Writing our Lives to Live Them: The Cognitive Forms of a Narrative Medicine


Life-writing combines, collates, or colludes many lives into one text. No work of fiction, biography, poetry, drama, memoir, journaling, blogging, or autobiography—all of them life-writing—does not do this, either blatantly or surreptitiously. I am interested in forms in which authors do not own up to writing about themselves under the cover of writing about another. This essay will focus on the implications of this generic collusion in writing in health care. Health care professionals are given space within their professional journals to write personal essays about their work. Typically, these essays include a patient portrait or vignette as a means to probe some aspect of clinical practice. Some, not all, of these journals provide guidelines for protecting the privacy/confidentiality of patients described in the essay, including instructions for how to “fictionalize” patients or families to render them non-identifiable, even to themselves. A clinician-author may adopt this genre to illuminate a moment in practice that bears reflection and provides insight into the world of care. Often, however, the essay’s tenor is the author, and the patient is pressed into service as but the vehicle for that examination. The genre may be adopted to confess an error, to lament a woe (generalizable to all readers), to critique the actions of colleagues or patients, or to boast of a successful clinical intervention. Perhaps these essays are all, or should all, be co-authored “duets” by patient and clinician.

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