Forging Flash Fiction from a Medical Memoir

Model of the cervical spine with a cervical anterior plate.

If you are reading this post, you probably know where I disappeared to from May to August. Yes, it was that mythical book I’ve been working on for my retired neurosurgeon client. Well, the good news is that, after pumping out the last ten chapters in those three months, the manuscript flew off to the publisher ten days ago. Now I wait on the old tenterhooks for the verdict: Is it engaging? Is it good? Is it well written or screamingly pedestrian? Am I really done with the thing? We shall find out soon!

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog and on my old blog, Memoir Crafter, about my experience as a ghostwriter for the above mentioned surgeon. What an amazing journey it has been. I am not a religious person—I leave that to my twin sister, Sister Sara Marie Belisle—but I can’t help but marvel at my good fortune. Four years ago I wondered how I could ever leave my day job to write. Then, out of the blue, a completely unforeseen opportunity. Now, I have two complete 90,000–word manuscripts under my belt, the first a version of the book as life story, and the second a more commercial medical memoir.

I have missed my practice of flash fiction, however, and having had the pleasure of stopping in at Carrot Ranch again after months “on the trail,” I want to use this week’s challenge to flash a scene from the book. From the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge page:

August 17, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that features a fossil or uses the word in its variant forms (fossilize, dino bones, petrification, gastroliths, ichnofossils, etc.). Dig into your imagination and go where the fossil record leads you.


My first urge was to create a fresh flash about real fossils or petrified wood or bones, but then it occurred to me to lift a line I was particularly fond of from a draft of my client’s story.

Here’s the back story: My client is a world-renown spinal neurosurgeon recognized not only for his many contributions to spinal neurosurgery—including patents on wiring, plates and other instrumentation that he was “instrumental” in designing—but also for his leading role in the fight to have spinal neurosurgery recognized as a sub-specialty in its own right. That latter achievement, many people say, was his primary contribution. Because up until the 1980s, aside from cervical trauma cases, spinal surgery remained largely the domain of orthopedic surgeons, not neurosurgeons. In the late 1980s, however, with technical advances emerging, a turf war broke out between the two medical communities: the bone docs and the brain docs.

A confrontation between an orthopedic surgeon and my client, the pioneering neurosurgeon,  became the impetus for a chapter in the new version of the book. I wish I could reproduce that scene here to show you how I whittled it down to a flash. (You can see it when the book comes out near the end of the year.) I think it well illustrates how flash can be used as an editing tool. Suffice it to say that this section was originally 438 words.


A Half-Excavated Fossil

The whine of the drill got the orthopedist’s attention. He was chiseling a shard of bone from the patient’s hip while I worked at the neck where the dislocation was.

“What are you doing?” he said.

“I’m putting plates in.”

He stepped up, peered into the cavity where the spine rose from the tissue like a half-excavated fossil. “Why?” he said. “Wires work perfect for the fusion.”

“The plates will work better.”

He pivoted away, ripping off his gloves.

“Take me off the op note,” he said, striding towards the door. “I want nothing to do with this case.”

12 thoughts on “Forging Flash Fiction from a Medical Memoir

  1. Congratulations on finishing the manuscript, Jeanne. I wish you success with the publisher. It sounds like an interesting memoir.
    I wasn’t too keen on the photograph (I could never be a nurse or doctor) but your flash is brilliant. It shows the discord between the two branches of medicine. How wonderful that your doctor was able to bring them together. There’s a good hint of that in your flash.

    1. Hi Norah and thanks for stopping by! I had only a cursory interest in medical topics when I took this project on, and the first version was more of a rags to riches story of immigrant German boy makes it big in medicine. But once I started in on the rewrite, I began to really wander the Internet for images and YouTube videos and text too on the different procedures. I felt like I had an intensive training myself. What an amazing learning opportunity. I admit, I became fascinated with the surgeries. I found the research on cadavers a bit off-putting though 🙂 And of course I appreciate your comments on the flash. The book describes at length the kind of nasty turf wars that exist between surgical sub-specialties. Will be back at Carrot Ranch to read your post and flash.

  2. Wow! And welcome back after your diligent focus to complete a second manuscript (and I think this is going to be one heck of a modern medical memoir, definitely commercial). That photo balances out what kind of arrogant confidence one must have to even attempt such a feat! No common confidence could suffice. And yes, it does look like a fossil in matrix. Pass along my gratitude to the Good Doc you wrote for. I have spinal issues and felt orthos were wrong for my situation because they are bone docs and I had nerve issues. I am grateful for all three of my neurosurgeons, and knock on petrified wood, no fusions, yet. That flash speaks to me on so many level. Brilliant writing.

    1. You can imagine, Charli, how much I learned about the spine, especially the cervical spine, while writing this second version of the book. A major conflict throughout the narrative was the fight to have neurosurgeons even operate on the spine, as I mentioned. The “orthopods” wanted a monopoly on the spine. A very nasty turf war ensued, but in the end, yes, the fact that neurosurgeons deal with all the neural pathways from the occiput to the sacrum won the day. (Showing off some of what I learned here.) Of course, there has been a lot of criticism, too, on the over-eagerness of both orthos and neurosurgeons to operate on the spine, which we touch on in a later chapter. And so happy you have avoided a fusion, since there are still so many things that can go wrong. Still, absolutely amazing the strides they have made. I hope you read it when it comes out. Oh…and yeah, the arrogance. A senior NS once described the docs as “a bunch of wild men and egomaniacs.”

  3. I love the flash Jeanne! I laughed out loud. It’s a brilliant manuscript you’ve written, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I’m the audience, and I know this! I can’t wait to see it published. I’ll be the first to buy it. You’re a very talented writer, and that’s a difficult art to master. I think it’s an important story to tell, and you mastered it. I can’t wait until you get your next contract!!!!!

    1. Of course you (my brilliant reader) are among the very select few who have read the entire manuscript and who will recognize the scene I flashed here. You know how I appreciate your comments on my writing (I’ll come and read this one next time I feel discouraged!) and that you recognized the importance of the story has bolstered me through the process. As for buying the book, fugedaboutit … you are first on my list of complimentary copies! Oh, and still glowing from your hospitality yesterday…

  4. Congratulations on completing this project, Jeanne, and hope the publisher likes it. The flash was great, I think a lot of surgeons have big egos so not surprising they clashed on this!

    1. Thanks Anne! I am hoping to have time to read some of my favorite blogs now, yours included.(Must go back and find your review on Alain de Botton. I loved his How Proust Can Save Your Life!)I got great feedback from the publisher this last week, which was a relief. Feeling sort of lost now, wondering which writing project to do next. As for the surgeons, writing this book was a huge eye opener. Pretty amazing some of the stuff that goes on behind doors.

  5. Ten years ago I had major surgery on my arm which resulted in my having a metal bar inserted in my upper arm to help fix the very damaged bone. After the operation the surgeon showed me an x-ray of my arm. Apparently my reaction was unique, but then I am an archaeologist.

    “That’s fascinating, I am going to have to be buried now, if I am ever dug up the arm will be great in the finds report.”

    1. Ahh, I am not an archaeologist but I have the same impulse. Perhaps it is having grown up with a mother and multiple aunts in the nursing profession; I don’t know. But I love to see my own x-rays and scans. I recently had my first cardiogram and found the sight of my own heart pumping truly engaging. I never really knew how much I enjoyed medical topics, though, until I took the plunge and agreed to write the spinal neurosurgeon’s book. For a year I was on YouTube watching videos of cervical fusions and discectomies and brain surgeries, even cadaver dissection. As for your arm, should the cemetery be disturbed by a natural disaster, your family will be able to locate you–or at lest your arm–with a metal detector. Thanks for stopping by Gordon!

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