I spend my life at the intersection of the stethoscope and the pen. Although I was originally trained in pediatrics and public health, as a writer, as well as a senior lecturer in Columbia University’s Master’s Program in Narrative Medicine, The Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race and the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society, I spend most of my days writing, teaching, and thinking about the role of stories in healthcare.
Narrative Medicine is the clinical and scholarly endeavor to honor the role of story in the healing relationship. Long before doctors had anything of interest in their black bags – no MRIs, no lab tests, no fancy all body CAT scans – what they had was the ability to show up, what they had was the ability to listen, and bear witness to someone’s life, death, illness, suffering, and everything else that comes in between.
And so, I spend most of my days teaching clinicians-to-be how to listen. I do this by having them read stories, and take oral histories, and study lots of narrative theory. I teach them the work of scholars like medical sociologist Arthur Frank, who explains that when illness or trauma interrupt our life stories, we need new stories to help navigate these uncharted waters. Although it was always there, illness and trauma bring into sharp focus our basic human need for narration. We are, after all, fundamentally storied creatures.
But besides all this, what I also do is teach my students to listen by writing stories. I have them do listener response – writing in reaction to a poem or story we read in class. I have them write to a prompt – ‘when was the last time you witnessed suffering?’ I have them write ongoing personal illness narratives – weekly narratives in which I ask them to tell of the same experience but from a different point of view or genre or form to help unpack not only their own personal stories (stories which inform how they in turn will listen to the stories of others), but discover how stories work – in regard to plot, form, function, and voice.
Over the years, I’ve explained some of how this all works with a philosophy of listening I’ve been calling Narrative Humility. Narrative Humility is not about gaining any sense of competence or mastery over our patients, or their stories. Rather, it is about paying attention to our own inner workings – our expectations, our prejudices, our own cadre of personal stories that impact how we react to the stories of others. You can hear me talk all about it here, during a TEDx event at Sarah Lawrence College.
All my scholarly work is primarily at the interstices of narrative, health and social justice – thinking about how stories can be just or unjust, what sorts of systemic and structural stories couch individual stories, and how choosing not to tell – what I call narrative opacity – can be an important form of resistance for some marginalized communities. I teach courses on Narrative, Health and Social Justice and Diasporic Fictions, as well as Visionary Medicine – the intersection of speculative fiction, health and racial justice – and Abolition Medicine – which thinks about how medicine as an institution can confront and dismantle its deeply racist origins and work toward an anti-racist and abolitionist future.
To read this essay, please visit Uma Krishnaswami’s Blog Writing with a Broken Tusk!