About a month ago I got an invitation by John Schumann, who authorizes the Glass Hospital blog to go to Iowa.   Now, I don't consider going to Iowa a particularly bad thing, but it is an unusual place to be invited to.  I am all in favor of corn and abundant use of the word "Sioux," but it's not quite like Las Vegas, DC, or Buenos Aires (all of which have been previous invitations).

It turns out, I wasn't invited there to gaze in wonder at "America's Breadbasket," but to be part of a pannel of speakers at a writer's conference called The Examined Life: Writing and the Art of Medicine. John invited me to speak along with him and with Michelle Au, who authors the wonderful blog, The Underwear Drawer (no, it's not about boxers, briefs, and thongs - just go over there and read her explanation for the name). We would have a pannel discussing the subject of doctors who blog - the why, what, where, and how.

So why Iowa?  First, it would have been a mistake to go somewhere else, as the conference is being held in Iowa.  We really wouldn't have gotten anyone to come to our pannel discussion if we went to North Dakota.  Second, it turns out, Iowa is a hotbed of writers.  Here is their explanation:

The University of Iowa is among the nation’s premier centers for creative writing, and its programs attract writers from all over the world. A dozen Pulitzer Prize-winners, numerous National Book Award recipients, and four recent US Poet Laureates have attended the University of Iowa. The University is home to the International Writing Program, the Nonfiction Writing Program, the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, and the Iowa Review. It is also home to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the first creative writing degree program in the United States, and the model for contemporary writing programs.

So that's why it's in Iowa.  Who'd have thought that it was such fertile soil for writers?  (Sorry).  The conference runs from April 21-23.

So why go to a writer's conference?  Why talk at it?  I've come to a stark realization about myself recently: I am a writer.  I write this blog, I write podcasts every week, I write for other publications.  I have written articles, and have written a chapter of a book.  I even have tried my hand at novel-writing.  I write, and I write a lot.  That's a big change in the past five years.

This blog is the cornerstone of my writing experience.  When I started it 4 1/2 years ago, I didn't really know I could write like this.  I just wanted to blog because, well, I think I just liked the word "blog" and wanted to be able to say "I have a blog."  It sounds impressive.

Whatever the reason, I now spend a good portion of my free time writing.  It's gone from experiment, to self-realization, to chore (sometimes), to a natural part of who I am.

Since there are many of my readers who have a blog, or have other areas in which they write, I will share what I've learned about writing on my journey over the past five years.

1.  Just Write

I am always practicing and always learning in my writing.  There is always a lot of room for improvement, and I see myself still as a novice at this.  I get paid from several sources, but overall I do it for the love of doing it.  But when I look back on my writing back when I started, I see a lot of progress.  It's much easier to take a vague idea and turn it into a blog post than it was back then.  There is one thing that has made this happen: practice.  Writing is something learned by doing, not by instruction.  Instruction is OK, but I think it is far more beneficial after you've been writing for a while.

2.  Force Yourself

I am fortunate in the fact that I've not had a prolonged case of writer's block.  That is not to say that I haven't sat and stared at a post totally lost as to where I wanted to go with it.  The podcast is especially hard because it requires that I write on a deadline.  Yet the act of repeatedly going back to write when I didn't think I had it in me has made it much easier to get the juices flowing on demand.  The more you force yourself to get the job done, the less you will have to force it in the future.

3.  Keep it Varied

I tend to exhaust my thoughts about a subject (no snide remarks, please).  I write about something until I don't know what else to write.  Yet because I have allowed a huge variety of topics on the blog, I can always turn to something different.  When I write about healthcare reform enough, I turn to humor.  When I feel like I am becoming trite or too opinionated, I write about some personal thoughts or feelings regarding being a doctor.  The best decision I ever made early on was to not put significant boundaries on what I should write about.

My recent dive into creative writing (through NaNoWriMo) has opened up a whole new area of writing for me.  I honestly didn't think I had the constitution to write a book, especially one that's fiction.  The important thing was a willingness to try it.  Stepping out on that limb, and accepting that I could fail at it, gave a whole new area I would have otherwise never known.  Heck, doing the blog in the first place was that same sort of step.

4.  Keep Perspective

I write from my own perspective -- the sum of my roles in life.

  • I am a doctor, a primary care doctor in private practice
  • I work in the US at a time in which the system is going through huge changes
  • I am also a guy in his 40's who has made many mistakes, but has also learned a great deal just from living
  • I love humor, and I like to make people laugh
  • I am a husband and a father.

I try to stay true to my own perspective.  The wide variety of topics comes from the wide variety of roles I have.  When I write, it is always from at least one of those perspectives.

So, to those of you with time on your hands and a hankerin' for some corn, why not attend the conference in Iowa?  I'd love to meet more of my fellow writers and readers.  And to those who are thinking about or are struggling with writing, I say: do it.  To me, writing is a means by which we let our minds grow.  It takes ideas and expands them, it takes risks, it travels down new paths.  Writing makes life bigger.

Taking that plunge has definitely changed my life for the better.