Most of the guests who visit the attic are people I’ve met relatively recently, but today’s guest and I first met many years ago in Hobart, Tasmania, when she was still a schoolgirl thinking of studying medicine and I was a much younger mum and doctor. We lost contact for about 16 years, but our paths crossed again last year through a mutual friend, Michelle Johnston, after I posted Michelle’s piece for the attic as part of this series.
Today, I’m thrilled to share this beautiful essay written by my friend, Shahina Braganza. Please enjoy!
‘As I faithfully scribed the words, I would experiment with print versus cursive, straight versus slanted, and – when the luxury presented itself – blue versus black ink.’
Shahina is a perfectly flawed individual who happens to be an Emergency Physician working in a public hospital in Queensland. She is passionate about sharing vulnerability – whether through speaking, writing, or in everyday life – in order to empower others and herself. She believes that the smallest acts can have the largest impact, and that it is possible to be extraordinary simply by being thoughtful and generous.
You can follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn, or explore her writing and speaking endeavours on her humbly eponymous website.
Converting Chaos Into Order
Simply put, writing decompresses my brain. The page acts as the overflow reservoir for the thoughts that are so tightly packed together that they threaten at intervals to explode and spill out. The ideas sometimes come together in a thoughtful, poetic reflection or commentary. Most times, they come out as a To Do list…
My love for the written word developed during my early childhood.
I grew up in India and Zambia. My family left India with our worldly possessions contained in a couple of suitcases and a steel trunk. We didn’t leave in haste – that’s actually all we had. Despite the fact that my father was a doctor, the Indian rupees we left with were worth little on international ground. We arrived in Zambia with a modest amount of material goods, and our lives remained modest in the years we were there.
My brother and I had few toys, but managed to make our own fun – the steel trunk served as a stage and we would entertain ourselves for hours with our “pop band performances”. Our mum sometimes stood in for our imaginary audience of thousands.
My most prized possessions were a couple of hardcover books – one consisted of nursery rhymes with accompanying illustrations; the other was a collection of fables and fairy tales. My mum tells me that I would read these books from cover to cover, and back again, until she was certain that I had memorised them. Now and again, an expat family would leave Zambia and I’d be handed down another book or two. These would similarly be devoured.
It was the early 1980s and the only link my family had to our relatives back home was the humble aerogram. I would sit in the kitchen as my Mum prepared the evening meal, and she would dictate letter after letter to me. As I faithfully scribed the words, I would experiment with print versus cursive, straight versus slanted, and – when the luxury presented itself – blue versus black ink.
It was my high school English teacher, many years later, and now in New Zealand, who encouraged my writing. Mr Riley taught me spelling and grammar, but he also taught me about structure – a captivating introduction, a tidy close, and all the bits in the middle. For the moment, this is about all I know about writing – perhaps I’ll have the opportunity to study it further one day – but perhaps, for the moment, it is enough. After all, my To Do lists seem to work with simple boxed points :).
My writing dwindled over the subsequent two decades – university, work, and then the demands of parenting and managing a family household took over.
‘I realised that my writing had allowed a connection between what we do in healthcare with what is important to the people we serve.’
But then I started writing again. I didn’t actually realise at first that that was what I was doing – a letter to an executive sharing a job well done by our staff; an email to the CEO encouraging him to consider a certain employment issue; an offering of commentary for a workplace newsletter. But then, something I wrote was publicised by our hospital media, and the response to the piece was powerful. I realised that my writing had allowed a connection between what we do in healthcare with what is important to the people we serve – and the tone of the story resonated with the reader.
I wrote that story the morning after the tragic episode had occurred. I woke up with the events – and all the layers surrounding it – swirling and percolating in my mind: the actions, the dialogues, the expressions. I was consumed by them. I wondered if it may help to write them down. I sat at the kitchen counter alone, working on my laptop for 30 mins, allowing the thoughts, memories and emotion to spill – raw and unfettered – onto the screen. When the story was complete, I finally sat back. It dawned upon me that I felt less burdened – like I could take what had happened, and gently and respectfully transfer it into words, where it could be contained and then slowly digested over time. That along with the pain, there might be some beauty to be found.
Since then, I have experienced this again. I’ll return from an eventful shift, or I’ll have an interaction that disrupts my state of mind (positively or negatively), or I’ll have a dialogue with someone who raises themes I think are worthy of reflection or commentary – or I’ll simply start to feel overwhelmed by demands and deadlines. When this happens, I’ll attempt to make time to write.
Writing allows me to declutter my mind, to sort its contents into tidy folders (or To Do lists) – to convert the chaos into some semblance of order – so that between these folders I can create space to simply be, even if just for a few moments.
For any doctors, former doctors or doctors-in-training who are also writers, please consider joining our Facebook group, Doctors Who Write. It’s a very informal group with no aim other than to unite doctors who share a love of the written word, although we do discuss writing and share our writerly knowledge and literary successes.
There’s another giveaway of The Sisters’ Song on over at Goodreads, with 20 more copies of my book available to win!
A beautiful post, thank you Shahina; and an important reminder that writing doesn’t need to be for show, or even to have an audience beyond the self, but of course, it becomes exponentially powerful when it is shared.
You are so right! We write for ourselves, but it is powerful when our work can speak to and for others, too. 🙂
It was in fact Louise, when we started our email dialogue some months ago, who urged me to consider myself to be a “writer” – without waiting for external recognition or definition. I am so grateful for this encouragement. Thank you for your kind words.
What a beautiful essay! Writing to declutter your mind — brilliant! Thank you Shahina for such a thoughtful reflection.
Those words reminded me of that Flannery O’Connor line about not knowing what she thinks until she writes it down. So, so true! 🙂
Some years ago, my (still) boss suggested that I write more effectively than I speak. It is likely that he said EVEN more effectively than I speak, but of course my girl-brain chooses the former interpretation. I love that writing gives one the ability to structure thought – with or without editing. Thank you for your comment 🙂
Thanks for sharing your process and your vulnerabilities Shahina. The essay you wrote about the young mother in ED and the humanity needed in the hospital system had me crying into my tea.
I agree—so moving, so beautifully written, and so true. xx
I think about Emily so often. Most recently it was when I was wedged in bed between my own two girls. I was overwhelmed with a deep sorrow that Emily’s girls may never know that heady, sweaty comfort and belonging. I pray that, somehow, they will. Thank you for reading that story.
It’s worth reminding us of the joys of writing, Shahina. Thank you. I write to understand and that includes getting a space on the page where things can take on new meanings. Your descriptions are so compelling. I’m not surprised your writing has a powerful effect.
I love your line about things taking on new meanings. That’s what writing does, doesn’t it? Enables us to see things in a new and more meaningful light.
I agree wholeheartedly about Shahina’s powerful descriptions. 🙂
Your comment about remembering the joy of writing resonated with me as recently I’ve been reflecting upon and discussing rediscovering meaning and purpose when working in healthcare. You may be familiar with the Japanese concept of Ikigai: defining and combining *that which you love, *that which you are good at, *that which the world needs, and *that which you can be paid for – so that you come to your reason for being. I love that I reminded you of the joy 🙂
Shahina, I’m so glad that writing helps you process your work day and make sense of the tragedy and joy all around you. I’m sure your words will affect others as well, because there is always someone who will read truth and whisper, yes! I feel that too!
I look forward to reading your work in the future.
I was one of those people who read this and thought, ‘Yes! I feel that! That’s how I process my life, too!’ Thanks for reading and commenting, Fi! 🙂
Oh the power of “Me too”! In so many contexts within our lives, these words allow us to connect with and validate each other. An intern told me a decade ago that her biggest problem is that she compares her (inadequate-feeling) INSIDES with everyone else’s (amazingly-competent-looking OUTSIDES. We all do this, all the time. “Me too” helps to even the playing field.
Truly inspiring! My initial reason for taking up writing in mid-life was to declutter my mind and make sense of what was going on around me. I love that you use writing to convert chaos to a semblance of order, Shahina. I totally get that!
I also enjoyed your reference to writing aerograms in the 80’s. As a child, every single relative lived overseas, and aerograms were the only way we could communicate (phone calls were way too expensive!) It brought back so many memories. Thank you!
I remember we received a telegram a couple of times (word count restricted written message via the post office – one paid by the letter and it was extremely costly – the original twitter??). The alert to the arrival of one always struck fear that it would be the harbinger of dreadfully drastic news from home. Those were charming times! Thanks for the kind comment, Marie.
Gosh, I remember the expensive STD calls, let alone international ones! And telegrams—only used for extreme situations, like weddings (joy) or to notify a parent whose child was at war of their death or if they were missing-in-action (devastating). I could go on and on about old-fashioned forms of communication, but I’ll stop here! Thanks for your comment, Marie. 🙂