What Do You Mean?

A two-page story “Caring for Strangers” raises a whole range of issues worth the conversation we won’t be able to have in our less-than-an-hour Monday seminar—patients’ fears, how doctors miss cues, how medical training can dehumanize, what love has to do with it.  Hearing it aloud adds a dimension to its drama.  It’s not only worth reading, but worth reading together, especially with doctors in training.  That part is a privilege.
But I find myself distracted by stylistic quirks in the story that bother me.  Imprecisions bother me (what the hell is “a chance of a missed occasion”?  What are “drooling dispositions”?)  Overstatement and poor verb choices bother me.  So am I just being a nit-picking English teacher?  The kind that kills “Ode to a Nightengale” at close range?
I don’t think so.  I love close reading.  I can be very forgiving if I see something of value in what people have bothered, bless their word-loving hearts, to write down.  Still, in the midst of the widening conversation about the value of writing in medical environments—poems by physicians, patients’ stories, cancer chronicles—I find myself wanting to say something about the value of writing well.
One student asked this morning about how to avoid falling into clichés.  I want to pat him on his lovely head for caring about the question.  The challenge of writing anything worth devoting a sentence to is finding a way to invite a reader back to a place she thinks she’s been for a second look.  “Words strain, crack break, Eliot wrote, strain with imprecision, will not … will not stay still, …leaving one always with the intolerable wrestle with words and meanings.”  I don’t believe as fully as I used to in the sheer value of writing things down, though sometimes it is, in itself a heroic act.  I think the value comes in the wrestling with words and meanings that makes the writing itself part of the arduous, demanding, surprising work of healing.
I’ve gone to websites where patients post their poetry, and am generally disappointed in the quality, though I applaud the impulse.  I wish someone could help them take it a step further, as my friend Vicki used to when I brought her a thought or a rough draft.  “What’s behind that?”  she’d say.  Where did this image come from?  Why did you start with this phrase?  Did you notice what you’re not saying?  Why did you pick that verb?
This kind of long look at unpolished sentences isn’t just the professional purview of English teachers—it’s human work.  “What do you mean?” is a searching, valuable question.  It’s a second draft question.  It deserves to be asked and answered.

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