Suzanne Koven

Suzanne Koven

On April 1, BWH clinicians and researchers from across the hospital gathered in the Zinner Conference Center for a special program that explored the role of narrative—any kind of writing that tells a story—in medicine and how physicians can better know their patients by listening to their stories.

Sponsored by the Center for Faculty Development & Diversity and the Brigham Education Institute (BEI) and organized by Christy Di Frances, PhD, MA, the morning featured an engaging presentation by Suzanne Koven, MD, an assistant professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and writer-in-residence and primary care physician at Massachusetts General Hospital.

“We lose something if we don’t acknowledge that the fundamental tool we have as clinicians is finding out and understanding our patients’ stories,” said Koven. “Getting to the story makes all the difference between diagnosing and not diagnosing, between healing and not healing.”

Koven’s presentation was followed by breakout workshops on fiction and poetry writing, scientific storytelling and close reading, which is the careful interpretation of a brief passage of text.   

Poetry in Medicine Workshop

Medicine is not only about writing but reading as well, poet Gregory Abel, MD, MPH, MFA, an oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and assistant professor of Medicine at HMS, shared with a group of participants in a workshop on reading and writing poetry.

During the one-hour session, poems with themes in medicine written by famous poets, such as Anne Sexton and Jane Kenyon, were read aloud and examined for content, technique and style.

The workshop concluded with a writing exercise in which participants wrote about a time leading up to an event that affected them. Participants shared their drafts with a partner, and partners then wrote what they thought happened next, illustrating the narrative significance of differing points of view.

Close-Reading Workshop

“Oh I suppose I should” are the opening words of William Carlos Williams’s poem “Le Médecin Malgré Lui” and also served as a writing prompt for those who attended a close-reading workshop led by Koven and Andrea Wershof Schwartz, MD, MPH, of BWH’s Department of Medicine. Schwartz began the workshop by reading Williams’s poem aloud and then inviting participants to closely examine the phrases and words Williams used and share their reactions.

Koven then led the group in a five-minute writing exercise, instructing participants to begin with the same opening line as the poem and write continuously for five minutes before sharing the results with the group.

“This kind of writing is highly desired,” said Koven, noting that publications such as The New England Journal of Medicine and The New York Times are interested in personal essays by clinicians.

creative writing workshop

Author and Simmons College professor Lowry Pei, PhD, MA, led participants through a discussion of Richard Selzer’s short story “Four Appointments with the Discus Thrower,” noting areas where Selzer exercised restraint and lets readers make their own judgments. Pei emphasized how, with such storytelling, the key is to dramatize rather than explain everything.

Scientific-Storytelling Seminar

Rafael Luna, PhD, author of the book “The Art of Scientific Storytelling” and program director for Senior Faculty Promotions in the Office for Faculty Affairs at HMS, described how to incorporate the elements of narrative craft into scientific manuscripts. He challenged the audience to think about how to capture seven years of work in the seven words of a paper’s title and noted that even the most complex scientific studies can have conflict and resolution, a beginning, middle and end, and a protagonist, which can be in the form of a protein, pathway or process.

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