GP and novelist: Dr Joanna Nell

Evelyn Lewin

24/12/2018 8:43:28 PM

A passion for women’s health and the ageing population were catalysts for Dr Nell’s first novel.

Dr Nell believes doctors’ empathy and interest in people make then particularly well suited to becoming writers.
Dr Nell believes doctors’ empathy and interest in people make then particularly well suited to becoming writers.

Sydney-based GP Dr Joanna Nell always knew she wanted to be a doctor.
That idea only solidified early in school when her teacher asked the class about their plans for the future. When the eight-year-old Dr Nell shared her aspirations, she was dumbfounded by her teacher’s reaction.
‘I remember the teacher was horrified and said, as a girl, I was probably better to set my sights on a career in nursing, as medicine was a career for boy. And so, in 1974 I became a feminist and it made me all the more determined to go on and study medicine, which I did,’ she told newsGP.
Around the same time, Dr Nell was also developing her love of the written word. A shy child who was often bullied, she liked to retreat into books.
Dr Nell didn’t just love reading – she also enjoyed writing. But she never thought of pursuing it as a career, saying it ‘wasn’t something that ever crossed my mind’.
‘I knew I wanted to be a doctor all through my childhood but writers were these… mythical “other” beasts,’ she said.
When Dr Nell, who is from the UK, graduated from medical school she dived straight into general practice training. Instead of embarking on work as a GP, however, she decided to head to sea, working as a cruise ship doctor for two years.
Then, when she moved to Australia, Dr Nell worked as an emergency department doctor before finding her way back to general practice.
‘I think [general practice] has always been my vocation,’ she said.
‘I certainly found it was a much better fit for my style and personality – getting to know people on those more intimate and familiar terms and to have that continuity [of care] which is really something I didn’t get from emergency [medicine] or from any of the others careers I’ve dabbled in.’
While she felt fulfilled as a GP, Dr Nell still harboured a desire to write.
It wasn’t until she was immobilised following an accident that Dr Nell put those dreams into action, enrolling in an online writing course to kick-start her pursuit.
Since turning her hand to writing, Dr Nell feels she has enhanced her abilities as a doctor.
‘There’s no doubt that, for me personally, being a doctor makes me a better writer and I think the opposite is true, too – that being a writer makes me a better doctor,’ she said.
‘In a way, they involve the same sort of skill set, which is that real interest in people, what makes them tick, that sort of degree of empathy and the ability to ask the difficult questions.’
Dr Nell believes that’s why it’s so common for doctors to also be writers, citing examples such as Anton Chekhov, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Michael Crichton.
Dr Nell is quick to point out her dreams of becoming a novelist didn’t materialise overnight.
‘I had to learn [to be a writer], in the same way I had to learn to be a doctor,’ she said.
‘In fact, probably from the very first moment I started writing through to my novel being published was six years, which is the same time it took me to train to be a doctor.’
The result of those years of work is Dr Nell’s recently released first novel, The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village.
The novel follows 79 year-old Peggy Smart, who lives in a retirement village and is going about the motions of life until a glamorous retiree moves in and teaches her about ‘ageing disgracefully’.
The idea was spurred by Dr Nell’s dual passions for women’s health and the ageing population. She also wanted to challenge the narrative that ageing is all ‘doom and gloom’.
‘I think it’s very easy for older people to internalise this message that they are a burden,’ Dr Nell said.
‘I think this can lead to a rather paternalistic attitude and a learned helplessness, so I wanted to turn the whole thing on its head and say, “Let’s have a discussion about ageing, let’s challenge some of those myths and stereotypes”.’
As for finding the time to write as a busy GP, Dr Nell steers away from the adage about needing to write every day, preferring to ‘binge write’ in the afternoons after work and on weekends.
‘I would also use annual leave to go away on my own little “writing retreats”… I’d find a little Airbnb somewhere in the country away from internet and the phone and family demands and really just for several days churn out large chunks of words,’ she said.
‘I found that, for me particularly, that was quite a good way to work.’
It certainly helps that Dr Nell doesn’t view writing as labour, per se.
‘I think for me it’s a form of relaxation and escapism and really just helps me to unwind and process what can be really an emotionally challenging role as a professional,’ she said.
Dr Nell’s second novel, The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker, is due for release in late 2019.

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