By Josh Katzowitz, WCI Content Director
Stephanie Benjamin has the mind of a physician. She’s an ER doc living in San Diego, and since she’s a member of California’s disaster response team, she’s been awfully busy the past few years with the COVID-19 pandemic and has been deployed several times to help run the state’s busiest field hospital.
Benjamin, though, has the heart and soul of a writer. In 2018, she published her memoir, Love, Sanity or Medical School (an Audible version of the book is scheduled to be released in May), and she has an impressive resume as a writer and a satirist, publishing pieces for the New York Times, Chicken Soup for the Soul, KevinMD, and GomerBlog. She’s written journals since she was in kindergarten. A writer is who she’s always been.
I chatted with her over Zoom recently, where we talked about revealing her personal life in her memoir, how devastating it was to re-read it a number of years later, how to write satire, and if she’ll ever be an overnight success.
Here’s my conversation with Benjamin, lightly edited and condensed.
Josh Katzowitz: I started reading your book a couple of days ago, and my goal was to get to page 100 before we talked so you would know, “Hey, at least Josh put some time into it before we chatted.” Well, this morning, I got to page 105. So, yay for me. I’m really enjoying it. But let’s start with this: Writing books can be so soul-sucking and yeah, rewarding. But it’s so much work. Why did you decide to write a book about your third year of medical school?
Stephanie Benjamin: I’ve kept journals forever—since I was in kindergarten. I’ve always had hand-written journals, and I had two goals in life: to be a doctor and to be a writer. I kept hearing the third year was the worst year of medical school, where you go from being a happy, idealized person to being jaded and cynical. I thought, why don’t I try to capture that. For a year, I carried an iPad with me in my white coat pocket, and I wrote everything around me. The events were just as much of a surprise to me as it is to the readers. It was pretty therapeutic, but when I went back and edited it and had to relive it, it was pretty torturous.
JK: Ooh, I can imagine. What was the timeline from when you wrote it to when you were having to edit it and relive all the bad stuff?
SB: It took me four years after that to edit and have it published.
JK: I’ve kept a blog of the moment I knew my wife was having twins. I’ve been doing that for more than a decade. And occasionally, I’ll go back and read about their first year of life or some other times where I’ve felt like I was struggling as a father. You don’t even realize that you’ve forgotten so much about what happened, even stuff where at the time you think, “I’ll never forget this.” It’s very revealing to go back and read your old writing.
SB: It was pretty amazing how much I had forgotten. So much was happening that year, and part of it was that I blocked it out. So much of it was nice to remember. Some of it was pretty hard to relive, especially with a [romantic] relationship going bad. Just the embarrassment that I wrote down that I did all these things. When I was editing it, it was really hard not to change what I wrote, to not make myself look better in those situations.
JK: Have you heard of Jim Bouton?
SB: No, I haven’t.
JK: Well, he wrote this classic book Ball Four. It’s actually one of my favorites. He was a major league pitcher in the 1950s and 60s and he wrote this controversial book, where he wrote about the 1969 season when he played with this expansion team in Seattle. During the season, he would take notes in kind of the way you did it when you were in medical school—gonzo-style journalism, jotting down things as they happen. He obviously used a notebook and pencil, not an iPad. He said at some point the secret got out that he was writing a book and his teammates would either tell him to leave them alone or they’d come over to him and say, “Hey, I’ve got something great for the book.” Did your fellow students know what you were doing?
SB: People knew I was writing a book. It was initially supposed to be about medical school, and my personal life was not going to be in it. But I couldn’t separate the two. As my personal life was imploding, my life and medical school were so intertwined. I didn’t advertise I was writing a book. But I was with my classmates 20 hours a day, so by the end, everybody knew. I tried to be respectful of their lives. Everybody was de-identified. I tried to include these stories only if it was specifically related to me. I really tried to focus on my own story. I didn’t want to reveal anything about them. I gave all of my good friends, the main characters, a chance to read any section where their name or character appears. I said I would delete or change any scene they didn’t like, no questions asked. That included my mentor and all of my friends. The only two I didn’t give the opportunity to was my ex and one other character.
JK: Did anybody object to anything?
SB: Nope. They’re really the heroes of the book. They got me through the year. Nothing, they felt, was crossing the line.
JK: Did your ex know that you were writing at the time?
SB: He did.
JK: How was it trying to navigate that as you guys were going through a breakup?
SB: He knew I was always journaling. He knew I was always writing. I don’t know if he knew that it would ever be published or how it would be received. I’m assuming he knows about it. But I don’t even know where he works. I don’t know where his path led him.
JK: Your writing style is fun. But it’s interesting—and this might be a nerdy writer-type conversation. Sometimes in the book, you’re very direct, talking about your breakup and your sex life. And other times, you make these little asides, these little hints of things, and then move on. You’re mentioning something about being mostly straight or about how you might have a 100% fatal hereditary disease and then you immediately change the subject. Was this you being mysterious on purpose, or was it some kind of dichotomy between that and almost oversharing? Was that a purposeful thing you did, or was that just kind of an accident? Either way, it’s an intriguing way to write.
SB: Both of those topics you mentioned are revisited later in the book. My favorite book on writing is Stephen King’s On Writing. If you’re mentioning something in passing, it should be coming up later. When I first wrote those things, I wasn’t ready to share it with my readers. I really had to get comfortable with the fact people were going to read my writing. I felt comfortable writing about my ex and my day-to-day life. To get deeper than that, it took a couple extra chapters. I don’t remember if that played out like that time-wise when I was writing. But if it was something that came to mind, then I wrote it down right there and then.
JK: Part of what WCI talks about is that you can build wealth by starting a side hustle and trying to make extra money to reach your financial goals. Was writing supposed to be that for you?
SB: It definitely started out as a therapeutic outlet for me. That’s still how I think about it. I have writing milestones, the same way I have financial milestones. I had my writing bucket list. Writing a book was always on the list. Having my own website and writing satire, those were on the list. It evolved to where I wanted to be a guest writer on other peoples’ blogs. I’ve done that. Now, I want to pick up some freelance jobs. I want to write for a TV show, which I did [on a PBS show called Under Your Skin]. I’m currently in negotiations for a company to be one of their staff writers. It’s slowly growing and evolving. It is a side gig, but if I never got paid again, I still wouldn’t stop. But it’s definitely turning into more of a lucrative side gig.
JK: Do you ever envision making enough money where you can cut back on being a doctor and write more?
SB: I don’t know if I’ll ever be that successful with my writing. I love my job as a doctor. I don’t see that as a way out. I see it as a parallel.
JK: The idea of writing satire is interesting. Like, I think I’m a pretty funny dude. Sometimes, I can turn a phrase in my writing that can make somebody LOL. But the idea of writing something that’s purely about getting the laugh, oh man, I don’t think I could do that. You’ve written for GomerBlog, and there was some really funny stuff on there. How do you do that?
SB: It’s definitely a lot of practice. I think I’m close to 75 satirical shorts now that have been published on my own website or KevinMD or GomerBlog. The way I learned to write satire, it was Mindy Kaling’s book. She talks about satire and pulling from the headlines for inspiration. I pull from events around me in medicine. If you’re writing humor, it can be totally made up. If you’re writing satire, it is based on truth. I use it a lot when there’s something that’s troublesome or annoying me. I morph it and use it as the foundation for the piece.
JK: But how do you know if it’s funny? I mean, if the Onion or something like that is the end goal.
SB: That’s the goal. Some are snarky. Some are humorous. Some are more light-hearted. The most recent one I put on my website was about a hospital selling advertising space on the doctors’ scrubs.
JK: Oh, that’s a funny premise. OK, but where do you find the motivation to write, especially after you’ve done overnight shifts for four or five nights in a row?
SB: I only work 12 shifts a month. I have lots of days where I’m not working. I journal pretty much every day anyway. If there’s something that happened that annoyed me or is bothering me, I think, “How can I use this and make it funny?” That’s therapeutic to me. The article about selling ad space on scrubs was from something I had read online about a hospital cutting their department budget or something about insurance and how they’ll do anything to make a buck. So, I based it off that.
JK: At WCICON [where Benjamin presented her The Pen Is Mightier chat], we talked for a little bit about how you were working so hard to be an overnight success. In fact, I bought the book there, and you inscribed it, “Eventually I will be an overnight success.” Do you feel like that overnight success story is still coming?
SB: I’m not sure at what point where I’ll feel successful. I thought I would feel that way after I sold 1,000 copies of my book. I thought I would feel that way after being published on KevinMD or the New York Times, but I don’t know when that will actually change. I was told by my mentor that you just hustle and hustle and hustle, and everybody will know you as a writer.
JK: Would you rather be known as a successful writer or a doctor?
SB: I want to be known as both.
JK: And what do you expect out of it if you become that overnight success?
SB: That is a great question. I’m not sure. I’m not even sure what kind of criteria I’m trying to meet in my mind. My writing goals have gotten past what I initially planned. Now, I just keep coming up with more things I want to do in the writing world. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel that way or if I’ll keep coming up with more goals and keep resetting what success is.
JK: Is that success more concrete as a physician?
SB: Being a physician is more concrete. Part of my making it was just by getting into medical school. I was so lucky I was able to match to my top choice for residency and fellowship and that I have a job that I love. That’s much more concrete to me.
JK: When somebody asks you what you do for work, I imagine you say you’re a doctor.
SB: When I write an email, it’s from Stephanie Benjamin, MD, or somebody calls me Dr. Benjamin. A doctor is what I do, but a writer is who I am.
What I’m Reading This Week
Eating Like a Buffett
Warren Buffett is known for his investing acumen and for his love of Cherry Coke and fast food. One of the most humorous (and stomach-turning) articles I read this week was a reprint of a 2017 Business Insider piece on what it was like to eat and drink like Warren Buffett for a week.
As the author, Bob Bryan, notes:
“Let’s get this out of the way: Don’t eat like Warren Buffett unless you are Warren Buffett. The man himself says to be yourself instead of copying him. This applies not only to investing, but to dieting as well.”
It’s a fun (and slightly gross) read. Maybe wait to check it out until after you’ve eaten your breakfast.
Bitcoin . . . in Your 401(k)?!?
And no, he doesn’t believe Bitcoin should ever enter into the equation. As he writes:
“Assets that can’t generate cash should not be in 401(k) plans. (The sole exception being money market funds when interest rates are puny. At such times, money market funds may not pay interest, but they can pay when conditions warrant.) No Bitcoin, no gold, and without question, no nonfungible tokens.”
A Doctor of State-Sanctioned Death
Have you wondered about the doctors who work in the death chambers of a prison and have to be the one who officially pronounces the demise of the death row inmate? The State newspaper has a fascinating story on one such physician who worked as a prison medical director and who took part in eight executions.
The lede of the piece is compelling: “Until the second he saw the warden escort James Terry Roach into South Carolina’s death chamber, the prison doctor’s job had been to keep the man alive.”
And the rest of the story is just as interesting, especially this line: “Doctors like him are stuck in a seemingly impossible predicament: They are required by state protocols to participate in executions even as they are prohibited by their profession from being involved.”
Money Song of the Week
Your money concerns, at least before you reach financial independence, are probably the same money concerns your parents had and are probably the same money concerns your grandparents had. As in, you need more of it, because everybody wants yours.
At least that’s the underlying theme of “Money Honey,” the 1953 hit sung by The Drifters that became a No. 1 hit on the rhythm and blues charts and that eventually was covered by the likes of Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and .38 Special.
As Clyde McPhatter so eloquently sings:
You know, the landlord rang my front doorbell/
I let it ring for a long, long spell/
I went to the window, I peeked through the blind/
And asked him to tell me what was on his mind.
He said, ‘Money, honey!/
Yes, Money, honey!
If you wanna stay here with me.’”
Turns out that The Drifters made somebody a lot of money during its career. Reportedly, the group that never stopped changing its lineup has sold more than 200 million records in the US.
Tweet(s) of the Week
Wow, a special day just got a little more special.
Just got my schedule for PGY-1 and my fiancée is overjoyed that I’ll be able to make our wedding.
— Peter Alexieff, PGY-0 (@AlexieffMS4) April 26, 2022
And in case you needed another dose of optimism.
The S&P 500 is currently in a 13.4% drawdown
In 59 of the last 94 years there has been a double-digit correction
In those 59 years:
-58% of the time the market finished the year up
-39% of the time the market finished the year w/double-digits gains pic.twitter.com/XmAELbMF9w
— Ben Carlson (@awealthofcs) May 2, 2022
[Editor’s Note: For comments, complaints, suggestions, or plaudits, email Josh Katzowitz at [email protected]]