October 27, 2016

Reading : 826 Valencia

A couple weeks ago, the Bay Area literary festival LitQuake ended with Lit Crawl San Francisco: "where literature hits the streets."  Coffee shops, bookstores, clothing stores, pubs, and alleyways around the city host hundreds of authors reading aloud from their work.  Over four hundred writers read in the course of a few hours; ten thousand people move from one place to another to hear pieces of others and themselves.  

When I was in high school, being a part of our school's literary magazine was a big part of my life. Each year, we went on a weekend retreat to the Marin Headlands, stayed at a hostel, and spent the days reading through the entries on our own and then discussing them together as a group.  I internalized that process as a way I wanted to approach so much of life: an appreciation for creativity and expression, a desire to disseminate others' voices, and find connection in this shared experience.  It was a process I sustained through college and medical school.  The photographs in this post are part of the work we did for the literary magazine we published during med school.  To celebrate its first edition, we held an event where art from the magazine was framed and displayed, people played the violin and piano, and read from their contributions.  Almost everyone from our class came to the event to receive this creativity, and it was one of my favorite moments in med school.

Despite the depth this held for me, it was a process that gradually slipped from me the farther I progressed in medical training.

One of the reasons I chose medicine as a career was that you experience so many people's stories directly, rather than in written form.  It's a privilege, and it's also all-consuming.  And so, for some time, these narratives supplanted the literary ones that I grew up valuing so much.  

But there is something irreplaceable about people processing their stories in creative expression. I often find that I get so immersed in my patients' stories, that these are so real, that I forget how much reality lies in the fiction people create.  And I think it's really healthy to digest the power of people's narratives in a different form--in poetry, literature, painting, photography, music.  After hearing a mother break down about the difficulty of caring for her disabled son, I might feel exhaustion and frustration and at a loss for what to do.  After reading Language Arts about a father trying to connect to his autistic child, I'm better able to absorb the weight of the story and to consider how to interact with it. Fiction gives new perspective and can infuse energy into stories that can sometimes be draining when you're entangled in them in real life.  

Especially when the stories come from 8 year olds.

I was lucky to see several 8 year olds tell their stories at the LitCrawl reading that took place at 826 Valencia.  826 Valencia is a non-profit writing program that mentors children and adolescents from underresourced communities, and they publish a literary magazine of their students' work every year. It also runs an independent pirate store in San Francisco, selling whale combs, eyepatches, and whatever else pirates need (there are different themed stores throughout the country, from superheroes to time travel to secret agents).  As part of LitCrawl, the young writers from 826 Valencia read their work aloud in the pirate store.

One young man read a story about an 8 year old boy and an 8 year old tiger living parallel lives on different planets.  He tells us how all the boy ever wanted was to have an adventure, but for some reason he just could never have one.  He creates for us a world of lively animals, racing machines, and imagination.  At the end of the reading, when the students are asked to give advice to other writes, this one says: "Try to focus and not let your mind wander.  Which is hard when you have ADHD."

Another student gave just a few lines of his poem about trees: "Trees are cold.  Trees only have roots.  So they get cold."  

These lines struck me, and would have remained deep alone.  But they gained even more meaning when at the end of the reading, the boy gave his advice for other aspiring writers: "Remember that trees are cold because they only have roots. We have shoes and socks. We have glasses. We have books.  We have earrings.  We got iPads. We got telephones.  We got shirts, we got backpacks. That's all."

I love events like these, the coming together to hear each other.  People have so much to say, and even when (especially if) your job is listening to people, it can be hard to absorb and process their message.  It can start to sound the same, lose its nuance and power.  It's important to occasionally step away from the direct, immediate telling of someone's narrative and hear the creative re-forming of story.  And that's just one of many, many reasons fiction complements medicine.

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