How do I become a medical writer

Literature: What do doctors and writers have in common

"I know of no better training for the writer," asserted Somerset Maugham, "than practicing the profession of doctor for a few years." Maugham knew what he was talking about because he was a doctor and a writer. He had studied medicine in order to get to know the "man without a mask" - and he became one of the most widely read authors of his time.

Both, as Marcel Reich-Ranicki once wrote, writers and physicians are "experts in human suffering", and so it is only obvious that there are astonishingly many points of contact between these professional groups, indeed that there is something like a hidden relationship.

Uwe Tellkamp, ​​whose novel "Der Eisvogel" will be one of the important and much-discussed new publications at the Leipzig Book Fair next week, confirms this rule once again: He has been awarded the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize for a chapter from this book in Klagenfurt since 2004 He is considered a great discovery, a promising young author - and he also works as a doctor in a trauma surgery clinic.

Tellkamp thus joins an astonishing number of authors who have had medical training. Three of the greatest German writers of the 20th century were, for example, doctors at the same time: Gottfried Benn, who, as a poet of European standing, confessed that his "existence would be completely inconceivable without this turn to medicine and biology". Alfred Döblin, who studied medicine, "because I wanted truth, but it did not run through concepts and was thinned and frayed". And finally Arthur Schnitzler, who always wrote all his stories and plays as a doctor, because, he confessed: "Anyone who has ever been a doctor can never cease to be one. Because medicine is a worldview."

In fact, the list of internationally acclaimed authors who also worked as doctors is surprisingly long. Friedrich Schiller was a trained regimental medic, John Keats was a surgeon, and Georg Büchner was an anatomist. Heinrich Hoffmann, the father of "Struwwelpeter", headed the Frankfurt insane asylum as chief physician, Anton Chekhov said, "Medicine is my legal wife, literature my lover". And Louis-Ferdinand Céline studied as a doctor for the poor in the suburbs of Paris, which he then refined into literature in his - unfortunately deeply anti-Semitic - novels. Eugène Sue is on this list as well as Mikhail Bulgakov, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, William Carlos Williams.

The list becomes even more impressive when you consider which writers initially studied medicine but devoted themselves entirely to literature before taking their exams: Louis Aragon, Johannes R. Becher, Ludwig Börne, Bertolt Brecht, André Breton, Johann Gottfried Herder, among others , Henrik Ibsen, Stanislaw Lem, Hermann Löns and August Strindberg. The medical-poetic dual talents are also not uncommon among contemporary German authors: both the playwright Heinar Kipphardt, the novelist Ernst Augustin, the pop literature avant-garde Rainald Goetz and the narrator Melitta Breznik enjoyed medical training - all in psychiatry.

Even a clinical center for poet doctors has emerged in Germany: Döblin was already doing scientific research at the Charité in Berlin, where Gottfried Bermann-Fischer, who brought S.Fischer Verlag through the Nazi era, and Peter Bamm, who worked in the post-war years, worked there Bestseller wrote that Ernst Augustin and Kipphardt stood here as assistant doctors at the bedside. Today Jakob Hein works at the Charité as a young physician who is also considered a promising young author.

Such accumulations are no coincidence. Among the writers in German literary history, clergy or teachers could be identified in a number similar to that of doctors. However, these two professions tend to view people as they should be. Medical professionals, on the other hand, tend to look at them from the point of view of what they are. In other words, theologians and educators like to create recipes for how to lead an exemplary life. Doctors, on the other hand, as scientists, prefer not to stick to utopias. Instead, they name the sad facts of existence, facts about which, as Uwe Tellkamp writes in his novel, "to discuss would be like the work of the surgeon, which is painful and feared but necessary".

It is probably the cool, observational, diagnostic look that turns some people into doctors and then - assuming literary inclinations and skills - turns some doctors into writers. In addition, if they are interested in social reality as authors, the medical profession provides them with some explosive and literarily usable material free of charge. "I found my patients," wrote Döblin looking back on his life, "lying in their poor rooms; they also brought their rooms to my consulting room. I saw their circumstances, their milieu; everything was social, ethical and political above." Without the fate of the patients Döblin encountered in his practice, "Berlin Alexanderplatz" would certainly have been a different, probably a weaker book.

But medical studies are also associated with risks for a writer, especially if the person concerned is at risk and not one hundred percent mentally stable. "It was a huge donkey for me," writes Arthur Schnitzler as a young man, "to become a doctor, and unfortunately it is a donkey that cannot be made up for."

Because he believed that he would soon be able to diagnose all the diseases that he got to know during his studies in himself. The phenomenon is not unknown: As soon as they begin their clinical training, many medical students are observed to have similar symptoms - which their professors then like to ironically refer to as "Morbus clinicus".

In the case of the extremely sensitive Schnitzler, however, this suffering went far beyond the ordinary. Again and again he complained in his diaries about "my hypochondria, which sometimes lies like a heavy painful fog over the whole bottom of my being" and recorded tangible attacks of "mortal fear". But the obsession with which he registered the slightest discomfort in himself was at the same time the basis of his literary talent to be able to describe people down to their hidden impulses. A talent that earned him envious recognition even from such a well-known side as Sigmund Freud: He had, Freud wrote to Schnitzler in 1922, "gained the impression that through intuition - but actually as a result of fine self-perception - you know everything that I am in of arduous work on other people. Yes, I think you are essentially a psychological in-depth researcher. "