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‘Nobody dies from a misjudged semi-colon’



Sheffield GP Dr Jo Cannon always wanted to be an author – now, as her first collection of short stories is published, she has finally realised her ambition. Here she explains how life as an inner-city GP helped shape her writing…

In primary school, long before I decided to be a doctor, my ambition was to be an author. Failing this, I would be a show jumper – the horse, not the rider. The time came when I accepted I would never swish my tail in a show ring. But I didn’t relinquish the hope that one day I would write a book.

Insignificant Gestures, my short story collection which took five years to write, will be launched on 20 November.

Fifteen years ago I joined a group for GPs led by Gillie Bolton, an academic and writer. Gillie promoted writing as a therapeutic tool and an aid to professional development. We used writing to support one another and reflect on work problems. One of my poems, about the doctor-patient relationship, appeared in Gillie’s Reflective practice – writing and professional development.

My favourite exercise was to write from the point of view of a complex or perplexing patient. Writing, I became that individual in my imagination, and usually emerged with increased empathy and new ideas. But patients, like everyone else, lead messy lives. Meaning is hard to discern, and happy endings rare. An avid reader of novels, I knew I could invent better stories. Always prone to exaggeration and anecdote, I let my writing ‘homework’ stray further and further from reality. I loved the creative act of writing and wanted to share my efforts beyond our confidential group. About five years ago, I began to write short fiction. Encouraged by a writer friend, I submitted my work to magazines and competitions.

To my surprise, my first story won a competition. Since then, my fiction has been widely published in magazines and anthologies. I discovered the short story world: an enthusiastic community of writers I met at readings and events. When I had enough stories, validated by publication, for a collection, I ditched one third and rewrote the rest. Themes emerged, reflecting my preoccupations over the previous years, and, inevitably, my work as an inner-city GP. After a couple of rejections, my book was accepted by Pewter Rose Press.

As GPs, our patients trust us with their most profound experiences and emotions. Every day we listen as people re-order their personal narratives to make sense of their lives. We hear an incident or character described from different viewpoints. Over years, chapter by chapter, we watch stories unfold. There could be no better training for a writer.

Although not medical stories, most GPs will recognise the inspiration for my book. My doctor characters mostly witness, or play a walk-on part, in other people’s dramas. The GMC might balk if I plundered my patients’ lives for material, but I can use the insights that come with our work

I write for fun, and as meditation. I’ve met some lovely people in the writing world. Nothing is more relaxing, or further removed from the day job, than writing stories. Nobody dies from a misjudged semi-colon. I control how my characters behave; if I want them to stop smoking, they do. And the moment I learned, from an understated e-mail, that my book was to be published will remain one of the most thrilling of my life.

Dr Jo Cannon is a GP in Sheffield. You can visit her website at www.jocannon.co.uk.

Dr Jo Cannon Dr Jo Cannon ‘Insignificant Gestures’

Dr Jo Cannon’s first book ‘Insignificant Gestures’ is published on 20 November, and is available from the publisher Pewter Rose Press. It is also available from Amazon or Waterstones.

PulseToday will be publishing an extract from ‘Insignificant Gestures’ shortly.