In the narrative medicine course I teach at the University of Washington I have been using Rita Charon’s narrative medicine close reading drill (as described in her chapter “Close Reading” from her book Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness, Oxford University Press, 2006). I was taught this narrative medicine close reading drill in the workshops I have taken with Dr. Charon at Columbia University.
As she writes in the opening of her chapter on close reading, “Narrative medicine makes the case that narrative training in reading and writing contributes to clinical effectiveness. By developing narrative competence, we have argued, health care professionals can become more attentive to patients, more attuned to patients’ experiences, more reflective in their own practice, and more accurate in interpreting the stories patients tell of illness” (pg 107).
I was first introduced to narrative medicine in the fall of 2010 when I took the Narrative Medicine ‘101’ workshop at Columbia University. I wrote two reflective (and in retrospect, rather cheeky yet truthful) blog posts about my experience: “The Cult of Narrative Medicine” and “Postpartum Narrative Medicine.” I stumbled into narrative medicine through my mid-life existential crisis of questioning the meaning of all my striving in terms of clinical practice and teaching nursing–and by practicing the mid-life crisis ‘cure’ by doing the Jungian thing of returning to my adolescent passion of reading (and writing). Then, using the crystal ball of Google searches, I discovered Rita Charon and narrative medicine.
That is the backstory. What I want to highlight in this blog post is my continual nagging–no niggling–suspicion that something is just not right with Rita Charon’s narrative medicine close reading drill. It has taken me years to be able to articulate what bothers me about her drill. I find that it is too cold, cerebral, intellectual; to practice it somehow further objectifies the ‘patient’ and holds them at arm’s length in order to dissect and measure. I have come to that conclusion by applying it to my own clinical practice as well as to my teaching of health professional students.
While trying to practice a ‘close reading’ of an actual patient and his or her story, I kept returning to the lesson of the Test Your Awareness video: “It’s easy to miss something you’re not looking for.” I became so wrapped up in noticing the minute details of what the patient was saying, that I missed the gestalt of the person telling the story. I also missed the fact that I was in a (professional) relationship with this person, that I was an active participant in the clinical encounter, and that I was being affected emotionally by this encounter: their story was ‘reading me.’ And in using this narrative medicine close reading drill with health professions students, I have found that they get all hung up with their anxieties over ‘doing this drill thing correctly’ as though I’m testing them on pathophysiology. (This applies to medical students who one would think have had a more liberal arts education, as well as to more ‘technical college’ nurses who have not likely had university-level courses). None of this can be viewed as ‘humanizing’ the practice of medicine.
What I find most compelling in narrative medicine or medical humanities more broadly, is the application of reflective (and reflexive, self-reflective, but not the ‘bathetic trip to nowhere of importance,’ sentimental, navel gazing variety) practice for health care professionals. My colleague, family medicine physician, teacher, and writer Sharon Dobie has written about this in terms of the importance of self-awareness and mindful practice in relationship-centered health care (“Reflection on a well-traveled path: self-awareness, mindful practice, and relationship-centered care as foundations for medical education” Academic Medicine vol 82, issue 4, 2007, pp422-427).
I’m still in the process of refining my approach to ‘teaching narrative medicine,’ but here is my alternative to Rita Charon’s narrative close reading drill. My closer (to home) close reading drill:
- Emotion: What do you feel while reading this (or while listening to this patient illness narrative)? What is the overall mood or emotional effect of the piece? And why do you think it evokes this particular response for you?
- Surprise: What stands out to you the most? What is unexpected? This is like Roland Barthes’ term ‘punctum’ in Camera Lucida, or as Arthur Frank puts it “what distracts you but is not the focus of the narrative.” (from a narrative analysis workshop I took with him at a qualitative research conference in Banff, Canada years ago).
- Silence. What is unsaid in this? Whose voices or perspectives are included and whose are left out?
- Metaphor (and it’s close cousin simile). The use of imagery and the poetics of the piece.
That’s it. The most important components of a narrative medicine ‘close reading.’ The next time I teach a narrative medicine course, I plan to use these as a close reading guide.