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How Writing My Memoir Made Me a Better Doctor

Through writing her memoir, book inc's Peer Artist Leader Shanda McManus realizes she has much to learn about listening.

By Shanda McManus

November 17, 2022

When I was a medical student at the start of my clinical training, a white-haired Marcus Welby look-alike attending physician sagely advised me, “The patient will tell you what’s wrong if you listen.” After over 20 years as a family medicine physician, I have successfully diagnosed and treated thousands of people. I prided myself on being a good listener and I thought I mastered the art of hearing what my patients were saying.

But through writing my memoir, I discovered I had much more to learn about listening.

Lesson #1 – Listen to Myself

The first lesson I learned while writing my memoir was how to listen to myself. To what I was saying, but even more importantly, listen to what I was not saying. When I first drafted my memoir, the story was only about my mother. However, when I read over what I wrote, I learned my story was also about my father and how my parents’ relationship impacted me. The truth of what I wanted to say revealed itself only after I explored what I had written as well as the white space in between.

Lesson #2 – Don’t Interrupt

The second lesson I learned while writing echoed the advice I received when I was a harried resident physician rushing through my long list of patients. The chairman of my department advised me at the beginning of each visit to let my patients talk without interrupting them. I remembered thinking, “No way I’m doing that! I’ll never get out of the room and onto the next patient.”

Studies have shown that most patients will talk for only two minutes or less if their doctor doesn’t interrupt them. But most physicians interrupt their patients after only 11 seconds. These interruptions are made to save time. But in fact, when I listen longer to patients, the extra information they give saves time in the end.

While first drafting my memoir, I rushed through to the end, afraid that I would lose the thread of my story if I didn’t get it all down. But during revision, I was forced to slow down and not interrupt the story as it revealed itself to me. Re-reading and slow editing let me hear what I was trying to say in my book.

I tuned into my memoir by slowing down and not interrupting. This practice has made me a better physician because I became a better listener.

Writers take time to hear what you are writing and you may find that your story has more to say.

Shanda McManus has been featured in Intima Journal of Narrative Medicine, Midnight & Indigo, and other publications.