Photo credit: Julie Jordan Scott Flickr.com
I can’t put my finger on the defining moment in my life when I got the inspiration to become a writer, but I know for sure that an evening with a medical student, listening to his stories about a rabbi's testicles and his own writing ambitions, was influential. I have always loved reading books, have an aptitude for linguistics and am a natural proofreader, but the thought of writing my own stories was triggered by that evening.
I was studying engineering in Lund, Sweden and the local chapter of the Jewish Student Association had invited an American exchange student to give a talk. The guest speaker was a medical student in his third year and the talk was called “Funny Stories from the E.R.”. The turnout was quite satisfying for an evening lecture, with some 70 Jewish students showing up. Only a disco evening would have been able to draw a larger crowd.
One story was about a rabbi who arrived naked to the E.R. with a nasty bite on his testicles and a broken arm and leg. When the resident questioned him on how all this had occurred, the rabbi replied: “I came home after an evening lecture and wanted to take a shower. Earlier, I had left the shower window open. When I opened the shower doors, a cat that had sneaked in through the window got a fright, jumped up and bit me on my testicles.”
Nobody heard the steps of the few late-comers. All ears were tuned to the guest speaker’s voice.
“I fell to the ground, shrieking in pain but managed to crawl to a telephone and dial 911. The paramedics arrived shortly and put me on a stretcher. The stretcher was too large for the elevator so they had to use the stairs. On the way down they enquired politely about what had happened. When I told them about the cat tasting my testicles, they started laughing so hard that they dropped the stretcher. I fell down the stairs and broke both my arm and my leg.”
I am not sure if this and the other stories were true or just urban legends among E.R. residents, but he certainly sounded as if he had experienced them. After the lecture, I approached the speaker and asked him what kind of doctor he wanted to become.
“I actually want to become a writer,” he answered.
“A writer? So why are you studying medicine, the longest study of them all?”
“Well,” he said, “I am not rich and figured out that if I want to become a writer, I would need at least $1 million in the bank in case the first or second book did not succeed. And there are only two sure ways to become a millionaire in the United States - either rob a bank or become a doctor.”
“So what specialty are you going to choose after six years of basic medical studies?”
Without even blinking an eye, he answered: “Hemorrhoids.”
Now I was really intrigued. “Why hemorrhoids?”
“Well, hemorrhoids are a very common malady which is relatively easy to treat without major complications that you can be sued for.”
Still skeptical, I asked: “And where do you plan to practice this specialty?”
Again, without a moment’s hesitation, he answered: “In Beverly Hills.”
“Why Beverly Hills?” I asked.
“Well, the stars in Hollywood are very concerned about who touches their precious toches” and will pay top dollars to have the best surgeon perform the procedure. I calculated I could charge $5,000 per patient. Each procedure would only take 20-30 minutes, so I could easily treat 8-10 patients per day. My overall cost including renting the operating room would be a .maximum $2,000 per patient. So within 1-1½ years I would become a millionaire.”
I stuck the entire episode away in the intricate long-term memory windings of my brain.
Some six years later, I visited my Swedish friend Alf, who, in the meantime, had become a specialist at a leading hospital in New York. During small talk after the Shabbat dinner, he asked me: “Do you remember that American exchange student who told us funny E.R. stories, back in Lund?”
“Sure,” I said, retrieving the incident from my long-term memory, “what about him?”
“He just mailed me his first book,” he said and showed me the copy. It was a murder mysterytaking place in a hospital.
I almost took off my kipa in respect. This medical student had formulated an eight-year master-plan to become a writer, and had followed it to the letter. The student’s name was Dr Howard Olgin and the book was The Doctor’s Game. He has since written at least seven more books and is still a practicing doctor in Palm Springs, California. The story of how this first novel was published can be found in Alex Jackinson’s fascinating book The Romance of Publishing. An Agent Recalls Thirty-Three Years with Authors and Editors (Rosemount Publishing, 1987, pg 156-157).
I started my own writing career shortly after by engaging in freelance translation and proofreading jobs but due to my engineering job, I did not have the time to dedicate any serious time to writing my own stories. I wasn’t even sure whether I wanted to write a book of funny signs and typos I had collected during my proofreading assignments and travel abroad, fiction novels (maybe a detective or spy-novel?) or non-fiction essays.
Last year I retired and joined a local non-fiction group which met regularly to critique each other’s short stories. This got me hooked and almost 40 years after that evening with the medical resident and his testicle story, I was accepted to an MA program in Creative Writing. When my two first essays were accepted for publication right away, I knew I was on the right track.
To make a living as a writer is another story. In retrospect, should I have considered a master plan similar to the medical exchange student instead? Is it too late to switch and study medicine? Maybe I could specialize in cat bites?