Growing the (Writing) Muscle: An Interview with Conor Mc Donnell

Conor Mc Donnell is a Staff Anesthesiologist at SickKids Hospital and Associate Professor in the Department of Anesthesiology & Pain Medicine at the University of Toronto. After completing the University of Toronto School for Continuing Studies Creative Writing Program in 2015, he published his first poems in 2016, his first chapbook in 2017, and his first poetry collection in 2021. His latest poetry collection, This Insistent List published by Mansfield Press, is out now.

Conor is also an alum of our Foundational Certificate in Narrative-Based Medicine. He sat down with our Creative Lead, Damian Tarnopolsky, to discuss writing, medicine, and making the two work together.

Damian: Can you tell us a little about your trajectory? How did you begin to work as a writer, in the context of your life as a physician? Or: why are you doing this?

Conor: Hmm, I guess the answer differs depending on the ‘audience’ and the way I’m facing. I would say I was always ‘creative’, but in my 30s I unintentionally put some important parts of myself aside in order to establish myself professionally and academically after emigrating to Canada.

When I decided I needed (not wanted) to return to creative pursuits, I decided I would write because I didn’t need anyone else to help me ‘finish’ a project; it’s just pen[cil], paper, me and time. I approached it in a very ‘academic’ way. I enrolled in U of T’s [School of Continuing Studies] Creative Writing Program which I knew would leave me with some sort of ‘end-product’ I could then begin to shop around and submit in the hopes of getting some publications.

Damian: Give us some professional advice. What do medico-literary people need to know about publishing their work and advancing as writers professionally?

Conor: Forget the medico, learn the literary. All the work has been done to become a physician and that’s great, but it does not give us the right to be published just because we are writing ‘what we know.’ The work will get published if it is written well; someone will eventually appreciate it and want to help share it further but in order to get to that place we need to put in the hard hours, for more than a few years.

For me that work is:

  1. Reading: Actual literature. Why do some books work while others don’t?
  2. Humility: Know that despite your accomplishments in your chosen field, you are joining the back of the queue in another field and you need to assume a humble stance while learning, practicing, submitting . . . speaking of . . .
  3. Get ready for rejection: As physicians we don’t usually ‘fail’ at things. Many physicians experience their first failure at a driving test! We are not used to it and we don’t like how it feels. However, you better get used to it. Not only will you be rejected repeatedly, you will most likely not even hear back from many places you submit to. Get used to the vacuum, enjoy the silence. Do the work, do the best you can, submit everywhere you can and move on to the next thing. If it finds a home it will come back to you.
  4. Have a few trusted ‘first readers’ that aren’t family or friends; people who aren’t going to tell you how great your writing is but people who are generous enough with their time to actually sit with your work, consider it and feedback to you honestly and constructively.
  5. When people do show an interest in your work, listen to them! Allow yourself to be edited, consider it a form of peer-review, something you are already used to. While it is important to retain a sense of creative ownership it is also important to collaborate and to allow other opinions on your work. Just because it’s your truth faithfully reproduced doesn’t mean it is above re-working …

Damian: What mistakes did you make along the way? What do you wish someone had told you?

Conor: I think I probably made all the mistakes I mention above. I was lucky enough to have an excellent mentor in Jim Johnstone and, to be honest, he did tell me all those things, but I think I was just extremely desperate to ‘succeed.’ For me, success was a book on a shelf with my name on the spine and I felt time, lack of talent, and everything else was working against me. Jim would say, “relax, it will happen, the work is good, it will find a home.” However, once that first book did land, I relaxed and set myself to things that were fun and tasks that were challenging. I began to collaborate with lots of people on various projects which is another thing I wished I had started earlier.

Oh, also, don’t be afraid to write ‘ugly.’ Just because you’re a physician doesn’t mean you can’t write transgressive, there is no law that says your work has to reflect the ethics of your practice or what you think people expect of you. J. G. Ballard was a physician . . .

Damian: A last word for those of us with jobs and/or families: Do you have any practical suggestions about making the time to write in the context of a busy or stressful life?

Conor: Life is a balancing act. Every plate spins at its own speed and each needs special attention. People seem to find 20 hours a week to drive their kids all over the city but can’t find 10 minutes in their day to write a few lines . . . to me that’s an excuse. Just like breathing, ALWAYS be writing. You are surrounded by phones, pads, laptops, paper, crayons etc., so you have the tools. If you hear something you like, write it down, even if it’s just a line. Move on, write the next thing, move on again, keep going, repeat. Writing is about thinking and feeling, not procrastinating over a colon versus a semi-colon, so do the heavy lifting, put in the hard hours, it’s the only way to grow the muscle.