Sharon Baltman is a Toronto-based physician psychotherapist who has travelled across Canada, the U.S., Africa, and Israel. Her articles have appeared in the Globe and Mail, on-air in First Person Singular on the CBC, and in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, among others. This fall, Baltman published Escape From the Bedside, a memoir about her experiences becoming a doctor in the early days of feminism, and why she chose to pursue narrative medicine. She whips back the curtain on outrageous moral dilemmas, knocking doctors off their pedestals. Her journey continues through tragic personal losses and betrayals, but she perseveres through her sense of humour and unwavering optimism. Baltman recently spoke to Bookclub-in-a-Box about her new memoir, which author and playwright Marianne Ackerman calls “a lesson in living” and “a deliciously good tale.”
CONTEST: Want to win a paperback copy of Sharon Baltman’s memoir? To enter, send your name and mailing address to laura [at] bookclubinabox.com by Wednesday, December 11. Good luck! (Open to residents of Canada only.) [UPDATE: This contest is now closed. Thanks to all who entered, and congratulations to our winner, Dorothy!]
I wanted to create a snapshot of how different it was in the ‘60s for a girl to attend medical school at a time when there were no female professors and only 20% of the class was women. From a historical perspective I wanted to highlight the enormous strides made by the feminist movement so the current situation for women is not taken for granted.
I wanted to reveal what goes on behind the scenes between colleagues. I document my long, difficult road learning to express my voice. My hope is that if a new graduate now finds herself working for an alcoholic boss as I did, she won’t just put up and shut up.
The second part of the book chronicles my personal stories, some tragic, some raunchy, to illustrate how impossible it is to completely compartmentalize the personal from the professional. If I hadn’t been a newly single mom at age 42, I wouldn’t have made the choice to volunteer as a psychotherapist in a remote clinic in Beit She’an, Israel.
You have worked as a general practitioner in the past, but you recently transitioned to something called “narrative medicine.” In your book, you describe it as “the field of work based on the importance of listening to the patient’s story—wherein the doctor does not ask the question: ‘Where is your pain?’ but rather inquires: ‘What do I need to know about you?’” Can you elaborate further on the practice of narrative medicine and how it differs from the work of a general practitioner?
In hindsight I can see that without knowing it, narrative medicine was my direction all along. My book explains how after graduating I found myself wanting to connect more with patients than time permitted in the emergency department or general practice. That fuelled my escape from the ‘Ivory Tower’ of the hospitals to listen closely to patients’ narratives in my own private psychotherapy practice, to help them make sense of their lives.
You self-published your book, a choice that is becoming more and more popular among authors. What made you decide to go this route as opposed to finding a traditional publisher?
I didn’t get as many rejections as J.K. Rowling, though it felt like it. Every editor has their own idea of how a story should be written. I realized I could proceed on my own terms while preserving my voice through self-publishing—first researching helpful blogs about every aspect of the process and then choosing one of the many e-book and print-on-demand services. I found the whole new world of self-publishing an exciting way to bring the personal to the masses.
Name the top things to avoid when self-publishing, and the best aspects of self-publishing.
Caution. Caution. Caution. It’s important to research, ask questions and check references. Out of desperation or determination, authors can end up paying a lot of money for help that may or may not materialize.
The advantages of self-publishing are having creative control over the various elements from content to cover design to copy editing, while maintaining copyright on your work.
What do you think are the similarities between writing non-fiction and writing fiction?
When I escaped from the bedside, the work I settled into was cognitive behavioural therapy, to teach patients concrete skills to recognize how their thoughts affect their feelings and the importance of finding a grey zone between the black and white extremes of life. There are similar grey zones when fiction writers draw from real life, and non-fiction writers create scenarios as they remember them, which is not always the way others experienced them. I once heard someone say that memory is what we can’t forget about a situation. If you ask my siblings, I’m sure they would say my stories happened otherwise.
What are some of your own favourite memoirs?
Rita Golden Gelman’s Tales of a Female Nomad. In 2001 she wrote about countries I visit in my memoir—India, Bali, Thailand, New Zealand, Israel. She stayed longer and lived like a local and powerfully drew me back there.
Miko Peled’s The General’s Son detailed the switch in his journey, after his niece was killed by a suicide bomber, from following his father’s military footsteps into becoming a peace activist. He clarified myths about the history of Israel and rather than fighting against the Palestinians, he is now clearly committed to working with them to create peace.
Escape From the Bedside is available through Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.