Creative Director Nellie Hermann Discusses the Intersection of Literature and Medicine

Nellie Hermann, creative director of the master's program in narrative medicine, got her start as a narrative medicine lecturer by teaching a fiction workshop to students at Columbia University Medical Center. "I just totally fell in love with this program," she says. "I have no medical background at all, but I have a lot of personal experience." She refers to her early experiences in hospitals not as a practitioner but as the family member of patients. This family history also inspired her first novel, published in 2008, The Cure for Grief. After teaching several workshops, she ultimately joined the program's faculty in 2008 and now works as its creative director. Now finishing up her second novel – The Season of Migration, which will come out in 2015 – she continues to guide students through the craft of writing. She views this intersection of literature and medicine as a means to further explore medical practice and to expand students' understanding of illness, care – and creativity.

Who is the narrative medicine program for?

We get a lot of different kinds of people coming to the program. The largest part of the population is young students who are going into medicine: psychologists, nurses, dentists, etc. They take our program before they apply to med school. They typically have one foot in both worlds; they're interested in medicine, and they're also interested in the humanities.

We also get students with M.F.A.s and who are interested in creativity and health care. Or longtime health care practitioners who want to branch out. It's a really diverse student body, which is really cool.

One of the misconceptions about our program is that it's about writing about medicine. It's really not: It's about storytelling using writing and reading as tools to further develop health care practice.

You are the creative director of the program and their lecturer in creative writing. What goes on in the classroom?

My class is a creative writing course. We write poetry, nonfiction, and fiction; I try to give students a broad creative base. Some of our students have a lot of experience in creative writing, and some have none at all.

My favorite writing exercise to assign is one that I was asked to do when I was in graduate school. The prompt is to pick a memory and to write it as nonfiction and then to write the same memory as fiction. It's interesting to see people grapple with what it means to write something as fiction or nonfiction; a lot of people have the misconception that if you write fiction, you have to have a fairy or a ghost in it. I think it's really eye-opening for students to realize they can write about their own lives as fiction.

When I was in graduate school, that exercise resulted in the birth of my first novel. I was struggling with how to write my own story, and I did this exercise, and it unlocked something for me.

Your first novel was about grief, so I wonder how much of that was influenced by the narrative medicine program.

It wasn't at all influenced by my experience with the program. I published that novel in the summer of 2008 before I started officially working for the program in the winter of 2008.

However, the book expresses so much of why I feel connected to narrative medicine. Narrative medicine means so many different things to so many people; it's really hard to define in an easy way. My first novel helps me explain why I'm so connected to it. So I assign it to my students, and it helps them think about how they can tell their own stories in a new way.

If you were to give someone a short reading list within the narrative medicine realm, which books would you recommend?

Of course, there's our program director Rita Charon's book Narrative Medicine. Personally, I would also add Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. I recommend W. G. Sebald's Austerlitz, Arthur Kleinman's Illness Narratives, and Arthur Frank's Wounded Storyteller; those are seminal texts that students get to read throughout our program.

Is there anything else you wanted to mention about the program that I haven't asked about?

These days, I've been thinking about what narrative medicine has to do with creativity. What does it mean to think creatively and to act creatively? Can it be taught? In my class, I see students who might not have any creative writing background who nonetheless really start to open themselves up to it.

So I often think about how I can guide students to open themselves up to creativity in a productive way. That transformative moment is one aspect of the program that I think is sometimes overlooked.