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Yale 62

A Writer’s Journey

By Ed Rowan

The practice of medicine and the art of creative writing don’t usually go together, but there have been exceptions.  Burton Rouché’s Eleven Blue Men (1963) and Oliver Sacks’ The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat (1985) were collections of short stories about medical mysteries. I knew that I would never have caseloads like theirs to write about, but I did know that I wanted to write.

As an undergraduate, I wrote a few pieces for the Yale Record, the oldest college humor magazine in the country.  One titled “That Special Someone” was praised by the Yale Daily News as “a wonderful take on the all too typical New Yorker story with no beginning, no ending, and nothing in between.”  My first review provided positive reinforcement for writing.

I edited the annual literary magazine and the senior yearbook while I was in medical school. The latter would have been a much bigger deal in high school than it was eight years later. I wrote a thesis for my master’s degree as part of my residency at Ohio State.  The most I can say about Judgment and Reasoning in Schizophrenic Art was that it was double-spaced, the margins were correct, and there were no typos.

I didn’t write seriously until I started my first real job at the University of Illinois. There, I had dual appointments in the Student Health Service and the Department of Physical Education. “Publish or perish” was not required. Nevertheless, still using a yellow pad and a portable typewriter, I did manage to put together two case studies. “Psychophysiologic disorders of micturition,” a fancy term to describe guys who were too anxious to pee in public bathrooms, was published by the Journal of the American College Health Association. “Phantom boarders as a symptom of late paraphrenia” was a study of demented patients who thought that people were living in their attics or outhouses.  This was based on work on the local psychiatric ward, not with university students, and was published in the American Journal of Psychiatry. I think they really liked the title because it appeared in subsequent promotional pieces.

My academic career continued at the Dartmouth Medical School, an appointment, I believe, which was due more to my already having a New Hampshire license than it was to my research or writing prowess.  When he needed someone to teach a segment on human sexuality, the department chairman remembered my résumé, noted that I had written a paper about urination, thought that was close enough, and gave me the job.  I then had to read a lot about sex, an appropriate follow-up to my having had a stash of Playboy magazines under my mattress when I was an adolescent.

I was always interested in sex, but I had also been a collector of Boy Scout memorabilia for many years.  I had just started what would become a 19-year run as editor and principal writer for Scout Memorabilia, a journal about Scouting history and collectibles, and was fascinated by the ways the authors of the Scout handbooks had always avoided straight talk about sex. The result was an editorial for the Journal of Sex Education, “Masturbation According to the Boy Scout Handbook.”  This caught the attention of a publisher in New York City who wanted a whole book about masturbation.  My mother-in-law thought that the topic might take only a paragraph or two, but I persisted and finished the manuscript on a slow boat to New Zealand where I had a job offer I could not refuse as director of a forensic psychiatric unit. After printing the manuscript neatly on a word processor, I sent it off to New York. Unfortunately, the publisher rejected it because it wasn’t Darwinian enough, but I did get to keep the advance.

Fortunately, in New Zealand I found a proper Darwinian explanation in a new British book called Human Sperm Competition by Robin Baker. (This book was later published in the United States as Sperm Wars, clearly a cultural difference.) Masturbation allows the body to rid itself of tired old sperm and to top up the seminal vesicles with fit young sperm at the front of the queue, so that they could then compete successfully to fertilize an egg.  My wife and I had taken a workshop with Bill Hartman and Marilyn Fithian, the West Coast equivalents of Masters and Johnson, and Bill Hartman liked Judy, and me by proxy.  He put in a good word with Vern Bullough, the sexuality editor at Prometheus, and they published the book, although they rejected my suggested title of Beyond Friction and instead, called it Joy of Self-Pleasuring. The book was translated into Spanish and German.

Ed Rowan

Non-fiction appeared to be my métier, so, retired and back in the United States three years later, I focused on a Scouting question that had bothered me for years.  James E. West, the first Chief Scout Executive from 1910 to 1943 was barely mentioned by the organization. I wondered why.  Research showed him to have been autocratic, chauvinistic, and racist, as was the organization at that time. Little wonder that they tried to forget him.  So I wrote To Do My Best: James E. West and the History of the Boy Scouts of America. Although the Boy Scouts do not promote or sell the book, it is listed as a resource in the Scouting Heritage merit badge pamphlet.  It has also been popular enough to require a second printing.  It led to a request from another publisher to develop a book about the women who had influenced Baden-Powell, the founder of Scouting.  This was supposed to be part of an official Scout series as was a revised West book, but the whole project was cancelled by the next national Scout administration.  I kept that advance as well, and the book was published anyway as Mothers of Scouting. Unfortunately, the new publisher went out of business, the book was never promoted, and I was left with several hundred copies.

It did seem a shame to waste professional medical expertise completely after I retired, so I joined the American Medical Writers Association. I stopped at the University Press of Mississippi booth at an annual meeting in New Orleans, and subsequently agreed to write Understanding Child Sexual Abuse for their Understanding series.  This was based on the four-factor model of sexual arousal, emotional congruence, blockage, and disinhibition. I had used this model in several papers including those about other paraphilias and women who molested children.  It stands as my only significant contribution to the field.  Sexual arousal means cultural or familial conditioning to being “turned on” by children. Emotional congruence denotes a level of comfort and satisfaction in relating to a child.  Blockage indicates a lack of adult sexual relationships, and disinhibition is a loss of control, either acutely or chronically. The publisher did edit out my observation that some bishops condoned sexual misconduct by priests because they had been part of the same seminary culture.  That charge may have been too controversial at the time, but it probably would not have been edited out today. The small royalty check I still receive each year reinforces my desire to publish, and the book also won the Solimene Prize for Excellence in Medical Communication.

A second proposal for Understanding Schizophrenia was turned down because the series was being cancelled.  People had started going to the web for medical information rather than to books, and that publisher did not provide web content.

At that point, I started a project that would take parts of the next ten years.  I had read in the Boston Globe about a doctor being tried for the murder of his wife in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and realized that he had been a classmate at Yale.  Despite several visits with him

in prison and eventual access to the trial transcript, I was unable to convince any agent or publisher to accept a book proposal. It was old news, or too local, or I hadn’t discovered anything new to overturn the conviction.  Despite writing three different proposals, I still found no takers – win some, lose some.

The Boston Globe also provided me with an interesting writing opportunity when I saw an article about the annual meeting of the Speckled Band of Boston, a group dedicated to the proposition that Sherlock Holmes actually existed.  I contacted the person named in the article and was invited to the next meeting, thereby introducing Yale blue into a sea of Harvard crimson.  One has to present a learned paper for acceptance, so I submitted “Sherlock Holmes and Scouting.”  The best paper each year wins the Sherlock Holmes Prize Bowl.  That first year, mine did not, but this became a personal quest, and, with five tries, I won the bowl twice, for “CSI Baker Street” and “Amazing Coincidences in the Deductions of Dr. Joseph Bell and Mr. Sherlock Holmes.”  I’m finally satisfied.

I did work as a part-time editor, primarily of scientific papers originally written in Chinese and translated by someone for whom English was not their first language, or by a computerized translation program.  I still printed out the papers, edited with a pen, and then went back and edited electronically. Many of these studies reminded me of my own weak research efforts, but I helped get those papers published anyway. Unfortunately, the company went out of the editing business to focus on “big data,” whatever that is.   With so many ways to fail, this journey has been a testimonial to the truth of that longstanding piece of advice to aspiring writers, “Don’t give up your day job.”

A writers’ group is a source of inspiration and constructive criticism. Our group at the local library provided the opportunity to produce something each month.  That plus prompts in various writing workshops have resulted in multiple short memoir pieces and travelogues, a more-or-less chronological history of eighty years of me, which I am finally gathering together in a format which will not leave me with hundreds of copies in the attic.  With maturity, evolving technology, and  someone to coach me in self-publishing on Amazon,  I shall continue to write, although still hopelessly 2G in a 5G world.

 

We welcome your comments below.

3 comments to A Writer’s Journey

  • Lee Bolman

    Ed,

    Your sense of humor and writing flair are still intact, which bodes well for your memoir.

    You might find it worthwhile to join the Authors Guild if you haven’t already—you’re eligible for regular membership (at $135/year) with a published book (https://www.authorsguild.org/join/). The all-members forum is a hive of questions and commentary about the ins and outs of self-publishing and the feelings of love/hate that many self-published authors have about Amazon.

    Lee

  • Wyllys Terry

    Delightful reading, Ed. Thanks.
    My better half says how about masturbation from a women’s point of view!
    Wyllys

  • Roger Lauer

    Ed,

    You have been imaginative and relentless in your literary journey. I loved reading about it. Your comments about Bill Hartman and Marilyn Fithian brought back my own memories of them.

    Roger

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