Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress. When I get fed up with one, I spend the night with the other. Though it is irregular, it is less boring this way, and besides, neither of them loses anything through my infidelity.
Those are Anton Chekhov’s words and in 2013 I felt moved to quote the writer in an email to the Guardian’s then editor-in chief. The newspaper had launched a website in Australia and I was eager to write for the paper that my family had read when we lived in the UK. The team took a chance on me but, when I published my first column on medicine and humanity that year, I didn’t hold my breath for a return. It is nothing short of wondrous that 10 years later I am still here, on a public platform that has allowed me to talk to far more people than I could ever have imagined.
Last week I joined some of my former teachers to teach a class at Harvard on how to marshal riotous ideas into a meaningful column. As I graded what was for many students their first attempt, I was reminded of how difficult it is to confront a blank page and write something believing that it merits an audience.
I remembered how I used to sweat the smart stuff, trying to inject “intellect” in every nook and cranny of my column to prove my mettle. Until a thoughtful editor observed that what really resonated with readers were stories that had heart. This is among the most important lessons I have learned from being a columnist. Here are five others.
1. Do your homework and don’t lie
I once asked an editor what got a columnist fired. Without missing a beat, she said, “people who make up stuff” and “those who never file on time”. Frankly, it seems like the advice I give my kids – do your homework and don’t lie – but honesty really is fashionable.
In an era of so much interesting information, there is no excuse for lying, although it takes time to sift through misinformation that at first glance appears credible.
I am always on the lookout for things sold to patients as the next miracle.
As for punctuality, I once asked a famous author how she handled writer’s block, digging for sympathy. Instead, she scoffed: “Builders don’t get builder’s block; drivers don’t get driver’s block; it’s your job to sit down and write!” This no-nonsense advice became my discipline-aid, allowing me to fully appreciate the privilege of a public platform.
2. Let your values anchor your writing
A taxpayer-funded medical education is the most important gift Australia gave me – the world is full of people who will only ever dream of becoming a doctor because of the curse of geography. When I graduated I pledged to devote my life to the public hospital system, which sees vulnerability, disadvantage and disability of a scale that demands commitment to tackle. Every doctor is drawn to a different facet of medicine – some aspire to cure disease and others to enable a dignified death; there are many interesting callings in between.
My own experience of the loss of a twin pregnancy convinced me of the importance of compassion and humanity, regardless of diagnosis, prognosis and the vaunted rush of modern medicine. These values have anchored my writing because changing winds need not change one’s values.
3. Be quick to say sorry
The most careful writing can still give offence to someone somewhere; it’s a balancing act to defend one’s stance and accept another perspective. It can be tempting to ignore aggrieved correspondents and cradle one’s ego instead but I am routinely surprised that the response to “How can I make this better?” is almost always: “I just wanted to be heard.”
4. People don’t care who you are
A surgeon known for his inflated sense of self-importance was flagged down for speeding. Miffed at the inconvenience, he imperiously asked if the police officer knew his identity. The officer is said to have retorted, “Mate, I don’t give a flying fuck who you are,” before slapping the surgeon with a hefty fine that left him incandescent with rage and late to theatre. It serves as a cautionary tale about the unimportance of self-importance.
I work in an impoverished area. My patients are among society’s least literate and most burdened. Many of them have never heard of the Guardian, have no idea that I am a columnist, and even if they knew they couldn’t care less, so long as I treat them with kindness and respect. This is a liberating realisation. It allows me to aim high while noting that my “best” words will go unread by many people who will ultimately judge me by my actions.
5. Above all, be kind
Years ago I wrote a column that hurt someone. The justifications on either side don’t matter now but I felt awful that my writing could be an instrument of pain. Since then I have strived to be kind when I write. Kindness is not softness. Strong opinions and robust views can be conveyed without making individuals feel bad. Credit can be shared without diluting the self.
Before giving my talk on writing, I sent my slides to one of my teachers widely admired by his students for his decency. Like all wise advisers, he let me do my thing and sent back just one comment: “I am glad you mentioned kindness.”
He has been a columnist twice as long as me. I know why: kindness, like honesty, remains fashionable.
On the 10th anniversary of Guardian Australia, I offer my congratulations and a thank you to the team behind the scenes with whom it is a pleasure to work.
But I reserve my greatest gratitude for you, dear reader, because it is your loyalty and encouragement that makes me look forward to the next 10 years.
• Ranjana Srivastava is an Australian oncologist, award-winning author and Fulbright scholar. Her latest book is called A Better Death