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new england writers at work

Atul Gawande finds time between patients and family for writing

Atul Gawande in his office at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe
Atul Gawande in his office at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Atul Gawande, a surgeon and public health researcher, earned a MacArthur fellowship for the creative way he approaches the challenges of modern medicine in his best-selling books, scientific literature, and features he’s published in The New Yorker, where he is a staff writer. His fourth and latest book, “Being Mortal,” tackles how medicine treats the elderly and the dying. We met him in his offices in Kenmore Square, where he sneaks in writing time between meetings.

THIEF OF TIME: I write between meetings. I steal time on weekends, so that’s time stolen from my family. I steal time early in the morning. I try to leave 25 percent of my schedule so that it’s just for work. That might be taking care of a patient, or clinical stuff. Some of it is also for the writing I’m working on next. I’m working on a New Yorker piece now, and I just put in a little deposit every day — a little bit of writing or research or an interview.

ROUGH-DRAFT BOOK CLUB: I do constant rewriting. With a group of friends — they’re all writers — I do what I’ve grown to call the rough-draft book club. One of them suggested it when I did my first book. The only time when you can take criticism of a book is when it’s in the first draft stage, [because] you’re willing to throw away huge portions of it or completely redo it. When I’ve got a rough draft, ideally at the two-thirds point [of being finished], I go to New York where these friends are. I buy them cheap takeout dinner; we camp out in one of my friends’s apartments; and for three hours, they’ll tell me everything they liked and didn’t like about the book and what I need to change. That’s hugely pivotal. [What I give them] is always mediocre, and I’m trying to get it above mediocre. Then I go back and forth with the editor again and again. I would not have a good book at all if I did not have that kind of process.

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IN THE CLOUD: I write in composition books. I alternate between writing stuff out or writing on my laptop or on whatever computer is available. It’s all synched to the cloud, so wherever I am, I can write. I write in my cubicle, in my family room at home. I have an office at home, but I never use it.

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SWIMMING LAPS: There are three parts of writing for me: research, writing, and rewriting. I love doing research. I love trailing people around and interviewing them. When I’m in the writing phase, I have a harder time handling bustle. I’m up early in the morning, and on Sundays, my kids and wife have gone to church, and I haven’t. But I can do rewriting anywhere. It’s like swimming laps.

THE TRICK OF WRITING: I’m a really slow writer. I’m not a natural writer. David Remnick seems to be able to just write 8,000 words, but I overthink. I need to do all sorts of tricks not to get bogged down. I’ll pretend to be writing an e-mail that I’ll forward to myself. I’ll sit down with my composition book and write about why I’m stuck. It helps to not write all the time. If I had a whole day to write, I could easily spend the whole day writing one paragraph.

IMPOSTOR SYNDROME: I was going to be thrilled to sell 25,000 copies of my first book. I was a resident. I still thought of myself as someone doing writing as a hobby around the work I did as a surgeon. I know that sounds crazy, because at that point, I was a staff writer at The New Yorker, but I always felt as if I cheated, that I got in unfairly. I got to tell these bloody, gross stories that are inherently interesting about life and death and being a surgeon. I had an in, and it wasn’t quite fair. When I got the call telling me I was nominated for the National Book Award [for “Complications”], I was going into the operating room. I felt like my world had changed, and I couldn’t explain it to anybody. After the book, I realized that this was as much what I do as my life as a surgeon.

Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville. She can be reached eugenia.williamson@ gmail.com.