What we Can Learn From Atul Gawande About Portraying the People We Love With Fairness and Compassion

But before we get to the post …. I MADE SOMETHING FOR YOU!!!

I made my “How to Edit a Complete Manuscript” blog series into a PDF – it turned out to be 40 pages once I edited and expanded it. Whoa, so many pages! I added a whole new 8-page section on how to actually implement these ideas. It’s a 9-step guide and it involves Post-It notes so it’s bound to be fun!

Click here to grab your copy.

If you think it’s awesome,  feel free to share it with your writer friends on Facebook and Twitter. [Here’s the short link:  http://bit.ly/1EaMXma   ]

You can use this guide to edit an essay, a short story or a chapter of a book. That’s how I suggest you start out revising a full-length manuscript – chunk by chunk – so it’s easy to adapt for shorter works.

Leave me a question, below, about the process or the steps of any of it. I’m happy to respond.

AND stay tuned for a hands-on course on this material where I walk you through the steps and teach you how you do it. You asked for it, I listened! I’ll be running this class in mid May. If you want to make sure you don’t miss the announcement, email me at jennie.nash@gmail.com. (For those of you who already expressed interest in this class, fear not! I’ll be emailing you first….)

What we Can Learn From Atul Gawande About Portraying the People We Love With Fairness and Compassion

Writers of memoir and non-fiction are always wary about how to write honestly and authentically about the people they love. There’s a danger that you will upset someone, betray someone, misrepresent someone, or start an all-out civil war in the family. I just finished Being Mortal, a book by Atul Gawande, and I was struck by what an excellent job he did about portraying his immediate family in a very delicate situation. I wanted to share what I saw:

1. He is honest and authentic throughout. Being Mortal is a book about making peace with the “limits set by genes and cells and flesh and bone.” Gawande is a surgeon writing about the ways that medicine sometimes makes accepting these limits more difficult than they need to be, especially during times of critical illness and death. 

For most of the book, Gawande writes with the eye of a doctor and a scholar, sharing experiences, research, statistics and insights. It’s excellent writing about a tough and fascinating subject.  On page 193, he segues into a different perspective: that of a son. “My father was in his early seventies when I was forced to realize that he might not be immortal,” he writes, and explains how his father was diagnosed with a tumor growing inside his spinal column – a cancer that would eventually paralyze him.

At first, Gawande writes about his father’s illness and treatment with the same voice as he does all the other cases he presents, but as the family faces more difficult choice, the voice becomes more emotional and personal.

We hear Gawande admit his own limitations. He is a world-class surgeon associated with elite institutions and he is still able to write a sentence like this (the bold is mine.)

“They would open up the spinal cord—I didn’t even know that was possible – and remove as much of the tumor as they could.”

He writes about his feelings toward his parents with great tenderness:

“Those questions were among the hardest I’d asked in my life. I posed them with great trepidation, fearing, well, I don’t know what – anger from my father or mother, or depression or the sense that just be raising such questions I was letting them down.”

By adopting this tone, Gawande ceases to be an “expert” and becomes simply a writer whose story we can’t put down.

2.) He is brave yet fair. He is also not afraid to write a sentence about an (unnamed but probably identifiable to people in the know) colleague that could be personally incendiary or embarrassing, but he does it in a way that feels measured and appropriate, as opposed to the voice of someone seeking revenge or settling a score:

“He had the air of the renowned professor he was – authoritative, self-certain, and busy with things to do…. When he was finished, my father didn’t ask any more questions. But he’d also decided that this man wasn’t going to be his surgeon.”

We want the truth, but we want it from someone we trust, not from someone who feels like they’re out to get people, or to prove themselves to be bigger or better. Gawande does this.

3.) He is respectful. The part of the book where I really began to sat up and notice Gawande’s treatment of his family members was around the character of his sister. Gawande is generous with details about his life – where he works, where he lives, what he knows and doesn't know, the sports his kids play – but the sister is never named. We don’t know where she lives. We don’t know what her occupation is. But she is still part of the story. Rather than feeling cheated by this omission, the reader feels Gawande’s respect for his sister.

How does he pull this off?

There are certain moments where the sister’s presence is critical to the story, but Gawande doesn’t yank her onto the page kicking and screaming. What he does is pull back and talk about the universality of disagreeing with family members in times of crisis. On page 253, he writes.

“In few families does everyone see such situations the same. I arrived quickest at the idea that my father was coming to the end, and I worried most about the mistake of prolonging his suffering too long. I saw the opportunity for a peaceful end as a blessing. But to my sister, and even more my mother, it didn’t seem certain at all that he was at the end…”

 This could have been a rancorous, ugly scene. He could have thrown his sister and his mother under the bus. But he didn’t. He lifted them up, honored their differences, and showed us how like every family their family was. It’s beautiful writing.

4.) His compassion is wholly evident. Gawande writes grisly details about his father’s condition and experience, but it is never gratuitous. It is always in service of the story. His compassion is evident on every page – and he actually spells out that intention in the Acknowledgements. I did not read the Acknowledgements before I started writing this piece, but as I have frequently said in my posts, there is usually great stuff there. Well, lo and behold, in the first line of the Acknowledgement, Gawande writes this:

“I have a lot of people to thank for this book. First and foremost are my mother, Sushila Gawande, and my sister, Meeta. In choosing to include the story of my father’s decline and death, I know I dredged up moment they’d rather not relieve or necessarily have told the way I did. Nonetheless, they helped me at every turn, answering my difficult questions, probing their memories, and tracking down everything from memorabilia to medical records.”

No one is going to tell your story the way you do – a truth Gawande understands very deeply. He may be the big shot author and surgeon, but he has great compassion for the fact that he is sharing one version of a story that was experienced by many people. He has great compassion for the memories of his family members, and for the differences between their memories and his.

This is the stance every writer of memoir and non-fiction needs to take.