learning by writing

One of the (many) things I love about being a writer and speaker is that I have a steep learning curve every time I embark on a new project.

I’ve been writing in the area of health for a long time.  Although I enjoy writing personal essay pieces, I also write about subjects that are initially foreign to me.  My challenge is to learn the topic enough so I can communicate it to readers or the audience in a way that they will understand.  I often say I’m the low benchmark.  If I understand this, hopefully others will too.  In the arena of the written word, this has included subjects like:  diabetes, the genome project, life of a veterinarian, and fibre.  (My husband helpfully joked throughout the fibre assignment – is everything coming out ok with that?  Haha).

Fun topics I’ve written about included sex and health, and a profile on an opera composer.  I remember a gerontologist telling me, very seriously:  we are sexual creatures after we die.  And that opera composer was delightful, and told me the story of his start in music, taking accordion lessons on a farm in rural Ontario.

Writers also have to be very careful to be aware of their own biases and values, and I have to examine all the assumptions I might have before embarking on a story.  I’ve also learned a lot about myself writing about complex subjects.  I once wrote about nursing in the inner city, and shadowed staff for two days at a drop-in centre downtown.  I walked away from this story with the realization that people are people, wherever you go – and that every human being deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, no matter their circumstances.  I learned similar lessons during story assignments about First Nations communities, and after spending time with a nurse who had just completed rehab for addictions issues.

Of course, I write when I speak, too.  That’s because I have made a promise to myself to never deliver a ‘canned’ presentation.  Sure, I can talk about patient and family centred care in a generic way – tell my stories, talk about philosophies…but I think I’m doing a disservice to my audiences by doing that.  I’d rather truly understand the audience in order to deliver my message in a relevant way.  I need to understand their challenges to tailor my talk to them.  This involves me meeting with people who are champions in their field, who represent the folks in the audience.  I’ve recently spent time in coffee shops with pharmacists and nurses to prep for their respective conferences.  This spring I’ll be breaking bread with dental hygienists and emergency room staff for the same reason.

As I tell my kids – the learning never ends, even when you are out of school.  And this is how it should be.


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