Joe B. Sills: Writing Will Help Me Be a Better Doctor

May 16, 2011 — Joe B. Sills said he's a better writer for having gotten his master of fine arts degree in fiction from the University of Virginia's Creative Writing Program. He also thinks it will help him become a better physician.

"I think that storytelling will be a precious skill to have as a doctor – to be able to grasp the context of a patient's life, to imagine how that patient might feel and to meaningfully communicate that patient's experience to other doctors involved in his or her care," he said.

Sills took a break between his second and third years of medical school at Tufts University to devote two years to writing fiction. As a Henry Hoyns and Poe/Faulkner Fellow in U.Va.'s highly regarded Creative Writing Program in the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, he took workshops with English department faculty members Chris Tilghman, John Casey, Deborah Eisenberg and Ann Beattie.

It's not unusual for a medical student to take time off midway through their four years, but typically the interlude is directed toward a related study, such as public health. Sills said his deans asked what an MFA was before granting his leave.

"They were like a pair of very supportive if slightly baffled parents," he said.

Growing up in Kansas and Massachusetts, Sills said he has known since he wrote "terrible poems" in middle school that writing would be part of his life. Taking a detour for his MFA has enabled him to limit distractions and move light years ahead in his writing, although he's quick to add that he has more to learn.

Both writing and medicine include research, but have different sets of problems that require different parts of the brain to work on, he said. "Sometimes it feels as if one is the antidote for the other."

Thus, two years ago, he was pinching himself to make sure he was really attending a writing workshop in Tilghman's country house, sitting in the living room, a dog lying at his feet on a worn rug over the wood floor.

Writing fiction and studying medicine hit a similar vein, Sills said: "A curiosity of wanting to understand how humans function."

At this point, medicine has a clear track to answers, and writing is more experimental.

"If I use an afternoon to study the gall bladder, I can be certain that I will have learned something about the gall bladder, and no time will have been misspent.

"On the other hand, during medical school, writing was a way for me to preserve my humanity, which can be beaten out of you by the massive amount of information there is to learn," he said.

From Joe B. Sills, published in Zoetrope: All-Story, Vol. 15, No. 1
 “Rarities of Unfathomable Worth”
"Every couple years my sister Sarah uses my apartment as a sort of way station between schools that award degrees you've never heard of. She's got a paper certificate from a program in Lithuania with some dean's signature Xeroxed along the bottom, and above that Sarah's small name penned in her own hand. By now she's an associate of astronomy and something to do with animals, and I'd ask her if she plans on racking up the qualifications until the money runs out, but the money never runs out, and worse is that she'd ask me if I have any better ideas, and I'm tired of losing arguments.

Sarah was due for another visit and Mom and Dad were in Greece. They'd sent a crate of pomegranates, each wrapped in a sheet of crepe paper, and I ate them on the sofa, tearing them apart with a silver letter opener. There was also an envelope with a fresh bolus of cash, and a note that read, "please share."

I tweezed out a bill and spent it on milk and Lucky Charms at the bodega around the corner. I could've sent Pete, my doorman, but the bodega is good for me, it gets me out. It's run by a couple from Pakistan and they are very old and appear to love each other and seem to have been made kind by way of some violence I might have seen on the news. The husband reaches for tea bags that his wife stores on the highest shelf. It's good for me to get out and see that. You can't eat pomegranates three meals a day. It's just seeds."

As a writer, he likes to discover story ideas accidentally or serendipitously – from something "found," he said. It could be an old diary or keepsake, a sentence or description, or a historical character that plants the seed for a story.

"Each piece has its own labyrinth to solve," he said about writing, and any subject is fair game for exploration.

His story, "The Duck," which won the Sycamore Review's 2011 Wabash Prize for Fiction, has as its central character a young Anton Chekhov.

Judge Antonya Nelson said, "This story stands out for being both entirely original and entirely paying homage to the father of short story writers, Anton Chekhov. It looks backward, it looks forward. It is spare, clever, elusive and utterly satisfying."

Another story, "Rarities of Unfathomable Worth," took top prize in Francis Ford Coppolla's "Zoetrope: All-Story" Short Fiction Contest and is published online.

Sills also won this year's Balch Prize, an annual short story competition hosted by the English department for its graduate students. Other stories have appeared or are forthcoming in CutBank, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, and the Indiana Review.

Sills stumbled upon fertile territory while wandering around Alderman Library not long ago: the 19th-century westward expansion of the U.S. He's written one story about a Union recruiter traveling in annexed areas of the South. He's also writing about the Gold Rush.

Beattie, who taught the last workshop Sills took, noted his process of using facts or found texts as "an imaginative point of departure." She said, "Joe usually writes stories about what's happening on the sideline, or behind the scenes, or – thinking about Auden's famous ending of 'Musee des Beaux Arts' here – what might not be noticed if the writer hadn't turned his attention to it." 

Sills said he has learned things from each writer at U.Va., including Rea Visiting Writers Claire Messud and Jim Shepard, who came for weeklong residencies.

He calls Shepard a "living hero," for the range of characters he portrays in his novels and stories.

"The making of fiction is an exercise in imagination and empathy (to steal a line from Jim Shepard), and without that exercise those muscles can waste away," Sills said. When Shepard was here, he told Sills that a group of surgeons had hired him to teach them how to tell stories, so they could better relate to their patients – because they'd forgotten how.

Sills won't be one of those doctors.

— By Anne Bromley

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications