Monday, October 14, 2013

Listening with Our Pens: Narrative Humility for Writers (Guest post by Sayantani DasGupta)

Sayantani DasGupta is a physician, a writer, and a teacher with a remarkable voice. Her collection of traditional tales from Bengal, The Demon Slayers and Other Stories, coauthored with her mother Shamita Das Dasgupta, is regionally specific and richly complex. Her collection of narratives and essays, Stories of Illness and Healing: Women Write Their Bodies, bridges the artificial divide between women's lives and scholarship in gender, health, and medicine.

I'm delighted to welcome Sayantani to WWBT with this guest post. Her ideas about narrative fascinate me, and I'm sure that I'll revisit and think about this meditation for some time to come.


I spend my life at the intersection of the stethoscope and the pen. Although I was originally trained in pediatrics and public health, as a writer, as well as a faculty member in Columbia University’s Master’s Program in Narrative Medicine, and co-chair of Columbia’s University Seminar on Narrative, Health and Social Justice, I spend most of my days writing, teaching, and thinking about the role of stories in healthcare.

Narrative Medicine is the clinical and scholarly endeavor to honor the role of story in the healing relationship. Long before doctors had anything of interest in their black bags – no MRIs, no lab tests, no fancy all body CAT scans – what they had was the ability to show up, what they had was the ability to listen, and bear witness to someone’s life, death, illness, suffering, and everything else that comes in between.

And so, I spend most of my days teaching clinicians-to-be how to listen. I do this by having them read stories, and take oral histories, and study lots of narrative theory. I teach them the work of scholars like medical sociologist Arthur Frank, who explains that when illness or trauma interrupt our life stories, we need new stories to help navigate these uncharted waters. Although it was always there, illness and trauma bring into sharp focus our basic human need for narration. We are, after all, fundamentally storied creatures.

But besides all this, what I also do is teach my students to listen by writing stories. I have them do listener response – writing in reaction to a poem or story we read in class. I have them write to a prompt – ‘when was the last time you witnessed suffering?’ I have them write ongoing personal illness narratives – weekly narratives in which I ask them to tell of the same experience but from a different point of view or genre or form to help unpack not only their own personal stories (stories which inform how they in turn will listen to the stories of others), but discover how stories work – in regard to plot, form, function, and voice.

So yes, I’m training people to be better doctors by teaching them how to be writers.

Over the years, I’ve explained some of how this all works with a philosophy of listening I’ve been calling Narrative Humility.* Narrative Humility is not about gaining any sense of competence or mastery over our patients, or their stories. Rather, it is about paying attention to our own inner workings – our expectations, our prejudices, our own cadre of personal stories that impact how we react to the stories of others. You can hear me talk all about it here, during a recent TEDx event at Sarah Lawrence College (where I also teach).

But it serves to reason that if doctors can borrow skills from writers to do their jobs better, then perhaps the reciprocal thing can happen as well. In other words, does narrative humility have any lessons for those leading the writing life?

1.     Active Listening – This is an easy one. Writers are told all the time to listen: for regional accents, for scraps of interesting dialogue, for pieces of intriguing stories. We listen to ourselves too through journaling, going on writing retreats, and digging deep into our cadre of personal and familial stories for sources of inspiration. We even talk about listening to our characters, and letting them co-create the story that we’re telling. For writers, as for doctors, listening is a necessary adjunct to action. It is a way of filling ourselves up – like blood into the heart, air into the lungs – before we breathe out stories, images, words onto the page.

2.     Embodiment – In the words of Arthur Frank, illness stories are not just told about bodies or of bodies but through bodies. Similarly, they are received through particular bodies. This connection between body and voice (which I write about here in a post called Writing Our Bodies: Embodiment, Voice and Literature) is perhaps a critical connection for all writers to make. We can ask ourselves: How is the story I tell connected to my body? How does it emerge from my bodily experiences? In the words of memoirist and writer Nancy Mairs, who writes about having MS and using a wheelchair, “No body, no voice, no voice, no body. That is what I know in my bones.”  

3.     Wonder – The notion that stories are not objects we can fully comprehend or master is a difficult one for most medical professionals, who aren’t necessary trained to embrace ambiguity. Like clinicianss, writers too need to master certain technical skill sets – we need to know how to develop a plot, deepen characterization, build tension, and draw readers in with our world-building. Yet, like those in the healing arts, we writers cannot allow those technical skills to somehow suffocate that other, more ineffable quality so central to the creative process: the ability to receive, to witness, to open one’s creative heart. And so, both professions must embrace both ways of knowing – the technical and the artistic, the ‘scientific’ and the creative.

For both doctors and writers, stories are bones and the blood of our professions. Containing equal measure of the known and unknowable, of the earthly and the ephemeral, the work of storytelling, like the work of healing, must be approached with a sense of humility. Humility for the stories we tell, humility for the stories we have yet to tell, and humility for those stories just beyond our grasp – waiting for us to be ready to receive their whispered secrets.

*Here's the citation for that Lancet article on narrative humility: The art of medicine: Narrative humility. DasGupta, Sayantani, The Lancet; Mar 22-Mar 28, 2008; pg. 980.


  1. It's very late at night and I've just finished reading this. Maybe the silence around me (everyone asleep in my house, around my neighborhood and across the city) explains how deeply it reverberated. Love the skills you mention: active listening, embodiment, wonder - YES! I just wish I could sign up for your classes and learn more about Narrative Medicine. Thank you for posting this. And thanks to Uma for asking you to guest post.

  2. Julie would that not even be a dream weekend retreat, if we could get Sayantani to come hang out with a bunch of us writer people and talk to us about her amazing work and thinking?

  3. Hmmm sounds pretty wonderful to me! Many thanks for the kind comment - and again to Uma for inviting me here!

  4. Uma and Sayantani, I stumbled into this by accident this morning and had to watch the TEDx. Very insightful. Being an architect/designer (another hierarchical discipline) the idea humility as you define it is very relevant as we interact not just with people but with nature. Thank you for sharing this.