Watch One, Do One, Teach One

September 2, 2019 § 11 Comments

roy-bornsteinBy Carolyn Roy-Bornstein

It may be horrifying for lay folks to learn this fact, but there is a mantra in medical residency called, “watch one, do one, teach one.” As an intern, I did not have the luxury of watching scores of intravenous insertions before I tackled my own. Lumbar punctures are done less frequently. If I had been supervised just once by my senior resident doing a spinal tap and deemed competent, chances are when the next one came along, I’d be supervising someone else doing one. It may not have always been literally one procedure under my belt before I’m teaching it, but it sure wasn’t much more.

That’s why it doesn’t strike me as strange or unusual that after publishing one memoir, I find myself teaching a memoir-writing class at my local adult education program. And after giving one key note speech, I feel qualified to teach a speech-writing class at Grub Street, Boston. I also have no problem teaching a workshop at the University of Iowa on creating a portfolio career in writing, even though my unpaid writing gigs still outnumber my paid jobs. And I’m lecturing doctors at Harvard University about medical journalism even as I work hard to advance that aspect of my career.

Now, full disclosure, I have given many smaller speeches in addition to the keynote, and even though my paid jobs lag behind the unpaid ones, I still have dozens of publications to my credit. I’m not a total fraud. But it’s also true: just one memoir.

But there’s another saying in medicine: teaching is learning twice. So, as I research my lessons and prepare my hand-outs for the classes and workshops I teach, I’m learning, too. I learned that when I was repeating those central elements in my keynote speech, I was using the rhetorical technique called anaphora. I had to learn the difference between direct and indirect dialogue before I could teach the students in my memoir-writing class. I was fuzzy on the precise statistics on physician burn-out before I started fact-finding for my University of Iowa writing workshop. And I didn’t know much about blogging software until I had to incorporate its use into my talk at Harvard.

All of this, I hope and believe, is making me a better writer. Watch one, do one, teach one may sound like so much chutzpah to non-physicians. But in the writing world, a little chutzpah may be in order. If JK Rowling had been discouraged by rejection and not believed in herself, we never would have met Harry Potter. Likewise, Joseph Heller and his character Captain Yossarian. Both Catch-22 and The Sorcerer’s Stone were rejected multiple times before being published. All writers need self-assurance. We have enough critics and skeptics in our lives without being doubters of our own abilities.

So I will continue watching one (in the form of reading great writers’ works), doing one (by continuously working on my craft), and teaching one (by sharing what I’ve learned along the way with other writers). As one of my medical colleagues told a group of young physicians who wanted to know how to make the big discoveries in cancer research, “Look for the question… (Then) make the answer important.” I can think of no better advice for a writer.


Carolyn Roy-Bornstein is a physician, writer and mom whose work limns the places where those worlds intersect. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Writer, Poets & Writers, the Journal of the American Medical Association and many other venues. Her forthcoming third book. Last Stop on the Struggle Bus: A Memoir of Foster Love, is about taking chances, making commitments and redefining love.

§ 11 Responses to Watch One, Do One, Teach One

  • […] via Watch One, Do One, Teach One — BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog […]

  • Wise words, Carolyn. I’ve written a memoir–unpublished to date–received two writing degrees, and worked my tail off for 30 plus years in the field.I suppose that does “qualifiy” me to pass along my know- how. The satisfaction of helping other writers is huge, and yes, I am constantly learning along with them, and that’s HUGE for me.

    • eemmanuel349 says:

      Nice you have comment me to say something that I have forgot in life my friend what I know understand is the key of press in life because when some thinking with ha_ understand is like a ☆ of joy in thanks I like your post nice to you!

  • bethfinke says:

    Oh, Carolyn, I can so relate! Not to the M.D. or medical journalism part, but definitely to the get one memoir published, then find yourself teaching memoir-writing classes. Happened to me, too, and now I lead five classes in Chicago every week! I’ve started a Memoir Teacher Facebook group so teachers across the country can share suggestions and ideas (and ask for help with challenges) about teaching memoir. Link to my name above to contact me and I’ll send an invitation for you to join if you are interested. Will share a link to this post with the group now, too, it’s so encouraging. Thank you for writing this and continued success on all your endeavors —

  • I like this word chutzpah. Very good word. Another interesting author to write about would be Stephen King or maybe even Sylvester Stallone. It is said Stephen King, when he first began writing, he submitted his story to a publisher and got rejected. He threw it in the trash and his wife picked it up out of the trash and sent it on to another publisher where it got accepted. What was the story you ask? Carrie. It was Carrie. Meanwhile, Sylvester Stallone was extremely poor and destitute at the time he wrote the screenplay for Rocky. He pitched it and the production companies came back saying they wanted the story but not him as the main actor for Rocky. Sylvester Stallone told them no deal. He said you can’t have the movie unless I play Rocky and eventually, the production companies consented.

  • camillasanderson says:

    Love the truth you nail in your article and yes:
    “If you want to learn something, read about it.
    If you want to understand something, write about it.
    If you want to master something, teach it.”
    – Yogi Bhajan

  • “Watch one, Do one, Teach one” – a new and fabulous mantra I shall affix above my writing desk. Thank you!

  • Margaret says:

    Watch one, do one, teach one – I’ve quoted this at least three times already this week! It’s so true and good advice for people who think they need to be an “expert” before they have a go at anything.

  • I never saw the analogy until I just read this, for which I thank you, Carolyn! As a scientist I often do things for the first time, having little of nothing to learn from (aside from learning from my mistakes), because let’s face it, it’s the nature of the job, to venture into new territories. Perhaps my degree is my shield against experiencing an imposter syndrome. As an aspiring writer however I haven’t gotten there yet. I watch (read memoir), I do (write essays), I teach (taught a couple of memoir workshops), yet I still feel short of calling myself a Writer. I guess all I can do is go on with the experiment, with the questions, and hope to “make the answer important”.

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