Interview with Damian Tarnopolsky

Interview with Damian Tarnopolsky

Damian Tarnopolsky, Barbara Moon-Ars Medica Editorial Fellow completed his term at Massey College. Barbara Marzario, Junior Fellow, talked to him about Massey College, his fellowship and his work.

BM: Many thanks for sitting down this afternoon to discuss your recent term as the Barbara Moon-Ars Medica Editorial Fellow at Massey College. Before we delve into your experiences, can you briefly describe the fellowship – the nature of the role and its background?

DT: When people at Massey asked me who I was and what I was doing, I’d say “I’m the Editorial Fellow,” and they’d say “One of the Journalism Fellows?” and I’d explain that no, it’s a slightly different thing. And then they’d say, “So you’re the Writer-in-Residence,” and I’d say no, not exactly…. So it’s nice to have this opportunity to publicize the role. There aren’t too many Editors in Residence around the country, so this is an unusual and significant venture, all the more so because it has a unique interdisciplinary twist. Massey College and the Health, Arts, and Humanities Program at the University of Toronto jointly support the Barbara Moon Editorial Fellowship with the aim of bringing together medicine and the humanities in productive ways.

Barbara Moon was a brilliant editor at Saturday Night magazine and the CBC – and a Quadrangle Society member – and this fellowship was endowed in her memory by her husband Wynne Thomas. One of the aims of the Fellowship is to bring to light the significance of the work of editing and the contribution that the editorial profession makes to literature and journalism, a role that’s often hidden or misunderstood. What makes this Fellowship especially interesting is the collaboration with the University of Toronto’s Health, Arts, and Humanities Program, which aims to enhance the teaching and practice of medicine through contact with and exploration of the humanities. So the Barbara Moon Editorial Fellowship includes a couple of other components: organizing a seminar or event that brings exploration of the themes of literature and medicine to the wider community, and, principally, facilitating a creative workshop for students from all 11 clinical disciplines at the University of Toronto.

BM: What are the specific aims of the workshop?

DT: One of the central expectations of the teaching aspect of the Fellowship is to increase reflectiveness in health professional students. It builds off of the idea embraced by the Health, Arts, and Humanities Program that students from the clinical disciplines become better clinicians through reflective and creative self-expression. We’re trying to give them the practical tools to do this. In this sense we’re aiming to make better physicians, but we’re also trying to make better writers. There’s a long tradition within medicine of the physican-writer – think of Chekhov, Somerset Maugham, or today, people like Vincent Lam and Kevin Patterson. To a degree, we’re following their lead, and giving younger practitioners the means to follow them.

BM: Could you describe what happened, week by week?

DT: The precise nature of the workshop depends on the professional background of the Fellow in a given term. Previous Fellows have focused the sessions more on the connections between journalism and medicine, say, or poetry and criticism. As I’m a fiction writer by trade, I decided to focus on creative writing. I gave the members of the group some guidance and tools and readings, and lectured a little on the art of characterization or the importance of setting, and so on, and set some more or less complicated writing exercises. I invited guest speakers to come and present different options within literature such as poetry and creative non-fiction, as well as representatives from the fields of editing and publishing.

BM: When I attended the workshop I was taken aback by the courage shown by my fellow students in sharing their deeply personal writing for the first time in a group setting, and the great care, sensitivity, and respect with which they responded to each other’s work. I admired how people approached each workshop and did not engage in empty cheerleading but created a safe space where work could be constructively critiqued and writing skills developed and honed. What was your reaction to working with this group of health professional and humanities students?

DT: It was incredibly interesting to lead this group, and incredibly fulfilling. The students are very smart, very focused and very diligent. Unlike the majority of students I work with, most of the Storytelling Workshop participants came from a non-literary background. I’ve taught writing before but not to a group like this: I was fascinated each week to be reading stories and poems and works that were influenced from such intense experiences, coloured by such different expressive intents. It made the Colin Friesen Room a very interesting place to be on Wednesday evenings. I learned from the people in the course, and I admire their willingness to try something different, to stretch themselves and engage in personal exploration through their creative writing, to do something outside their comfort zones and take risks. It speaks highly of these students and their nerve, interest, and motivation in creative writing and narrative medicine.

BM: Another component of the Fellowship is hosting an event of interest to the writing-health communnity. This past November, you hosted the panel discussion Slipping Up: Editing and Error in Medicine and Literature. What led you to explore this topic?

DT: It was a challenge to develop and host an event that would be of interest to the community at large and foster a conversation between diverse disciplines. I thought about what experiences  and problems are common to them and came up with the subject of error. Essentially, the panel explored how writers and editors, and physicians and patients, experience, think about and respond to error. My inspiration for this topic stemmed from reflecting on how lessons from editing and clinical practice tend to overlap with each other and how we can share and learn from not only our mistakes but from each other. The speakers were Dr. Liam Durcan, Neurologist-in-Chief at the McGill University Health Centre and an Assistant Professor of Neurology at McGill University (and the acclaimed author of a novel and book of short stories), and Martha Kanya-Forstner, an editor for Doubleday Canada for the past fifteen years, who has worked closely with writer-physicians like Vincent Lam, James Orbinski, and James Maskalyk.

What was so special about these speakers was their intimate experience with both literature and medicine: Liam Durcan talked about the different kinds of mistakes physicians make, looking at different career stages and different kinds of practice, and linked them to his own experiences as a fiction writer. Martha Kanya-Forstner discussed the collaborative aspects of reducing error in a publishing context, and told some wonderful stories about times where the errors slipped through regardless.

BM: As an Editor-in-Residence, you’ve had ample opportunity to immerse yourself in College life at Massey. How have you engaged with the Massey Community during your Fellowship?

DT: Being the in-house editor has been an educational and rewarding experience too. I’ve worked mostly with Junior Fellows, as well as some Alumni and Quadranglers who come to my office seeking editing help and advice. The nature of that assistance varies. It’s ranged from helping students stuck in the middle of a particularly troublesome Ph.D. thesis chapter, to proof reading law school application letters. I’ve given general guidance on the academic writing process, helped professors trim academic articles for journal submission, and worked with authors who are developing proposals into non-fiction books. I also set up a more informal creative writing workshop to give members of the college a place to share their stories and poems. I wasn’t expecting to be so busy with the editorial aspect of the Fellowship, but it’s been a privilege to work with some extremely gifted scholars around the College – and I suppose it’s true that every writer, no matter how brilliant, benefits from another pair of eyes looking over their work.

BM: Your appointment as the Barbara Moon-Ars Medica Fellow is not your first experience being part of the Massey College community. Can you comment on how, or if, your time as a non-resident Junior Fellow influenced your experience at Massey College this time around?

DT: Massey College is a welcoming place and a very rewarding and pleasurable environment in which to live and work. It’s impossible to have a boring lunch here, because you inevitably find yourself sitting next to someone who enriches your day, and can tell you about the details of a field you’ve never heard of. Though sometimes it may be in a foreign language – I found myself accidentally sitting at the German table a few times, and not having much clue what was going on. It was an interesting time to come back to the College, and see the beginning of one of its periods of transition, as the new Master’s influence is felt alongside the College’s always developing traditions. Having known the College as a Junior Fellow allowed me to get started with my work and hit the ground running, so to speak. It was an especially good thing for me personally to come back because, looking back on my time as a Junior Fellow, I felt I hadn’t taken full advantage of the complete Massey experience or enjoyed every opportunity as fully as I could. As the Barbara Moon Editorial Fellow, I was very aware of wanting to contribute and give back to a place that had been significant to me. This is part of the reason why I took the approach I did in my fulfillment of the Fellowship duties, knowing that the way this place works is that the more you put in to College life, the more you get out of it.

BM: It’s been a pleasure speaking with you Damian. What’s next for you and what’s next for the Barbara Moon-Ars Medica Editorial Fellowship?

DT: Well, I will go back to my day job of writing and editing. I’m working on a new novel, teaching, and working on various editorial projects. As for the Fellowship, a call for applications for the 2015 Barbara Moon-Ars Medica Editorial Fellow will be made in the spring.