My husband thinks I have a crush on Atul Gawande.
True, Dr. Gawande is breathlessly handsome. He’s a surgeon too, and my husband knows how I’ve always dreamed of being a trauma surgeon. A MacArthur Fellow, an assistant professor at Harvard University, husband to a beautiful woman. He is all of these things and more; Atul Gawande is one of the most perfect writers I’ve ever encountered.
I met him last October at PEN New England’s reception for Best American Short Stories 2006. Lynne and I went together, stood alone at first like groupies at a rock concert, pointing out the literati: Tom Perrotta, Ann Patchett, Michael Lowenthal, Scott Heim, Paul Yoon, Edith Pearlman, Mameve Medwed, and there, over by the bar, Atul Gawande. How my hands shook. I’d devoured his first book “Complications” three times over, his essays in the New Yorker and the New England Journal of Medicine, his first attempts at writing in Salon. I’d even sent him a charming note after reading his book and he wrote back, telling me about his work-in-progress, as if a surgeon, New Yorker staff writer, father of three didn’t have enough to do. Now he was standing across the room, a (cashmere?) scarf thrown carelessly around his shoulders. I spoke easily with the rest of the writers, but waited until Dr. Gawande was leaving before I had the nerve to gush to him.
Today I bought his second book, “Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance.” I didn’t expect to like it as much as “Complications,” but by page 3, I was in tears.
That’s how it is sometimes, isn’t it? There are writers who possess a certain voice on the page that entices and seduces, leaves us feeling as though we’ve shared an intimate moment. With Atul Gawande, his writing appears so effortless, casual and off-hand, yet he leaves his readers feeling as though he’s reached inside our bodies and wrung us through. I feel the same way when I read Gail Konop Baker’s columns on Literary Mama. There’s a frenetic energy there that bursts forth. My God, I actually burned my children’s dinner the other night rather than stop reading. She had me! Ever hear one of Maureen Corrigan’s book reviews on Fresh Air? Not only is it her actual voice that ensnares her listeners, it’s her writing. So few reviewers are as adept with the written word as she; whenever I hear her introduction, all activity around me must stop: the dishwasher, the clacking of the keyboard, even the children are silenced. She’s that good.
So how to be that good. Attention to craft, of course, careful reading across all genres, but mostly with care, I think. Each of these writers cares deeply, intently about their subject. Each word is carefully chosen, each sentence constructed, each and every paragraph ever so carefully designed with breaks in mind. I want to be that kind of writer.
No, it’s not that I’ve a crush on Atul Gawande, though it’s easy to understand my husband’s concern. It’s more that I want to be Atul Gawande.
Tuesday, April 17, 2007