Today, I welcome writer and Emergency Physician, Michelle Johnston, into the attic.
Michelle is an Emergency Physician, mother, and writer, which she combines in an endless variety of ways, depending on the day. She works at Royal Perth Hospital, a noisy, busy trauma centre, which has fuelled her interest in the human story.
She has completed her first novel, ‘Dustfall’, which was selected for the Hachette/QWC Manuscript development program in 2014, and is now represented by Clive Newman, Literary Agent. She has had a short story published in an anthology of tales about emergency medicine (Emergency, Penguin 2014), and writes for the website Life in the Fast Lane. She can also be found on Twitter (@eleytherius) writing odd nonsensical things, concisely.
Michelle and I first met when two of our children were in kindy together (they’re now fifteen), and our paths crossed again through writing. Together with Jacquie Garton-Smith, we’ve formed a writing group and I’ve had the privilege of being one of the first to read Michelle’s beautiful novel, ‘Dustfall’.
Here, she gives us an insight into what it’s like to work in the Emergency Department of a busy inner city hospital, and why writing and reading are so important to her.
What it means to be a writer and an Emergency Physician
Emergency Medicine is a serious kind of sport. It’s not just the dying and the mangled, but also the scared, the lost, and the desperate who pour through our doors, day in, and day out. While we war away in this arena, we workers must provide to the public a face that is unflinchingly professional. Although we may joke around in private, a ten-hour shift in ED is brutally serious and relentlessly real. Which may explain why I write, and even more so, why I write the way I do.
Writing is my counterpoint, the weight that balances the scales of those days. I have a writer’s brain. Always have had. As an aside (which is my favourite place to be, off somewhere on a tangent of exploration), I think that writers are born so (perhaps some odd mutation, or malfunctioning circuit). They have words, stories, images, and strange iterations of thoughts rumbling round in their heads from a young age. Some of us, however, are a little slow to realise that these things ought best be laid down on paper. I, like many, was one of those peculiar children who scribbled stuttering stories on scraps of paper, and read every book I could possibly get my chubby hands on. That continued until medical school and the doctoring life knocked it out of me. I didn’t even notice that poetry had deserted me, left me for others more willing. Although after graduation I signed up for (and dropped out of) a record number of writing courses, and wrote prose in medical notes where one really ought to be putting dot-points, it otherwise all seized up, creaking to a rusty, and what I believed would be final, halt.
But then, one day, it came back, without warning, without fanfare. I remember the distinct moment I heard it. ‘I shall write a novel.’ A quiet and resolute voice (which, point of order here, neglected to inform me how unfathomably difficult the whole process would be – this has taken some forgiving), a voice with a cavalier disregard for the life of a chaotic, overloaded specialist and mother of two. So I fashioned up Dustfall, from fresh air and mild madness, and a persistent memory of an image – the abandoned hospital at Wittenoom, a ghost of a place that looked as though it had been deserted in a hurry, a Mary Celeste of a building. I had no clue what I was doing, but was deeply fortunate to have had a mentor, Kathryn Heyman, and the opportunity of a lifetime, winning a place at the Hachette/Queensland Writers Centre Manuscript Development program, without which Dustfall would be a puddle of nonsense. Now I have an agent, the wizard Clive Newman, who has propelled it even further, and a wonderful and wise writing group (thank you Louise and Jacquie). Currently I am sitting, awaiting rejection letters from publishing houses, which, I am well aware, is my birthright as a writer.
It has taught me the most powerful lesson of all. That the only thing that really matters in this life is the story of another individual human.
But back to the original premise. How does emergency medicine and writing combine? Well, firstly, writing has granted me another chance, given me the gift of another world; a world that does not consist of me telling mothers that their child is dying, or me cowering internally at the methamphetamine rage of the city, or me covered in somebody else’s body fluids, or even me burning up with the effort of trying to provide decent care despite the miserable scourge of bureaucracy. It is, instead, a world of dazzling stars, of piranhas and bank heists, and dirigibles and zeppelins, and broiling oceans, and vast, dusty Mongolian steppes, and tents gently flapping in the golden evening breeze of the desert, and slow illicit kisses steeped in warm, doomed breath. It is escape and travel. It is wonder and magic. It allows me to be reborn, every day, in any way I choose.
Secondly, it has taught me the most powerful lesson of all. That the only thing that really matters in this life is the story of another individual human. Fiction allows you not only to experience this, but it makes you practice the understanding of it. Makes you better at it. Once you are inside the head of another and hear their tale, both empathy and respect cannot help but follow. Now every encounter I have with every patient, and every person I meet, is a story. And, as you know, our planet is an infinite well.
So this is why I write. Essentially I am just trying to outfox reality. I write to make things at once clearer, whilst preventing my existence being smothered by sadness, or even worse, anaesthetised by the beige sedative of the everyday. It simultaneously lets me live more deliberately in one world, while having all the fun I want in another. The wonder of words. That is why I write.
If this has inspired you to share your writing story and you’d like to be a guest in my attic, please let me know via the Contact page. This invitation is open to all writers, published and unpublished, and in any genre—fiction, non-fiction, blogging, journalism, even those who do it in secret. You can be of any age, gender, experience, nationality, or background.
I want to know your writing story, told through your eyes—your inspirations and goals, the reasons you write, and the obstacles and battles your face. (If you’d prefer a Q&A, I can send some questions to ponder.)
I envision the posts being 600-1200 words in length, but that’s not set in stone. I’m drawn towards personal writing that digs beyond the superficial, but only write what you are comfortable sharing. Pseudonyms are welcome, too.
I’ll also need a photo, a concise bio, and a link to your website and publications.
If I publish your essay, I’ll send a $20 gift voucher from Booktopia (or Amazon if you’re overseas).
Please drop me a line via the Contact page if you’re interested in writing something for this series—I’d love to hear from you!