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!
Exactly how I felt when I read this! 🙂
Thank you, Michelle, for this inspiring and beautiful post. and thank you, Louise, for making it available to us. I wish you both a beautiful flowering as published writers.
I agree wholeheartedly, Christina—an insight into how writing is a beautiful counterpoint to the ‘other side’ of the city and medicine and life.
I want to read more of your words, Michelle. Magical. I will desperately want to read Dustfall.
We’re all awaiting news of ‘Dustfall’! And, yes, more words please Michelle … 🙂
Stunning post, Louise and more especially, Michelle. I love the juxtaposition of the emergency room in a hospital, the hard core of the worst of reality with the joys of the writing world. And that image of the abandoned hospital in Wittenoom, just wow.
I’m in awe of this piece and of Michelle’s writing in general. And yes, the image of the abandoned hospital, captured in a few short but evocative phrases, is inspiring.
I’m amazed that you are able to combine a career in emergency medicine with such exquisite prose, Michelle! And I was delighted to read that Kathryn Heyman is your mentor. I had the pleasure of interviewing her for Good Reading magazine at the release of Floodline, and she was warm, witty and clearly in possession of a brilliant mind. I look forward to the publication of Dustfall, and wish you all the best with your ongoing writing projects.
Everyone’s looking forward to the publication of ‘Dustfall’, and I’m sure that day will come soon! And everyone speaks highly of Kathryn Heyman—she’s currently mentoring another writer friend of mine, and she’s enjoying the experience and learning a lot, too. 🙂
What a superwoman! I cannot imagine doing writing and emergency medicine, with a family as well! I’m glad to hear that writing helps Michelle deal with the job stresses. And I love the concept of writing promoting empathy – I think that’s so true.
(By the way, this story reminds me so much of another amazing woman, Fiona Reilly, an emergency physician and Brisbane writer who also had her manuscript chosen for a Hachette manuscript development program! And she’s in my writing group!)
Michelle would disagree, but superwoman is an apt description, Fi—Superwoman with soul!
Michelle may know Fiona Reilly, and it’s no mean feat to be accepted into the Hachette programme (which spellcheck wanted to change to ‘Machete’!). Having good writers in your writing group helps everyone—the bar is that much higher. 🙂
The use of language is beautifully descriptive…this is a book I will need to read, good luck with your publisher. Thankyou Louise forcintroducing me to another world of words. Xx
You’re very welcome, Maureen. I agree with you about Michelle’s use of language: it’s mind-blowingly beautiful!
Wow! Michelle’s writing has left me breathless, its brilliant! Love her insights, especially- ” Once you are inside the head of another and hear their tale, both empathy and respect cannot help but follow.”
Cannot wait to read her novel Dust Fall. x
I agree with you on all counts: That line is gorgeous (and true), the writing is beautiful, and you can imagine how wonderful a novel Dustfall is when it’s made up of prose like this! 🙂
Thanks for publishing that brilliant piece of writing from Michelle, Louise. I have just finished writing notes for a forthcoming writing workshop. One of the points I make is that we are all stories and our stories matter but we can change the story we tell about ourselves so that we get a different ending. It sounds as if Michelle is heading for an exciting ending to this part of her own story. Looking forward to reading ‘Dustfall’.
You’re right, Maureen, peoples’ stories do matter. They’re incredibly important, yet we dismiss our own tales as boring or stupid, and they don’t get told.
You mention changing our stories (or rather, the stories we’ve been told about ourselves), which is, I believe, the basis of narrative therapy. I bought a book on it and did Lesson 1 of an online course, but didn’t have time to complete it. I’d love to explore it further one day.
Writing our stories and sharing them is a very affirming experience.
A heartfelt thank you for all of these lovely, supportive comments, and to the fantastic Louise, for starting off the collection. Maureen – yes, Kathryn Heyman is one in a million; she’s delightful and altogether hilarious. It felt like my sessions with her were therapy for my characters. And Fi! Fiona Reilly was in the same stable of writers at the Hachette/QWC program. She is a wonderful writer, with a fascinating take on the the global world of food. The generosity of all of your comments is humbling, and such support helps keep the fires of writing, particularly in these fledgling days, raging.
I am incredibly grateful to you, Michelle, for your inspirational essay, and I hope it’s been a lovely, positive experience for you. (That’s the good thing about blogs—the instant affirmation! None of this waiting months for agents and publishers!)
PS. I love the view that your sessions with Kathryn Heyman were ‘therapy’ for your characters!
Beautiful, heartfelt and inspiring! I’m in awe.x
Thanks, Gulara. I’m in awe, too!
I can understand Michelle wanting to escape the “miserable scourge of bureaucracy” along with all the other challenges of Emergency. I wish I could escape into writing, but all I can do is escape into reading! So, I’m glad there are people like you two doing the writing for the rest of us.
I know what you mean on both counts, Sue: escaping the scourge of bureaucracy, and escaping into literature, whether as a writer or reader. Don’t underestimate what you do by writing about reading—there’s more than one book I’ve bought because you’ve written about it on your blog! Thanks for visiting and commenting.
Thanks Louise – but to be able to imagine and write, that’s pretty special!
I have a belief that everyone can do it, Sue. We all did it as kids, but somewhere along the line many of us tucked it away. However, I’m proof that it can always be found again. x
Ha ha, Louise, I think mine is DEEPLY buried!
You might surprise yourself!
Ok, I accept that – always a possibility! Or, never say never!