Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Doctors who write

Amit Majmudar
Amit Majmudar of Dublin, Ohio, was among the featured authors at the 2014 Ohioana Book Festival, where he participated in one of the panel discussions I attended. The following year he was named Ohio's poet laureate. Besides poetry, he has also written novels, including The Abundance, and a number of published articles and short stories. Most of the time, however, this writer is referred to as Dr. Majmudar, for he is also a diagnostic nuclear radiologist.

Both a medical career and a writing career require a great deal of devotion, not to mention time and talent. Yet  Majmudar is hardly the only doctor to also become a successful writer. Nicholas A. Basbanes mentions a number of them in his book Every Book Its Reader.  Some may surprise you. John Keats became a licensed surgeon before turning his full attention to poetry. Anton Chekhov once called medicine his "legal wife," while referring to writing as his mistress, Today his medical practice is all but forgotten. His patients are all dead, while his short stories and plays live on.

Other writing doctors mentioned by Basbanes include John Locke, Tobias Smollett, Oliver Goldsmith, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Mikhail Bulgakov, W. Somerset Maugham and, more recently, Oliver Sacks, Lewis Thomas, Michael Crichton and Ethan Canin.

Some doctors turned writers were not particularly successful doctors. Arthur Conan Doyle is one of these. He had few patients, which gave him plenty of time to write. Soon writing proved much more profitable than medicine.

Basbanes doesn't even mention A.J. Cronin, who had a thriving medical practice in London before developing an ulcer. His own doctor advised rest, and it was during his time off that he wrote a novel, which became a bestseller. He preferred writing, which was also less stressful, and he soon gave up medicine.

Other doctors who became famous as writers include William Carlos Williams, Robin Cook, Walker Percy, Khaled Hosseini, Abraham Verghese, Tess Gerritsen and dozens of others whose names are less recognizable. Gertrude Stein dropped out of medical school or she could be added to the list.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that highly intelligent people should be able to succeed in more than one arena. Yet somehow it just doesn't seem fair.

Monday, October 16, 2017

What to name the carpet

Finding myself waiting in a carpet store recently, I killed time looking at carpet samples. It is a huge store, but I stood in one spot for several minutes and examined scores of little squares, each different even if only marginally so. What struck me were their names.

Some of these names were suggestive of color or pattern: Graham Cracker, Pecan, Oat Meal, Speckled Doe, Aspen, Morning Tea, Wheat Field, Georgia Clay and Rawhide, for example. Others gave no clue at all as to what the carpet might look like: Delicate, Bird's Nest, Jet Set, Cannon, Wishing Well, Leather Strap, Kitten Whisper, Bride to Be, Fossil, Moose Antler, Angel Wings, Caviar, Swap, Poem, Bashful, Tahiti, Birdhouse, Fence Post, Sea Bean, Vigor.

Perhaps most curious of all were those with names like Vintage, Traditional and Natural. These names suggest there should be something familiar about them. Yet the patterns, frankly, were hardly distinguishable from those next to them.

Most of the names could have been assigned randomly, and perhaps they were. How, I wondered, do carpets get their names? Whose job is it to select an original name for each new carpet pattern? And how do manufacturers and dealers keep them all straight? Numbers, of course. Each carpet pattern has a number for official use, but names like Kitten Whisper and Georgia Clay are more likely to please the customer. Wouldn't you rather walk on Angel Wings than GR3877614?

Paint manufacturers must face the same difficulty. How does one find the right name for each shade of blue or brown? A quick web search turned up, from just one manufacturer, Linen Pink, Southern Belle Pink, Peppermint Pink, Terra Cotta Pink, Shell Pink, Italian Pink and Zephyr Pink. None of these should be confused with Dixie Dawn or Cameo Rose, both of which look pink to me.

Whosever job it is to think up these names, I'm glad it isn't mine. I recall the great difficulty my wife and I had finding the perfect name for our baby all those years ago. That's not the reason we stopped at just one child, but it would have sufficed.

Friday, October 13, 2017

More on reporters

Stanley Walker (1898-1962) was born and raised in Texas, but he made his name as a New York City newspaperman, the editor of the New York Herald Tribune for many years. He was also the author of City Editor, a best-selling book about the newspaper business published in 1934. Much of what he says about newspaper reporters, as I noted last time, is still interesting, and much of it is still relevant. Here are some more examples:

The job of reporter has heartwarming compensations. Sometimes it pays a living wage. Sometimes it is "a stepping stone to better things." Again it is a satisfying career in itself.

Employees in any field often get promoted "to the level of their incompetence," as the Peter Principle states, and this is especially true of reporters. Editors of all sorts normally get promoted out of the reporting ranks, but good reporters don't necessarily make good editors. A higher salary, rather than a promotion (with a higher salary) might be a better way to reward outstanding reporters. Some reporters never get promoted, and they may like it this way for, as Walker states, it can be "a satisfying career" with "heartwarming compensations."

No business on earth calls for more thought, or, to the pious, prayer.

This seems like a stretch to me, for surely there are many other businesses that stir one to both deep thought and prayer. Still Walker has a point. Reporting the news requires a commitment to truth and objectivity, as well as an appreciation that the stories one writes directly impact the lives of real people. The difficulty for reporters has always been that newspaper deadlines allow little time for either thought or prayer.

Women, wampum and wrongdoing are always news.

In other words, sex, money and sin. No argument there.

Of the four who wrote of Jesus, John was the only one who showed signs of being a lively, inquisitive reporter. He wanted to know things, and he asked about them.

I would compare John more to an op-ed columnist. Matthew, Mark and Luke reported the news, or the Good News, while John added insightful commentary.

There have been heartbreaking instances of this metamorphosis from plain reporter to hoity-toity specialist.... Somehow, however, the news is handled, usually by working reporters who take all news in their stride and do not fancy themselves pampered specialists.

Walker's strong feelings about beat reporters are hard for me to understand, for I was a reporter at a time when most reporters were specialists. I was the city hall reporter, and it was my job to cultivate  sources there in the city building and to know anything of importance that might be going on. I spent part of every morning and every afternoon talking with those who worked in that building. This would be impossible for a general assignment reporter to do, if that reporter also had to know everything going on in the county courthouse, the police department, etc. Yet in recent years, because of severe budget cuts and reporter layoffs, many newspapers have eliminated beats. Those few reporters they have are responsible for everything. Somehow I doubt Walker would have been any more pleased with this development than I am.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

An ode to reporters

Stanley Walker
Although rarely read today, Stanley Walker's City Editor, published in 1934, was once a popular source of information about newspapers, especially New York City newspapers. The copy I found at a used book sale a few years ago was part of the 13th printing, published in 1938. I was drawn to the book not just because my own career was devoted to newspaper journalism but also because of the name of the previous owner inside the front cover: "Virgil A. Stanfield, Sept. 1938."

Stanfield, or Stan as he was known informally, was associate editor of The News Journal in Mansfield, Ohio, when I was hired as a reporter in 1968. That was mostly an honorary title, for Stan, once the managing editor, by then had little to do with the day-to-day management of the newsroom. He distributed the mail and wrote an occasional editorial, but mainly he wrote a column and a Sunday piece about local history. He officially retired at some point, and I can remember his retirement party, but he kept his desk at the paper and wrote his history column right up until his death. He used an old Royal typewriter after staff members had moved on to electric typewriters and then to computers. He showed up for work more regularly than most of us who were paid to be there and had an opinion on everything, which he was willing to share with anyone who stopped by his desk.

I have started reading Walker's book, and although it describes a world barely recognizable today, I find much of it fascinating. Of particular interest is what he says about reporters. Although I was a reporter for only a few years at the start of my career, I was surprised at my own retirement party that most of the comments made about me had to do with my performance as a reporter, not with anything I did in the later stages of my career. This may suggest that reporting, more than any other part of the business, is central to newspapers. The editors, printers, ad reps, circulation staff and everyone else just serve supporting roles. And for all the changes in technology over the decades, the job has changed relatively little.

Most of what Walker says about reporters comes in a chapter called "Notes on a Noble Calling," which sums up nicely how he feels about them. He disputes the notion, fed by movies, that reporters are a hard-drinking, disreputable bunch of characters who will do anything for a story. He writes that if reporters from any newspaper were placed at the same dinner table as "the board of governors of the Racquet and Tennis Club" the contrast would favor the reporters. The others, he says, would be "lacking a certain urbanity and zip."

I don't know that this would be true with all reporters and all boards of governors. Reporters, in my experience, are as varied as other segments of the populations. Some are introverts who, though they might be terrific at their jobs, show little zip in dinner conversation. Some are slobs, while others are as sharply dressed as anyone you'll meet. I worked with two reporters, a man and a woman, who every day looked like models for GQ or Vogue. I rarely saw the woman wear the same outfit twice, and she wore heels even when covering crimes and traffic accidents in snowstorms. The young man always wore a nicely tailored suit and tie, even after other reporters were celebrating casual Friday five days a week.

Yet however they look and whatever their personalities, reporters keep their jobs because of their intelligence and their commitment to truth. So maybe they really would outshine any board of governors.

I'll share more about what Stanley Walker says about reporters in may next post.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Freud the fraud

It is this passion for the sharp edges of truth that makes Freud a hero.
Alfred Kazin, "Sigmund Freud, 1856-1956: Portrait of a Hero," Contemporaries

When literary critic Alfred Kazin wrote about The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud by Ernest Jones in 1956, words like truth and hero were not uncommon when Freud was under discussion. He was widely regarded as one of the greatest men in history.  The decades since, however, have seen an erosion of that reputation as letters and other documents that Jones, a Freud disciple, and Freud's daughter, Anna, tried to keep hidden gradually came to light. Now in 2017 comes Freud: The Making of an Illusion in which Frederick Crews shows that the famed psychoanalyst was anything but a hero and truth was the last thing he was interested in.

This book, less a biography than an expose´,  has little positive to say about Sigmund Freud, which may be its greatest flaw, for it suggests that Crews, like Jones, has an agenda.

Freud attended medical school even though he recoiled at the sight of blood and couldn't stand to touch patients. (Crews shows repeatedly that Freud was more a mental case than any of his later patients who came to him with psychological problems.) So the young doctor turned to research and then to problems of the mind. In whatever he tried, fame and fortune, not the welfare of his patients, were his major goals.

His practice of manufacturing data to fit his thesis in scientific papers began early. As a young doctor he saw cocaine as miracle cure, and he used it himself for much of his life. He wrote a paper about how cocaine cured a patient's addiction to morphine. What he didn't say was that not only didn't the treatment cure the morphine addiction, but it led to addiction to cocaine as well. Nevertheless he continued to suggest cocaine to patients.

Easy answers to difficult problems continued to be Freud's practice. For awhile he regarded every patient's complaint as a symptom of hysteria. Then he decided all his patients were sexually abused as children, probably by their fathers. Later he concluded they had all, since childhood, desired to have sex with their mothers or fathers. He told his own daughter this.

As with his cocaine paper, Freud often fudged his findings. He would write that his conclusions were based on many case studies even when there was just one case, and often that one case was himself. He never had many patients because most patients soon realized they were wasting their money going to him. Besides he was interested only in wealthy patients, and there were relatively few of them. Freud always changed the names of his patients in his books, not to protect them but to protect himself.

Crews says Freud was a Sherlock Holmes fan and that he modeled his case studies on Holmes stories, with himself as the hero, of course.

The author piles on the incriminating evidence against Freud. Will he succeed in destroying his reputation? I doubt it, for the illusion of greatness created by Jones, Anna Freud and Sigmund Freud himself remains strong. Most of what one reads and hears about Freud today continues to be positive. But that reputation is gradually deteriorating, and this book will help it along.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Writing as line dancing

In the real world, writing is more like line dancing, a social function with many partners.
Roy Peter Clark, Writing Tools

I don't know why this particular writing tool, of the 50 Roy Peter Clark writes about in his book, surprised me so. After all, like Clark I come from a newspaper background. Newspapers require teamwork. As a reporter I depended on copy editors to catch my mistakes. When I was a copy editor I depended on other copy editors to catch the mistakes I missed and those I made myself, especially in headlines. As an editorial writer I depended on reporters to supply accurate information and an editor to bounce ideas off of. All journalists depend on reliable sources. Yet I had never thought of writing outside the newsroom as "a social function," anything at all like line dancing.

The image we typically have of authors is of people sitting alone at tables or desks transferring their thoughts onto paper or computer screens. What's social about that? Many writers are introverts who don't socialize much anyway, even when they aren't writing. One thing I like about blogging is that it is something I can do by myself, all alone, just me, nobody else. Yet even I must depend on others. This post, for example, owes much to Roy Peter Clark.

Most books published today, fiction as well as nonfiction, have acknowledgement pages where authors mention those who aided them in their project. These are their line-dance partners. Clark's acknowledgements go on for three pages and include a lifetime's worth of supporters, including elementary and high school teachers, people he has worked with at the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times), fellow writers and journalists who influenced him, his agent, those who worked with him at his publishing house, and many others. He concludes by saying, "Finally, I do believe that writing is a social activity, so thanks go to those closest to me." He then lists various friends and family members, even his dog.

Look at the photograph above. Each individual is dancing alone, yet together with everyone else. So it is with writing and, come to think of it, life itself.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Will Eisner, pioneer

Will Eisner was a pioneer in both comic books and graphic novels, but that was only the beginning. He also pioneered the use of comics in education, and he devoted the middle part of his career to writing and drawing instructional booklets and posters for the armed services.

Then, too, Eisner was among the first to see comics as something that could appeal to adults as well as children and teenagers. He had little interest in superheroes, and when a couple of Cleveland teenagers named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster offered his company the rights to Superman in 1938, he turned them down. His own most famous character, The Spirit, had no superpowers and wore a hat, glasses and a business suit, not a cape, a mask and tights.

Finally he thought comics could be both art and literature, and he wanted both libraries and bookstores to place his books not among graphic novels but on the same shelves where one might find the works of Tolstoy and Faulkner. Instead of the word comics, because their was nothing comical about his best work, he preferred the term sequential art.

Michael Schumacher covers Eisner's remarkable career in his excellent biography Will Eisner: A Dreamer's Life in Comics (2010).

Eisner was still in his teens when started his first art studio, and unlike most cartoonists, he proved himself an astute businessman. He hired talented newcomers such as Jules Feiffer and Bob Kane (later to create Batman) to work for him. He worked right up to his death in 2005 when he was in his late eighties. His later years may have been his most productive. Although his wife talked him into leaving his beloved New York City to live in Florida, he did not retire there but produced some of his most ambitious work, often autobiographical. He also became a mentor to younger artists just getting started in the business.

Oddly, Schumacher repeats, almost word for word, the same sentence on page 306 of his book: "With any luck, his books might finally escape the comic ghetto and find their way to the shelves of serious literature." At this point in the biography, that seems like the ideal sentence to repeat for emphasis.