Dr. Jennifer Wilson, a family physician in rural Uxbridge, Ontario, talks to AW’s Anna-Liza Kozma about her medical memoir.
ALK: Your book begins with a medical emergency on a dirt road in Northern Ghana, and then unfolds chronologically, moving back and forth between Canada and Ghana. You pack a lot into your 26 chapters! How did you decide where to start, where to end and what to leave out?
JW: During the first meeting with my team of editors (Patricia Thompson-Boyko, Julie Fitz-Gerald, and Brad Weber), the idea of using the “Hero’s Journey” as a framework for this book was brought up. We didn’t cover the Hero’s Journey in medical school, so I had to do some quick research! It took me about thirty minutes to appreciate that my story had all the elements of this journey—an ordinary world, a call to adventure, thresholds, struggles, allies, villains, inmost caves, ordeals, rewards, journeys back, final tests, and elixirs to return with. It was all there! Although I took several detours, this framework was an excellent road map for this creative non-fiction novice, helping me to organize the structure and content of this braided memoir.
Beginning with a medical emergency was a natural thing to do. Firstly, I wanted the reader to know this would be a fun memoir that was full of adventure. Secondly, that moment—in the middle of a hot, dark, dirt road in Northern Ghana with a dying man strapped to the backseat of a taxi—was such a defining moment in my life that it felt like the most authentic introduction to the pages that followed.
ALK: When you were writing, was there a particular audience or reader you had in mind?
JW: When I began Grant Us Tomorrow, I was primarily writing for my children and their children and their children. I wanted them to have a record of my story—hoping that the lessons I had learned on my journey would inspire and guide them. I also wanted my global health partners and their families to have a written account of what we were part of. It was the best way to thank them—to preserve our memories, miracles, and accomplishments. At many points along the way, I received hints that this book had the potential to appeal to a broader audience. I had difficulty believing that, but this growing realization—that people other than my kids and teammates might enjoy my story—influenced the final product. Once I opened my mind to this possibility, I included details that might be important to a broader reader base: lay people, health professionals, academics, humanitarian organizations, as well as faith and non-faith-based leadership organizations. Ringing endorsements from leaders representing this wider audience confirmed this was the correct approach. It helped me finally accept that this book could reach beyond the audience I had initially pictured.
ALK: You write that you’ve always enjoyed being part of a team, and you describe the small group who supported you in writing the book. How exactly did they help you both in structuring the book and in honing it from your moleskin journal notes to its finished form?
JW: Oh, my team—thanks for asking! As mentioned, my team helped me identify the framework for this creative non-fiction—the Hero’s Journey. That was such an instrumental step. Once the book’s outline was established, they confidently set me off on that journey, reminding me that their role was to protect my voice I can’t express how empowering it was to recognize that this group of three believed I had a voice worth protecting. From there, I would use my journals and field blogs to write a first draft of a chapter. In the early months of writing, I relied on Trish (my substantive/developmental editor) to coach me almost daily—the process was so new to me, and I had so many questions! Once I had completed a chapter, I would send the document to Trish for feedback, and we would pass the draft back and forth until we felt the chapter was complete. Then, each chapter was sent to Julie and Brad (copy editors), who would line-edit it. When the first manuscript was finished, Trish and I printed a hard copy and spent a month rewriting and editing, after which Julie line-edited it for a second time.
After completing the second manuscript, Sue Reynolds joined our team as the final content editor. Sue suggested tweaks for ease of reading, continuity, and style. One of the most significant changes she made to the final manuscript was to insist that I include more dialogue.
She also asked me to expand on several critical events in the story. This surprised me as my manuscript was already too long according to “memoir norms.” Sue just laughed and insisted the events and my readers deserved more detail! The final step in the third manuscript was having
Brenda Mensah—one of the leading ladies in the story—read every sentence for accuracy and consistency with a lens of cultural sensitivity. Sue then took my vision for the design, layout, and photo signatures and made it a beautiful reality, ultimately publishing the book as a partner in Piquant Press. The entire process took just under two years.
ALK: Your role as a mother of five is an integral part of your story. You describe the difficulties of leaving them and later, how they joined you on your medical missions. How did you negotiate writing about your children and what advice would you give other writers in navigating this territory?
JW: From the beginning, my family was involved in the decision to write this book. Their permission to include them as characters in this story was essential to me. As all parents know, we have the incredible capacity to embarrass our kids with our good intentions, and I was determined I would not do that. My children gave me a lot of input along the way—they approved the photos and content that involved them and proofread the chapter about their mission to Ghana. The only part I kept a secret from them was the epilogue. Importantly, my husband Graham was the first person to read the draft of each chapter, and I relied on him to be somewhat of a bodyguard for our family, helping me to decide what should be included and what should be kept private.
Ultimately, my husband and kids became the biggest cheerleaders for this book. It was particularly moving for me to watch them step up to host the book launch—attended by hundreds—when I was unexpectedly confined to the book-signing table the entire evening.
I included my motherhood journey in this book for another reason. I shared how I was worried that my kids would resent or be harmed by my work in Africa during their formative years. I wanted others to know that, although sacrifices may be required, our contribution to humanity and the global good as parents can contribute significantly to the personal growth of our children and our family units.
ALK: You write very naturally about your Christian faith, about your church, and your husband praying for you in moments of crisis. You don’t use heightened or poetic language for this but rather convey religious experience in a similar tone to describing medical clinics and surgeries. Was this a style you were conscious of? Are there writers you admire who manage to convey religious faith in ways a secular audience can understand?
JW: I’m so glad you asked this question. My faith is part of who I am, so I could not authentically write this memoir without including it. Writing naturally about my faith—without sounding preachy or pedantic—was a high-priority objective of mine and I asked my editors to keep a close eye on this. One of my frustrations about Christian fiction and non-fiction is that it is often unappealing or offensive to a secular audience. Too often, the chosen words and perhaps the implied judgments end up becoming barriers to sharing a great message. Over the years, as I have shared my experience in Ghana with faith- and non-faith-based audiences, it has been so well received. I was determined to write in such a way that my faith would not be an obstacle to the reader hearing the good news of this story.
ALK: What is the most valuable piece of writing advice you have ever been given?
JW: “Show, don’t tell” was a simple yet transformational piece of advice given to me by my editorial team. While this may be basic or even intuitive to seasoned writers, it was a new concept for this amateur. As a physician, I consider myself a master at describing and recording events. It is less efficient to say, “The patient’s furrowed brow glistened with a sheen of sweat as her shivers caused the rickety hospital cot to clatter in distress” than to say, “Temperature 39.4 with rigors.”
I had to learn to undo a sort of habitual precision and allow the reader the pleasure of piecing things together without being spoon-fed dry facts. How surprising for me to discover how words on a piece of paper can be strategically used to transport a reader into a story, allowing them to experience all that takes place fully. I assumed that telling the story would be enough, but my editors coached me to show the reader my account through sensory details, dialogue, and the expression of emotion.
ALK: Are you aware of having taken some deliberate risks in the preparation of this book?
JW: I am a risk-averse emergency room doctor who is not much fun in Vegas. In deciding to write this book, I was in a terrifying place. I felt compelled to share something with the world. Still, I knew it would require me to move away from the emotional, personal, and professional safety I had fiercely protected for twenty years as a physician in a small, rural community. Writing this book was an active decision to create risk and vulnerability in my life, where suddenly I was accountable and open to the real risk of failure—and the judgment of friends, family, and strangers. There was no single “moment of risk” in writing Grant Us Tomorrow. Still, it was a process that I had to work through constantly—chapter after chapter, decision after decision, event after event. I almost threw in the towel many times when the risk just felt too great. I continue to be surprised by how my imposter syndrome can hijack me at the most unexpected moments and remind me of these risks and my doubts. Even after receiving the news that Grant Us Tomorrow was the top-selling book at our independent bookstore Blue Heron Books, or en route to an interview with Global News, a voice would whisper in my ear, “Who are you to write a book?” Choosing to be vulnerable, embracing risk, and facing cognitive distortions in my head, have been a big part of my journey as an author. Playing it safe somehow pales in comparison.
ALK: Please tell us a little about the writing spaces or environments that work best for you. Are there particular items that you like to have in place?
JW: One of the most significant barriers to my writing was the mindset that everything in my internal and external environment had to be perfect for me to write. As a busy physician with five kids, I quickly realized that this mindset needed to change if I was ever going to complete this book. What worked best for me was to stop trying to create the perfect environment—and write.
My best writing window was in the morning before my household woke up. I tried to write every morning from 5:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m., whether I felt like it or not. Missing a couple of hours of sleep was a small sacrifice once I realized how creative and productive I could be before my brain became consumed with the demands of the upcoming day. This routine also helped me avoid procrastination.
My second-best writing environment was the emergency room at night. Typically, on a night shift—especially during the first year of the pandemic—our volume of patients was low, and there were gaps of thirty minutes or a couple of hours when I had no patients or was waiting on results. I always had my computer ready and would take advantage of these moments. Despite the noisy environment, constant interruptions, and fatigue, some of my best writing took place in that emergency department with my coffee and my curious nursing team looking over my shoulder!
ALK: How was the title chosen for this book? Who had input, and what were the deciding factors?
JW: I was obsessed with choosing a title for this book early on and felt I could not start writing or keep writing until the title was established. At times, I think my search for a title was merely a form of procrastination when the difficult task of beginning a new chapter loomed before me. I was thankful for my editorial team—especially Trish—who responded graciously to my endless ideas for a title that arrived at all hours of the day or night, while assuring me that the best title would declare itself in time.
Finding the title that encapsulated the many themes and lessons contained in this braided medical memoir was challenging. Still, in the end, it was the African voice reflecting an African reality that was the only worthy title. It was worth the wait! My editorial team and my family all had input on the final choice. (I’m tempted to tell you the runners up but, I shall refrain!)
ALK: Fiction writers often deal with the truth by blending it with imagination and making the truth more composite. What, in your opinion, should be a CNF writer’s approach to presenting truth in all of its dimensions?
JW: Truth is truth and cannot be and should not be altered. But truth can be presented in black and white or in full colour. The creative non-fiction writer must paint the truth with the ten million colours in the world, leaving a final image for the readers to gaze upon and interpret.
When preparing team members to go to Ghana, we remind them that we see the world through a lens based on our privilege, position, values, and beliefs. Our colleagues and patients in Ghana helped us learn that there are other lenses through which any situation can be viewed. I aimed to present the truth through as many lenses and colours as possible, so the reader could reach their own conclusions and choose their own response.
Furthermore, while I have a particular viewpoint, I am a collaborative leader and team player who loves to listen and strives to incorporate others’ views into everything I do—personally and professionally. All that I have learned from my teammates, colleagues, and patients from around the world has helped me communicate the truth in a more composite and more colourful way.
ALK: You have an unusual strategy to help direct sales of Grant Us Tomorrow to your local independent bookstore. Can you tell us about that?
JW: It has always been important to me to support Blue Heron Books—my local independent bookstore in Uxbridge. My strategy was to sell a beautiful colour edition of Grant Us Tomorrow at Blue Heron for the same price as the black and white version sold by Amazon. The quality of the colour edition of my book is superior to the version you get from Amazon in so many ways! Blue Heron has done a great job receiving orders and shipping my book to readers around the world. As a result, one thousand books have been sold at Blue Heron and a tenth of that on Amazon. All proceeds go to support the education of health professionals in Ghana. https://blueheronbooks.com/browse/filter/t/Grant%20Us%20Tomorrow/k/keyword.
The phrase “think globally, act locally” proved too restrictive for Dr. Jennifer Wilson, MD, CCFP(EM), DIMPH, FCFP, a family physician in rural Uxbridge, Ontario. She decided to think and act both locally and globally. She founded the Ghana Health Team in 2007, led it until 2019 and has recently been appointed as the Canadian consultant of Family and Emergency Medicine and Director of International Partnerships at the Leyaata Hospital in Ghana, West Africa. She recently returned to school to complete a Master’s Degree in Public Health with a Collaborative Specialization in Global Health at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto where she is a Lecturer in the Department of Family and Community Medicine. Still a proud resident of her hometown, Uxbridge—where she and her husband have raised their five children—Jennifer continues to practice medicine there, as both a family and an emergency room physician.