Writer to Writer: Howard Markel

On Tuesday, November 21st, I attended the Writer to Writer Series featuring the accomplished medical history writer, Howard Markel. The event, moderated by the brilliant, feared Shelley Manis, began with an introduction of Howard Markel, followed by a series of questions on his current work and writing processes. The event ended with a few rapid fire questions (which writers would you like to bring to a writing retreat?, etc.) and a Q/A session with the audience.

Howard Markel is downright impressive. Next to him, calling myself a writer doesn’t feel appropriate. After majoring in English as an undergraduate, he went on to receive an M.D. from the University of Michigan Medical School and then a Ph.D. at the John Hopkins University. Beyond the 10+ years in school, his writing accomplishments include self-authoring or coauthoring ten books, 12 years of writing for the New York Times, monthly medical history writings for NPR and the American Journal of Public Health. On top of his “1000 words” he writes daily, he teaches at the University of Michigan. Fun fact, as a teenager, he was paid $5 per joke he wrote for The Detroit News.

He had much to say on the topic of today’s writers and what it means to be a flexible rhetor. Howard prefers to complete his daily writing in his pajamas whilst listening to Mozart– Beethoven is “too intellectual.” When asked what’s wrong with today’s writing, he mentioned the need writers feel to solicit themselves in their work. Respectfully, I disagree Howard, but that’s irrelevant. At the end of the session, he made a statement that made the entire event worthwhile…”Regardless of how bad the times are or how frustrated we are with something, we have the opportunity to write about it.” This statement deserves its own space on a plaque or maybe a feature on some avant garde film. Either way, I’m skeptical that he was the first one to say it.

Howard was delightful to listen to and seemed to understand his audience perfectly–a learning objective for the minor in writing students. He discussed his experiences of writing for an audience of nine people versus a million. The audience he writes for shapes the genre and style of writing he produces. Howard’s consciousness of his own writing lends itself to a variety of intended outcomes that other writers may never achieve.

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