GP Interview - Telling a short story

Author and Sheffield GP Dr Jo Cannon explains how she began writing and why she prefers to specialise in short stories.

How did you start writing?

About 18 years ago, around the time I began work at my surgery, I heard a radio programme about a writing group for GPs in Sheffield.

A writer called Gillie Bolton was promoting the use of writing as a therapeutic tool and running writing groups for women prisoners and hospice patients.

She believed therapeutic writing was useful for health workers too, as a means of supporting one another and for professional development.

I contacted her and have been part of that group ever since. Now we are a group of friends.

One of my favourite exercises was to write from the point of view of a 'difficult' patient - perhaps someone who had been hostile, or with whom the doctor/patient relationship seemed stuck.

The process was fascinating, because while I was writing I felt I became that person and could unlock new ways of approaching a problem.

I loved the creative act of writing too, and found I could lose myself in it as some people do in music.

My writing group was a great audience. After a while, I realised I was writing to entertain them and my stuff wasn't true: it was fiction. I just made things up, to surprise my friends or make them laugh. Professional development seemed less important. At the end of an evening together, my writing group just wanted me to tell them a story.

Why do you prefer writing short stories?

The art of the short story is to leave things out. You hone everything, take out all you can and allow the reader's imagination to fill the gaps.

I've started a couple of novels over the years, but after 2,000 words always felt I'd made my point. And of course, there is the problem of time. As a GP partner, my writing time is limited and sporadic.

My collection of stories took five years to write and if I'd written a novel, it would have become disjointed and rambling. If I'd managed to invent a plot, I would have lost it.

How did you get your book of short stories published?

A friend suggested I test the market by sending individual stories to literary magazines and competitions. To my surprise, many were published or successful in competitions.

When I had enough validated stories to make a collection, I discarded about a third and rewrote the rest, a process which took a few years. I was invited to join an online forum, Fiction Forge, where I received constructive feedback from other writers. I also made some great friends.

Mainstream UK publishers aren't interested in short story collections by new writers, so I approached the independent press.

The first publisher rejected my book, but was encouraging. I altered it some more - another couple of years passed - before approaching Pewter Rose Press. When they let me know they wanted to publish my book, it was a thrilling moment.

What are you working on at the moment?

About 10 years ago we moved our surgery from a traditional Victorian doctor's house to a new building next door. During the move, our nurse found a box of old documents in the attic.

There were medical notes and prescriptions, old journals and intricate ink drawings of patients dating back to the 1900s.

I forgot about it for several years, but I have recently started to sort through the box.

The history of our surgery is fascinating; so much has changed in medical practice and the health service. The area, inner-city Sheffield, is interesting too - there have been waves of immigration that reflect all of the changes in society.

My idea is to write a series of connected short stories, using the box of documents as a source to convey some of the history. I've written a couple of chapters, but don't know yet where it will lead.

When writing, do you draw on your experience as a GP?

Every surgery is like a short story collection. Patients sit down one after the other and tell you about their world, and you focus on that person and their experiences.

I've been at the surgery so long, I usually know the patient's back story, or have heard it from a different angle from someone who knows them.

Of course it would be a betrayal to use any of that material - and the GMC would take a dim view - but you get an insight into lives you wouldn't otherwise see.

As a GP I have learned that we share more in our common humanity than we have differences - our emotions, needs and desires are the same.

Patients are very open about things. As a GP, you are in a state of intimacy with many people over many years. It's a privilege.

  • Dr Cannon's book, 'Insignificant Gestures', is available for £7.99 from Pewter Rose Press at www.pewter-rose-press.com, from Amazon, or your local bookshop

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