Amala Poli //
On March 19th, I began attending a three-day Basic Narrative Medicine (NM) Workshop. Like much else in academia during the Covid-19 pandemic, the workshop was held virtually via Zoom sessions. Having attended panels and conferences in the last year on Zoom, I wondered about how this would translate the experience of being in a room with like-minded thinkers from different disciplines of study across time zones. Broadly, narrative medicine embodies an interdisciplinary crossover between literature, medicine, and the arts. By integrating literary methods of close reading into the practice of medicine, narrative medicine in the academic context achieves a bridging of worlds. Having situated my work for several years in the Health Humanities, this interdisciplinarity was something I sought to explore deeper through the workshop.
The opening session was a talk by Dr Rita Charon, which set the tone for the workshop. Dr Charon invited the group to think of the two global, momentous movements in the United States this year: the one-year mark since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic and the aftermath of George Floyd’s death encapsulated by the Black Lives Matter protests. She reflected on the opportunity that Narrative Medicine offers to think about medicine’s racist past. The talk combined two tones – a somber awareness of the year’s challenge to each individual in the group as well as for collectives of health professionals and scholars, and a sense of hope and resilience fostered by discussions of different artworks by Marcel Duchamp, Romare Bearden, and other renowned artists. The distilled takeaway of the talk for me was an invitation to think of the ways in which narrative medicine, and more broadly the health humanities, is well-poised to take up the conversations around racial justice in academic and medical practice. We were making a commitment in the workshop to generate productive ideas about allyship, to bring our particular and specialist knowledges to the work of undoing biases and enabling equity.
Dr Charon’s talk was followed by small group sessions, where we met and familiarized ourselves with the 8-10 people with whom we would be spending much of the workshop. Through a short writing exercise, we encountered the people in our group in an unusual way, different from the geographical place in the world and profession/discipline level-introduction. This suggested that narrative medicine’s principles were active in the earliest engagements: to create a community of thinkers who develop and share interests but do so with an awareness about each other from a humane, compassionate point of view. “Narrative medicine arises from the awareness of this relation between narrativity and identity” (Irvine and Charon 110). Members in the small groups, as in playback theatre, would hear a story or anecdote about a participant’s name and play it back to them. The listeners would pick out threads and affective modes in which they had received the teller’s anecdote about their name and narrate how it seemed and what meanings and associations it generated for them. This emphasized the relationality between our narratives about ourselves and our identities, smoothening some of the uneasiness of first interactions with strangers. The group brought an immense amount of energy and vitality, despite several of the members being front-line workers, and showed an eagerness and capacity to be present for each others’ worlds and stories, for a collective resonance and holding of space. The second and third days of the workshop consisted of three sessions each and an optional Q & A for interested participants. Two sessions on the second and third day each were facilitated by the NM workshop team in our small groups.
One principle of NM that resonated throughout the workshop was how we could reconceptualize empathy in the context of medical practise or healthcare. Maura Spiegel and Danielle Spencer’s work on literature, emotion, and relationality states, “Narrative medicine seeks to create an environment where aesthetic experience can unlock affective responses, where trust and collaboration replace competition, and where the nature of engagement allows for recognition of self and other” (Spiegel and Spencer 41). This was the recognition that the small groups sought to seek and embody in their collaborations. As someone deeply critical of virtual collaborations due to the demands it poses on early-career researchers, I was pleasantly surprised by the openness and compassion in my group to receive each other’s ideas, stories, and perceptions and create a space for collective reflection. The small group consisted of the people each of us got to know the best during the workshop, at the juncture of the affective and creative modes of telling and receiving stories and insights. The exercises ranged from reflecting on a poem or a short story together to recounting a significant personal event, responding to a question prompt etc. In each of the discussions, there was a notable emphasis on receiving as much as telling, which offset some of the normal Zoom-sense of waiting one’s turn to speak in a discussion. If a participant shared a reflection on a creative piece, others would pick that thread up and move with it, adding their own threads. The effect was that of an improvised choreography, with different thoughts and ideas moving effortlessly through the group. The final session invited us to bring something that reflected our experience of the past year, and this exercise allowed each participant for that rarest of things: to reflect on the storm while still immersed in it in myriad ways.
Dr Charon emphasized the use of literary methods beyond the traditional English classroom. Fields such as Health Humanities and Disability Studies today decenter and unsettle the “traditional” English classroom in productive ways. Though more concerted engagements with narrative medicine would produce a better understanding in traditional English classrooms of the relationships embodied between methods of the humanities and medical pedagogies, the workshop is a consolidated body of ideas and interactions to begin this engagement.
Rothko, Mark. Multiform. 1948. National Gallery of Australia. © Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko. ARS/Copyright Agency
Spiegel, Maura and Danielle Spencer. “This Is What We Do, and These Things Happen: Literature, Experience, Emotion, and Relationality in the Classroom.” Principles and Practices of Narrative Medicine, Oxford University Press, 2017.
Irvine, Craig and Rita Charon. “Deliver Us from Certainty: Training for Narrative Ethics.” Principles and Practices of Narrative Medicine, Oxford University Press, 2017.