Glenn Colquhoun is co-founder of Ko Awatea’s Medicine Stories Project. He is a poet and children’s writer. His first collection, The art of walking upright, won the Jessie Mackay Best First Book of Poetry Award at the 2000 Montana Book Awards. Playing God, his third collection, won the poetry section of the same awards in 2003 as well as the Reader’s Choice Award that year. He has written four children’s books and published a book of essays entitled Jumping ship and other essays. He was awarded the Prize in Modern Letters in 2004 and a Fulbright scholarship to Harvard University in 2010. In 2012 he was part of the ‘Transit of Venus’ poetry exchange at the Frankfurt Book Fair and in 2014 represented New Zealand on the Commonwealth Poets United poetry project which celebrated the Glasgow Commonwealth Games that year. Late love – sometimes doctors need saving as much as their patients was published by BWB in 2016. He works as a GP in Horowhenua.
People ask me a lot about the usefulness of creative writing in medicine. I am a doctor and a writer and it seems an obvious question to ask. But I became a doctor and a writer in large part by accident. I never had any intention that the careers should be linked. And so for years I have answered the question with reservations. I have often felt that behind it lay some underlying assumptions: that being a poet might make one more sensitive, and that being more sensitive must make one a better doctor. I have also felt the desire at times among my colleagues to measure any particular effect, if I hinted at one, by getting doctors to write and then somehow testing whether they found the experience helpful. But that is an especially medical point of view of the world.
After twenty plus years of writing my compulsion to do so now feels much like my need to eat or to breathe. I would do it whether I were a plumber or painter, a farmer or airline pilot. It is utterly free of any desire to practise medicine; it has a force all of its own. I would do it whether it was published or private, celebrated or ignored. It has become a way for me to practise spirituality. And in that sense I practise it for no good at all but my own. And I make no claims for it beyond the fact that it keeps me sane and kind. Mostly. And it makes me wonder.
I never want poetry to be good for people. It is more important than that. I love grumpy cantankerous doctors. I love them for their brute stubborn resentful patience in the middle of the night, their worry about patients when it looks like they are not, their sweating over decisions, their hatred at being expected to know what to do next. One of the great struggles of being a doctor is figuring out as a human being how to manage those feelings and I don’t want to tell anyone else how to do that. That is what gives us our sense of self and this is vital in practising medicine. Poetry has been for me a way to find that independence. I could not imagine getting through medicine without it. And now I see such beautiful things I want to cry most days. But I have never practised poetry so that it would make me a better doctor. Every doctor needs to find their own way through.
For what it is worth, writing has made me see more clearly by asking me to look more closely. It has helped me explain things by drawing my attention to the underlying patterns in landscape and cloud swirl and sore stomachs and cooking rice. It has drawn me to story. And to character. And to the vernacular. And in doing so has made me love. Love is so unspoken of in medicine and poetry has helped me to see it lying fat and smiling in the heart of the consultation, and to name it for what it is. It has a thousand times made me delight. It has made me ask over and over again, ‘What do I mean to say?’ And, ‘What do I really mean to say?’
In the end it has helped me to see that medicine is not only about making people better. There are connections between people that are not readily seen, we pass beside each other so quickly. In medicine someone has stopped by the side of the road. Pathways open in them that they do not always understand. These zig-zag and are swept away in places. They disappear in the mountains. They cross rivers. They stretch out across the plains. Find them and we not only find an other; we find our own living staring back. Sometimes it is enough to acknowledge this and wonder. Patients want us to do this, even if they do not know it. When we do a great and powerful tenderness is able to pass between us. That tenderness is not the everyday tenderness of making beds and taking blood pressures. It is something older. It is the recognition that we are tied together. This is another sort of medicine altogether. It gives no guarantee that anyone will be cured or live forever. That is not its business. Not at all. Poems are found at this intersection. They bring us to it, this edge between things where our skin dissolves. They teach us to be. This is the heart of writing. It is the heart of medicine too. Not words. Not needles.
This is why writing and medicine tangle in me now I suppose. Each has become an effect of the other. Most of the time I don’t know where the three of us begin and end these days. And the more blurred we become the better. But I wish every doctor, every human being, some fascination in the remarkable journey each of us take to draw breathe. I wish them the great joy of finding their own way over the mountain, their outcrop of rock to sit and look down from and perhaps find some peace in this spinning old world. And I will bow down to that.