Monday, March 10, 2014

Sherwin Nuland's Life Lessons--and Writing Lessons

One week ago, Sherwin Nuland died.  He was such a wonderful writer.  About 12 years ago, I was on vacation with my folks, and my dad was reading How We Die.  I picked it up while they were out someplace else.  I thought I'd just read the chapter on cancer.  I couldn't put the book down.  My dad graciously let me have first dibs at the book, since he brought others to read, and he knew I'd be leaving soon.

It was a spell-binding book, and oddly comforting, which I didn't expect from a book about death. 

This week, NPR's On Being aired a repeat broadcast of their interview with Nuland.

When I was listening to the show, I was struck by the writing advice, particularly this bit:  "Do you know what I learned from writing that book, if I learned nothing else? The more personal you are willing to be and the more intimate you are willing to be about the details of your own life, the more universal you are."

He talks about how he came to write his best-selling, award winning, How We Die:

"What actually happened was that the phone rang one day and a man on the other end said that he was a literary agent and there was a book that he thought needed to be written and  he had been looking around for someone to write it. And several editors in New York mentioned my name because I had written some stuff. And the book he said was to be called How We Die.  . . .   He presented the idea, presented the title, he said do realize you know no one really knows what happens when we die? And I said that’s silly, it must be in medical textbooks. Well, to shorten this story as much as I can, no, it wasn’t in any textbook. And here are families and here are dying people living through this 'terra incognita' and I could even spell terra T-E-R-R-O-R- because it is indeed a terrifying terra. Not knowing what to expect the next day and thinking everything is out of control as the body deteriorates, as the mind deteriorates, and wouldn’t it be wonderful if people really understood what to expect and knew that as bad as things were this is the way you die, of cancer, or of heart disease, or of stroke, this is — if we can use that word in that sense — it’s normal. And I though that would be very reassuring to people because my experience in medicine had been that if I told a surgical patient just what to expect, he could tolerate pain much better, he could tolerate drainage and discomforts and diarrhea because he knew that was supposed to happen and that was okay. So why shouldn’t that be true of the months and weeks before death. And that seemed like a noble cause when he suggested that I write such a book. So I agreed to do it and both he and I were surprised at the book that was written."

I was struck by the accidental nature of how he came to write the book.  I'm taking away from Nuland's experience that we should always be open to possibilities, even if they weren't the ones we were expecting.

The interview is also full of all sorts of science facts that trigger my sense of  awe and wonder:  "Here we are with our 75 trillion cells. It's been estimated there are about 4 million cell divisions every single second. You're working so hard while you're sitting here. And when cells divide, of course it's impossible for the DNA to replicate perfectly each time, so little mistakes are made. You know, this is how mutations arise. The DNA repair enzyme is a molecule. It's a complex molecule. It travels like a little motorboat up and down the DNA molecule. It finds errors, snips them out, corrects them, and puts the right thing back in there. This is the ultimate wisdom of the body."

He concludes in this hopeful way:

"Well, I like to think that if people really understand the way their brains work, they would be as overwhelmed with wonder as some of us are, and would have a completely different sense of the human organism and its potentialities and would try to live up to its greatest potentialities."

It may be time to return to his books.  I haven't read them in over a decade.  Maybe I'll pick them up again.  He's a masterful thinker and writer, and I sense he has much to teach us, both about our bodies and about how to put together a spell-binding book.

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