Thoughts On the Road Not Taken

September 21, 2022 § 13 Comments

By Sandra Hager Eliason

“Two roads diverged,” I thought, recalling Frost’s poem, The Road not Taken. He describes his decision to take the road less traveled by, and the difference it made. I see the poem as a metaphor for my life. 

Reading and writing consumed my high school years, and I was confident my poetry, short stories, and essays would be published someday. In college, ideas blossomed and flowed easily onto the paper, the sticky keys of my manual typewriter preventing my fingers from keeping up with my brain. 

Yet, as Frost says, “way leads on to way,” and writing left me when, through a circuitous route, the road led to medical school. I saw no future in writing when everyone else was getting MBAs. I trusted hard work and diligent efforts on the medical path to lead to success. I have often asked myself what would have happened had I taken the other road. 

In my medical practice, I was drawn to patient stories. I captured them in the chart, first in cursive on paper, later typed into the computer, striving to record more than “just the facts,” to make my patients real on paper. Instead of “Mr. Brown is a 78-year-old man with dementia,” followed by exam and assessment, I wanted anyone reading the chart to know that Mr. Brown is a 78-year-old man who lives alone, and his children are scattered across the world, unable to help him. I strove to make each patient more than the sore throat seen on March 15th, or the appendicitis that went to the hospital. It turned out I was still writing, although in a limited fashion, prescribed by the format of the medical chart.

As retirement approached, I anticipated the void of leaving these stories behind, and wondered who I would become without them. I enrolled in a writing class. Maybe I could return to where I started. Then I came upon a writing contest in a medical magazine, tidied up a piece I had written years ago, and sent it at the last minute. Lo and behold, I won. Maybe I could write creatively for a wider audience, break out of the stilted format that patient charts required, leaving myself and my reflections out, recording colorless facts. 

In a chart, you must back everything you say with data, facts not necessary in a story or essay. When you have practiced leaving out feelings or description (it doesn’t matter in the chart the look on their face, how their hair was styled, the way their blue shirt contrasted with the pale green walls), you become accustomed to writing that neither creates scene nor conjures emotion. Relearning to write creatively, to take the stories stored in my brain and convert them from medical writing to another form, was like trying to re-find the overgrown path. 

Who could teach me to be the kind of writer I wanted to be? I knew plenty of medical people, but found myself in a writerless wasteland. As I groped to decide where to spend my time (and money!), my husband rightly observed, “You couldn’t just hang up a shingle and be a doctor, you had to take classes and learn. This is the same.” 

Bless him! I had to approach this writer thing with the same single-minded determination I used to study medicine. Instead of learning about muscles and cells, I was learning about sentences and paragraphs. Instead of diseases, I was learning themes.

I chose classes, went to conferences, and found places to meet other writers, who generously included me in local writing associations and gave me access to online groups. They provided workshopping and beta readers, things I previously had no idea existed. Each was a tool I needed to hone my brain into a different instrument: no longer a scalpel to cut straight to the facts, rather a scanning electron microscope getting close to the surface of the theme, then penetrating it. 

The sentence is more complicated than a scalpel slice, more nuanced than a surgical knot. Its mastery requires a more subtle training, with no diploma to announce when I’d arrived. But I keep at it. Because it turns out that writing, like medicine, is a practice, one you show up to routinely, striving for continual improvement. 

I will need persistence and determination to keep showing up on the page and to keep submitting—hoping to increase my skill and to find readers, but also reveling in the joy of ideas and words. 

At the start, I tried to look down both roads as far as I could, but as way led onto way, the road took me to places I never expected, and I dealt with the life in front of me. As Frost says, “I kept the first for another day,” and here I am, back at the beginning.

__

Sandra Eliason is a retired physician who is now writing full time. She won the Minnesota Medicine Magazine Arts Edition writing contest in 2016 for her piece “The Vacation,” which began her transition to full-time writing. She has had essays published in Bluestem magazine, West Trade Review, the Brevity Blog, and upcoming in The Linden Review. Her work has been anthologized in the e-book Tales from Six Feet Apart, and in Pure Slush: Cow Volume 23. She is a book reviewer for Hippocampus Magazine and is currently querying publishers for her memoir Heal Me: Becoming a Doctor for all the Wrong Reasons (and Finding Myself Anyway). Eliason has had reviews published in the Brevity Blog and pending at Rain Taxi. To find her reviews of books that you won’t likely find on the New York Times best sellers list, but should, check out dreliasonwriter.com. Eliason resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with her husband, where she tends a garden in the summer and creates a lap for her cat to warm in the winter.

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§ 13 Responses to Thoughts On the Road Not Taken

  • There were several doctors in my MFA program learning to refocus their intelligence and keen observation skills to different work. You must have been a fine doctor, and now you are also a fine writer.

  • incensedleicestergraduate says:

    Funnily enough , I went to university intending to be an ecologist, motivated by Rachel Carson’s book ‘Silent Spring ‘ and 2 wonderful people who encouraged my love of birdwatching, but somehow I totally lost my way , started training as an educational psychologist, though I’d NEVER wanted to teach, but then went completely bonkers and became a senior tax inspector !
    I’ve always loved literature which is why I mixed my A levels – Biology , Chemistry and English Literature and on a Thursday evening at University I’d hare our early from a Biology lecture to catch a coach organised by the Humanities society to the RSC in Stratford .
    So, sometimes 2 roads diverge in the forest and sadly
    you choose the wrong one.
    I had hoped to redeem myself by working with Prof Dieter Helm in Oxford on Climate Change, but sadly I only have a few months to live as I have terminal liver failure caused by undiagnosed HAEMOCHROMATOSIS, as despite being a KNIBB from Oxford I’m genetically over 75% CELT !

  • Sharon Silver says:

    Sometimes the road not taken is just taken later. Brava.

  • Mita Patel says:

    Great post!! I really loved the line “The sentence is more complicated than a scalpel slice, more nuanced than a surgical knot.” It’s great that you were able to add a bit of humanity to your medical charts, I’m sure it must’ve provided more humanity in the patient’s care. Looking forward to reading more of your work!

  • youngv2015 says:

    I love your essay. Your story connects with me because I, too, started writing after I retired, turning to something I’d loved in my youth.

  • Wendy Posselt says:

    Judging by the quality and precision of your writing on this blog, I look forward to your memoir! I wish you had been my doctor.

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  • I’m right with you with the classes and the learning, love all of it, especially the relationships we’re building. We are sharing the road. Thank you for this glimpse into your life.

  • Thanks for sharing your story about how you came to be a writer. What interesting comparisons you make between being a doctor and writer. Good luck with getting your book published.

  • Andrea A Firth says:

    Hi Sandra. Wonderful essay. I’m a huge fan of narrative medicine–such great stories in your first chosen path. You may already be familiar with these, if you are looking for journal outlets for essays with a medical focus, check out Intima and Please See Me. And The Nocturnists, a great group of docs and other health care professionals who write and perform based in SF, is another place to check out. They have calls for medical narratives. Looking forward to your memoir.

  • nagneberg48 says:

    For many years I worked in public relations and most of my writing was media releases, which had a definite form that didn’t leave much room for creativity. In more recent years I have needed re-training to discover the writer within. Excellent post.

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