Taking the Write Path

Medicine is a noble pursuit, but I'd rather be doctoring paragraphs.

November/December 2000

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Taking the Write Path

James Steinberg

From the first day I set foot on the Stanford campus, I thought my future was in medicine. And I was not alone.

More than 70 percent of freshmen enter Stanford declaring plans to pursue a career in the medical field, a statistic that, while overwhelming, has always made me laugh. Where but at the Farm would you hear dormmates say, "If all else fails, I can always go to med school?"

The truth is I had a compelling reason to become a physician. My father is a doctor. I used to go on rounds with him, traveling to rural towns in Wisconsin, watching as he treated his patients with precision and compassion. He had a remarkable way of approaching people on their own terms: he'd listen to the radio on the way to Darlington or Monroe and learn the news about that season's harvest so that he could speak to an overweight farmer about something other than heart clots or angioplasties. I admired my father's selflessness and believed that few professions could be as noble as his.

Then, in the winter quarter of my sophomore year, I enrolled in English 90--Fiction Writing. And for the first time in a year and a half, I began to neglect my pre-med studies. It was something I did almost unknowingly. I'd work on a story for three or four days straight before noticing that the binding on my chemistry textbook remained unbroken. What I didn't realize at the time, though, was that my stories were truly abominable pieces of fiction. I remember the first one I wrote. It was about an old woman lying on her deathbed, speaking to her pregnant daughter about the secrets of life and the mysteries of heaven. Probably not the best choice of material for a 19-year-old male.

Another thing I overlooked those first few months was just how much fun I was having. There was never an epiphany, never a Zen moment in the Main Quad when I realized that I wanted to be a writer. Writing snuck up on me. At the time, I wouldn't have been able to tell you why. Only later did I realize that my motivation for writing stories was something of a paradox: in fiction, I could be myself. For years, I had written academic essays using someone else's words--someone who had an affinity for highbrow language, alliteration and parallel structure. What's worse, each paper was a shadow of the last--the same essay in style and structure, the same false voice.

In fiction, I could opt for a simpler vocabulary. I could tell stories using my own voice, my own words. Every now and then, I would stumble onto a sentence that rang true and sounded like music. And each time I did, I came closer to discovering what it is I love about writing: the beauty in a simple phrase.

By the middle of my junior year, I clearly had a decision to make--choosing between something I had planned on and prepared for all my life and something that gave me a level of satisfaction I had previously never known. Just a year after taking English 90, I called my parents, told them I was dropping pre-med and wept with relief.

I hope that in describing my own journey away from a career in medicine I don't sound like a stereotypical humanities student who dismisses the sciences as readily as he praises the arts. My admiration for those dedicated to the medical field runs deep. But my experience has convinced me that the tiny voice whispering in the back of the head of an uncertain student, pleading for a chance to explore another path, is a voice worth listening to.

Andrew Hinderaker, ’01, is an English/creative writing major from Madison, Wis.

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