Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Everything I need to know I learned in pathology: A tribute to Bob Rohner, MD

My entire life has been a quest to get educated, beginning in kindergarten (where my skills at napping were unparalleled) and right on through the CME (continuing medical education) course I took last week on mosquito-borne illnesses (sounds fascinating, right?). Along the way, I have had the pleasure of having many excellent teachers, and I dedicate this post to Bob Rohner, who taught human pathology at Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse, NY for 40+ years (and he did it with panache!)

Now that I have taken up the pen, I spend a lot of time thinking about the great communicators with whom I have crossed paths, and I ask myself what it is/was about her/him that made he/she such an effective communicator. Why? Because if you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball. And also because writing and teaching are really about communication. If I want to write/communicate better, then study the people who could communicate/teach.

Bob Rohner was such a teacher, and after some thought, I have deduced the four methods he used to ply his craft. In no order:

1) Variation. You have all had a teacher that lectured start to finish in the same droning montone, without so much as a sneeze to spice things up. That was not Dr. Rohner. He changed up everything: pace, tone, mannerisms, and CONTENT. He always started fast, with urgency in his voice and lots of gesticulating. But just as your adrenaline (or caffeine level) was dropping, he slowed it way down, stood stock still, and, almost whispering, told a quick story that was somehow pertinent to becoming a good doctor. It was almost impossible to loose focus in his class, no matter how late you stayed up.

Lesson for Peter Hogenkamp, the writer? Change things up, like pacing and sentence structure. Start fast, like Rohner, and then slow it down, throw in bits and pieces of unexpected levity, vary the content from narrative to dialogue, etc.

2) You cannot fake sincerity and passion. One of the reasons I loved Dr. Rohner so much is that he loved what he was doing, and cared deeply about the medical profession and doctoring. At some points he seemed actually desperate to fill us with the same passion for medicine that he carried each and every day. His passion was infectious because it was sincere, not contrived. Bob performed for us every day, but it was a performance that radiated from his soul, pouring out of him like lava from a erupting volcano.

This is a trickier lesson, but no less important. The writer has to be passionate about his or her writing, at all times: THERE IS NO FAKING IT. Just like the student can tell if the teacher is just going through the motions, the reader can likewise sense when the writer is just mailing it in. (Think about how many bad endings you have read--from good authors even. Ever get the sense they just wanted to hit the send button and be done with it?) Dr.Rohner never did that and neither should you.

3) Humor! Humor! Humor! I've said it before, and I'll say it again, there is almost no venue where humor does not win the day. And Dr. Bob was funny! Please keep in mind the subject material; human pathology is not the stand-up comic's stuff of dreams. But he made it funny, with brilliant asides, perfectly timed one-liners, and funny anecdotes when you needed it the most.

I write thrillers, and I have read hundreds of them as well. My favorite thriller authors (Daniel Silva, Alistair MacClean) are the ones that toss in small pieces of levity when you aren't expecting them--just like one of Rohner's quips right in the middle of a lecture about heart attacks.

4) Keep it short! Bob never went over, and he often ended early, storming out of the lecture hall, muttering that "you have all heard enough from me," or "I've taken too much of your time already."

The lesson to the writer here is obvious, but important. Less is more. Never use three words when one will suffice. Delete anything (word, sentence, paragraph, chapter etc.) that isn't essential to moving the story forward.

Ok, I've taken up too much of your valuable time already. Thanks again for your attention and loyalty, and please share the link to this blog on your favorite social media outlet. Don't forget about MY WEBSITE, and leave a comment, I always enjoy reading those.

ps And thanks Dr. Rohner, for teaching me about a lot more than pathology.