writing–this was a coping mechanism for me after my cancer diagnosis in 2016. But residents in training have also used writing in this fashion; one of my mentees as an Associate Program Director wrote an essay about losing a young woman to sepsis, another composed a humorous piece about the first code he ever ran. Certainly, the training itself has enough emotional stress and also many poignant patient care moments that truly touch the heart, both uplifting and sad, all of which can serve as inspiration to write.
However, midway through the session, I could see the Zoom Chat was learning towards a specific question, finding the time to write: “This sounds great but who has the time?” “I was up until midnight typing notes yesterday.” Long hours and working evenings and weekends can certainly put a damper on the desire to write, whether it’s journaling, poetry, essays, or that case report or journal article for an academic publication.
So I stopped and I asked for audience participation as part of a planned interactive exercise. I asked them to comment on potential strategies, how one might find protected time to write, carving it out of a busy schedule. The ideas converged along three major themes.
First, actually creating a placeholder, a block of time on the calendar dedicated to writing; this might be more effective for a faculty physician who has more control over their time, compared to a medical student or resident. But even in our medical school we have blocks of ILT (independent learning time) in the weekly calendar which could be utilized for writing. In residency, there are some rotations that are less intense than others in terms of hours, and thanks to duty hours restrictions, a protected day off per week is also the norm even on hospital or ICU rotations. Scheduling a lunch hour or coffee break dedicated to writing is also a strategy; after all, one needs to eat, no matter how busy the workday is, both in medicine and in other fields.
Second, writing in groups, or creating a “writing date.” This works well for a group of people writing a paper together, but it could also be used by two individuals working on different projects, side by side, maybe at a local cafe. It’s the accountability piece that plays a role; meeting someone to write together makes it more difficult to put off, reschedule, or let other projects get in the way. I have also found that getting out of the house or off campus for these writing dates means I will focus on writing and not let anything else distract me.
Third, writing “on the fly.” Thanks to technology, one can bring a laptop or a tablet and write from anywhere. I have even edited blog posts and journal articles on my phone, using Google Docs. Once, I finished a book chapter sitting at the orthodontist, waiting for my son Sam to finish his appointment. Finding those snippets of time where you may just be sitting around or waiting–this is also an effective strategy to promote writing.
As ideas came forward, I also recalled a discussion with my division chair as part of an annual review in 2017. I mentioned that I was writing a book about my experiences as a patient, and for some reason, it was coming together very quickly; I would write early morning over coffee, or later in the evening after the kids went to bed. Somehow I found the time and very much looked forward to it, and it felt effortless as opposed to, say, writing a grant which for me is like pulling teeth.
He responded in this fashion: “Well, you have found your flow.” He explained that once you find something that feels enjoyable and effortless, you should go with it. I asked: “But I’m not sure this kind of creative writing counts in terms of our promotion and tenure track.” He went on to explain that indeed it would, and publishing creative writing pieces in academic medical journals also counts as a peer reviewed publication. As it turns out, this would become a very important part of my promotion to Associate Professor in 2020.
In retrospect, I wish I would have had the ideas listed above in my arsenal prior to 2016. I have found that writing begets writing; as I wrote more creative writing pieces, including my books, my blog and so on, I actually became more prolific at writing academic papers as well. I am currently working on two papers with a group of colleagues and I find it is much easier to accomplish this now compared to earlier in my career. It’s a strategy underemphasized in terms of how we manage our time, in academic medicine or in other career paths as well.
And, I would love to hear from you, dear reader; how do you find the time to write?