Doctors and Children's Authors: A Tale of Two Professions

Andrea Goto

September 09, 2022

In the poem "Song of Myself," Walt Whitman famously wrote, "I am large, I contain multitudes." Many physicians will say they felt called to practice medicine. But having a calling does not necessarily mean that it's the only gift one has to give.

Here, three women who were already juggling a demanding medical practice and motherhood rediscovered their love of writing and carved out time to hone their craft. Today, Diana Farid, MD, MPH, Rajani LaRocca, MD, and Dow Phumiruk, MD, are award-winning children's book authors and YA novelists — a pursuit that has had a profound impact on their lives and medical practice. They spoke with Medscape about how the practice of medicine informs their writing and vice versa, and how you can get your book into the eager hands of young readers.

Medscape: When did your love of writing first emerge?

Farid: I began writing as a kid. I wrote poems — horrible poems. It was how I expressed myself and processed my feelings. In high school, I started writing more, but I kept it to myself and didn't contemplate a career as a writer. It was purely an act of exploration and expression.

LaRocca: I used to write a lot in high school and college, but nothing book length; mainly personal essays. When I went to medical school and residency, that part of my life kind of ended. I took a long hiatus from writing.

Phumiruk: I was always creative in childhood. My mom was a nurse and her dream for me — and therefore my dream — was to be a doctor because I did well in school. I could see the honor in her work, and so I decided to go that route. I forgot all about art.

Medscape: What brought you back to writing when you were all working physicians?

Farid: From the beginnings of our training in medicine, we are immediately faced with mortality. We're aware that a lifetime can be very short. And for me, writing is a way to address that urgency. [Poet] Mary Oliver once said we should ask ourselves, "What is the gift I should bring to the world? What is the life I should live?" As I was more involved in medical practice, I was very aware that I might not have the time to do these other things that I wanted to do.

Phumiruk: I rediscovered children's books when I stayed home with my kids. I fell in love with the art and decided I would try my hand at that first and eventually I was writing too. I realized I'd been in medicine all this time, and I hadn't nurtured the artistic side of me. I vowed then never to let that go.

LaRocca: My kids were older and in school, and I thought, how do I get back to being creative? I took some online writing classes through and some in person at GrubStreet [a creative writing center] here in Boston. For me, the hook was meeting other writers. Once I met fellow writers and we formed critique groups, there was just a lot of support and encouragement to keep going.

I never intended to write picture books; I thought I'd write novels. But the more I thought about it, the books that made the biggest difference in my life were the books that I read as a kid. There were novels that changed the way I looked at the world.

Medscape: How has writing influenced the way you practice medicine?

Farid: Writing makes me more empathetic. Not only writing, but reading. Exploring motivation and how people process joy and pain. I'm able to be with my patients with even more empathy than I had before.

LaRocca: It makes me a better physician because it's almost like a rest for my clinical brain. So when I come back to looking at clinical things, I feel like I see things in a fresh way. It also makes me a better listener, because so much of writing is creating a character that seems like a real person. I'm more likely to really listen to what a person is saying and try to understand where they're coming from.

Medscape: And vice-versa. How has your practice of medicine influenced your writing?

LaRocca: The most important things that link the two professions are an interest in and love for people. My job is to listen to people without judgment and to give them the best advice I can. My medical background shows me that good people can make bad choices or people can make decisions based on values that are different than mine, and that's OK. We have to bring that nuanced view of what it means to be human to our writing and say this is a good character, but they can make poor choices.

Farid: At the Los Angeles free clinic where I worked for many years, I would see kids and give them asthma medication. I would tell them the story about the journey of their breath to explain how the medicines were going to work so they would comply and take them. My love for storytelling, art, my desire to tell stories to my [firstborn] baby, to transmit what I knew to my patients and to empower people to make them feel seen and valued — that all came together in wanting to write [When You Breathe].

Medscape: What advice do you have for someone wanting to break into publishing children's book publishing?

Farid: I would highly recommend anybody who's interested in writing for children to join the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Membership in that group provides a lot of valuable resources like conferences, critique groups, and info on the publishing process.

Phumiruk: I'd experiment with my art by myself, but when I joined the SCBWI in 2011, I got much better at it and even entered some writing contests. You have to learn your craft from somewhere, but part of it is also about making connections — that way you can really improve your craft so that it's ready for when an agent and you meet. I had plenty of rejections, but when you start getting positive feedback on your work, you realize you're going in the right direction. As a physician, you already have the discipline it takes to work hard for a goal of publication. Keep writing your stories!

LaRocca: With patience and perseverance, you can get through. Most of the time, there's no shortcut. You have to write a good book and hit the pavement. Even if you get the agent that doesn't mean that a publisher is going to buy your book, so it's a challenge all the way around.

Medscape: Between work and family (or both), how do you carve out the time to write?

Phumiruk: When I worked more, I wrote and drew any time I could fit it in, usually when the kids were napping or at school, or in the pickup lane waiting for them. If I had a particularly busy shift, I had to get enough sleep before any attempt at creativity.

Currently, I draw during the day, preferably morning, and I write at 8 PM. I have an accountability partner who does the same. We write for a minimum of 12 minutes and keep going if we get into the zone.

LaRocca: I try to compartmentalize. When I'm seeing patients, I try to be extremely efficient about how I manage those tasks. I get all my notes done by the end of the day and I don't go home with work if possible. I've decreased my clinical hours because now I have a lot more books to write so I need time for that.

Farid: Right now, there is no set writing schedule, and I think it's important for me to be really honest about that. It's as much as I can, when I can. Most of the time I write at night when the kids go to bed and on weekends. But I'm recognizing the importance of being truly gone. I have planned different times away from home, like self-retreats. In a few weeks, I'll spend a weekend by myself just writing.

Medscape: What's been the most rewarding part of this experience?

LaRocca: I go to schools and book festivals. I see and meet the children who sometimes have read my book. It's the craziest feeling. That's when I feel like I'm really a writer. When I loved a book when I was a kid, I would've given my arm to meet an author.

Writing has also helped me rediscover all these things that we love outside of medicine, and realize that we don't have to give them up and we shouldn't. We owe it to ourselves and the rest of the world to pursue these other interests because it helps us avoid burnout as physicians and keeps us feeling renewed as people.

Diana Farid, MD, MPH, is a physician, poet, author, filmmaker and mother of four children. She graduated from Northwestern University, serves as assistant professor in the Department of Medicine at Stanford and practices at the university's student health center. Her first children's picture book, When You Breathe (Abrams), published in 2020, and her verse novel, Wave (Abrams), was released in 2022 and was endorsed by Kirkus as one of six books of poetry to enrich middle-grade readers. Farid is currently preparing her next novel in verse and two picture books for publication.

Rajani LaRocca, MD,  attended Harvard Medical School, works as an internal medicine primary care doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital, and is the mother of two daughters. Her first novel, Midsummer's Mayhem (Yellow Jacket), was published in 2019, and she has since published three more YA novels and six picture books. LaRocca's work has earned many awards, including the notable 2022 John Newbery honor for her recent novel, Red, White and Whole (Quill Tree Books, 2021). Her next novel is scheduled for release in March.

Dow Phumiruk, MD, graduated from Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center at Lubbock and worked as a pediatrician at Children's Hospital in Parker, Colorado. The mother of three daughters clinically retired in 2015 to dedicate herself full-time to her work as an author and illustrator, though she continues to teach part time at Rocky Vista University College of Medicine. Phumiruk illustrated her first children's book, Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines (Holt), in 2017. It received many honors, including NSTA Best STEM Book of 2018. She authored her first children's book, Mela and the Elephant (Sleeping Bear Press), in 2018. Phumiruk has had 20 book contracts to date.

Andrea Goto is a frequent contributor to Medscape. See her previous work here and here.

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