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Written exam

Former surgeon Richard Selzer dissects ‘The Doctor as Writer’

By Leigh E. Rich

It’s taken him 37 years, but surgeon-turnedauthor Richard Selzer knows his worth—at least as a writer.

“It’s not much, but it’s something,” the soon-to-be 78-year-old says with a wry smile and a wink.

No politician or pop star, Selzer undersells himself. The author of a dozen books as well as essays, short stories, and plays, he resembles the smart cheerleader who was always nice to you in the hallways. There’s simply no way to begrudge his talents or success.

Selzer spent the first part of his working life in medicine, as a practicing surgeon and a professor at Yale. At age 40, in an effort to find a deeper meaning in “entering the body to repair it,” he began to write—in the middle of the night, after his wife and children had gone to bed, and after a day of surgery.

“That should give a lot of people in Savannah a lot of hope,” says Selzer, intimating with pep rally gusto that it’s never too late to start another life.

Selzer will bring his humble attitude and honest charm to the Coastal Empire on Thursday as a part of AASU’s weeklong “Savannah Reads” program that’s centered around his 1974 collection of essays, “Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery.”

While much of “Mortal Lessons” contemplates the philosophical sides of medicine and the body—so much so that it continues to be required reading in many medical schools—these days it’s hard to find the doctor that once dominated Selzer’s life. Instead, he speaks passionately and poetically about putting pen to paper.

“I was almost at once in love with it and I thought that it was my destiny to become a writer.”

And if his mother had anything to say about it, it was.

Born in Troy, N.Y., in the burgeoning days of the Great Depression, Selzer recalls a dual life as the son of a family doctor and a musical “diva.” He grew up listening to the harmonies of both—the notes of his mother’s recitals that resounded in the town hall and the cries and moans of his father’s patients emanating from the first-floor home office.

“I lived between medicine and the arts,” Selzer explains.

But it is clear he is no longer a surgeon, even though he admits the body and disease still occupy his dreams. And when pressed to choose between the two, Selzer deems writing the more difficult task, because “there are many fewer that can fashion an artistic sentence.”

This is not to say he lacks any amount of respect for his fellow medical jocks. In “Mortal Lessons” and other pieces, Selzer elevates the body as the location of the “philosophers’ stone.”

“I was always torn between the body and the soul,” he says when asked about the pensive tone of “Mortal Lessons” and his search for meaning in corporeality, “and I have come down to the point where it is the body that is more important to me than the soul. I have gazed for so many years at the human body and eventually what gazed back at me is what some people would call the soul.”

There are still hints of his medical training in his writing. Selzer strings sentences together as if stitching a wound—and neither the English language nor the body are quite the same when he’s done with his handiwork. In an updated prologue, for instance, Selzer admits to making up words or unabashedly grabbing up armfuls of them even when fewer will do. Don’t bother with a dictionary, for it might not help. Regardless, Selzer’s insights explore and heal what is in need of diagnosis and repair.

“Someone asked me why a surgeon would write,” Selzer begins “Mortal Lessons.” “ … Perhaps if one were to cut out a heart, a lobe of the liver, a single convolution of the brain, and paste it to a page, it would speak with more eloquence than all the words of Balzac. Such a piece would need no literary style, no mass of erudition or history, but in its very shape and feel would tell all the frailty and strength, the despair and nobility of man. What? Publish a heart? A little piece of bone? Preposterous. Still I fear that is what it may require to reveal the truth that lies hidden in the body.”

But, for Selzer, it was easy trading scalpel for pen.

“The writing was a very physical kind of act as you might expect of a surgeon,” he says. “I chose to write with a fountain pen because the pen has the same length and heft as a scalpel. And when you use either one, something is shed.”

No longer blood but ink is the fluid that flows in Selzer’s life, even in the “techno-idolatry” of the 21st century.

“I still write longhand,” he admits. “I cannot compose on a screen. I have never been able to write a single word on a computer.”

Instead, Selzer pens five or six drafts by hand, and then generates what he calls a “typescript” with the help of the technologically-savvy at Yale’slibrary, where he goes every day. He makes notes on the printouts—again in longhand—adds these to the electronic document, and finally sends it off to his publisher.

“And it’s his problem after that.”

With no computer of his own, Selzer chuckles at a process he knows to be both laborious and archaic. “I do feel to be working in the 19th century.”

But it works—as does his early-to-bed and get-up-and-write-in-the-middle-of-the-night ritual.

Scalpel no longer in hand, writing fills most of his waking time, save for dinner with his wife and bird watching now and again. And, predictably, he’s not much of a fan of television.

With the exception of one news show in the evening, Selzer needs no program schedule.

“I go upstairs and I rummage around in my imagination.” 

Rich, L. E. (2006, April 1). Written exam: Former surgeon Richard Selzer dissects ‘The Doctor as Writer.’ Savannah Morning News, Accent section.

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