From Special Ed to Stanford Med

Stanford, CA March 2010

As a child, severe dyslexia placed me in special education for most of elementary school. Only with the support of my saintly parents did I improve enough to be mainstreamed into a normal fourth-grade classroom. I was still pulled out for remediation in half of the classes. Each year, I just barely advanced to the next grade. At twelve years old, I still couldn’t read a book by myself. To encourage a love of literature, my parents read to me every night. It wasn’t working. I preferred the football field or basketball court where my disability didn’t show.

But then my parents began reading fantasy: Terry Brooks, Raymond Feist, Tad Williams, Robin Hobb, and Robert Jordan. Both being psychiatrists, mom and dad noticed my interest and read to me less and less each night. They faked exhaustion or sore throats or tired eyes, but they always left the book. I became obsessed with fantasy. I snuck Robert Jordan and Robin Hobb paperbacks into special ed study hall and read them under my desk when I was supposed to be completing spelling drills. My grades improved only marginally, but my height increased exponentially. The football coach at a local high-powered private academy noticed this and helped me get into his school. About that time I started reading science fiction (Frank Herbert, Orson Scott Card, etc.) and discovered more classical fantasy: Grandpa Tolkien, John Gardner, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Mary Stewart. Suddenly school wasn’t so bad: I discovered that Shakespeare and Spenser weren’t so different from Tolkien, chemistry not far off from alchemy, physics the closest thing to magic. Though I still loved football, I began to live to put my nose in books.

After high school, I went to Yale University, where I went a wee bit overboard with the compensating for dyslexia. I was sure I was an admission mistake. Each time I sat for a test, I was certain I was going to fail. Every time I turned in a paper, I was positive it was riddled with misspellings. I was that rabid pre-med you didn’t want to sit next to in lecture. However, I was discovering how rich the life of the mind could be. My primary loves were English literature and chemistry. And though I finished first in my organic chemistry class and won the English department’s Getts Prize, Curtis Prize, and Mifflin Prize, I was still convinced that I was one dyslexic mistake away from being discovered as a fraud.

During this time I began Spellwright. (See the “Inspiration” page for the book’s origin story.) The dean of my residential college read a draft and encouraged me to drop out of the pre-med wolf pack to write. I still felt like a fraud at Yale, but her words helped me remember sneaking fantasies into special ed. Then I graduated Summa Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa, with distinction in the major and Trumbull College awarded me the John Spangler Nicholas Scholarship. Though my neuroses tried their best, it was hard to fret about failing out of Yale after they had given me a diploma.

So I decided to give back to the literature that had saved me. I began working full time on Spellwright, and promptly ran out of money. So began my odyssey years, which swung between frantic employment and more frantic full-time writing. I acquired several unlikely jobs. First up was medical writer for UCSF, followed by a year of cleaning gutters in Palo Alto and driving old neighbors to the airport. Then came a year as an English teacher / JV football coach / “dorm parent” at a New England boarding school. Then it was back to Northern California as a private tutor for learning disabled kids and a freelance medical writer for Stanford Pediatrics. At a local YMCA basketball game, I got into a heated argument with another bald, loud, low-post player only to discover that he was Tad Williams, one of my idols. Since that dust-up, Tad has become not only my mentor but also a close friend. Somewhere in all that, I picked up an agent. Though he wanted a radical rewrite, I was optimistic about the future.

Then my father was diagnosed with grade IV angiosarcoma. Most people die within six months of that diagnosis. But after radical surgery and months of radiation and chemotherapy, he was miraculously cancer free. Helping dad shaped my rewrite of Spellwright and inspired me to apply to medical school.

In 2006 Tor, seeing promise in Spellwright, offered me a three-book deal. Stanford Medical School, seeing the value of a career in writing and medicine, offered me admission. Since then, I’ve completed the preclinical years of medical school and taken the US Medical Licensing Examination. During that time, I somehow twice rewrote Spellwright. Stanford provided financial support in the form of a Medical Scholars Research Fellowship to write fiction. At the time of writing this bio, I am taking a research year away from classroom and clinic and funded by the Med Scholars program. I teach “Creative Writing for Medical Students” and more importantly, I have been blessed by the mentorship of my MD-novelist hero: Dr. Abraham Verghese.

When not obsessing about medicine or literature, I can be found cycling all over the San Francisco Peninsula, Swimming in Stanford’s pools, or backpacking through the Sierras. However, my favorite hobby is and always will be collecting self-deprecating jokes about dyslexia and premature baldness.

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