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The stuff of fiction

Sophie McNamara
Med J Aust
Published online: 1 October 2012

Life becomes art for general practitioner and writer Dr Jacinta Halloran

While Dr Jacinta Halloran’s work as a GP has inspired her fiction, being a writer has also influenced the way she practises medicine.

Now when she talks to patients she finds herself homing in on the storylines of their lives.

“Once you start writing, you get very interested in the idea of narrative, and you start to tune into that a lot more with patients”, she says. “So the history you’re taking isn’t so much a medical history; instead you’re thinking, how has this person come to be how they are?”

The stories that she hears from patients have also sparked her creative writing — if only indirectly. She is inspired by the idea that everyone has a story, which shapes their lives.

“At the moment in my practice I see a lot of younger adults, and I’m very aware that the formative experiences of their childhood are still playing on them and affecting them in a significant way”, she says. “But I would hasten to say I don’t use any patient stories in my books.”

General practice provided much of the content for her first novel, Dissection¸ published in 2008. Although not autobiographical, Dr Halloran was keen to write about a familiar world as she developed her confidence as a writer. The initial idea for the book came from a magazine article about a GP who had been sued.

A doctor is again the central character in her second novel, Pilgrimage, which Scribe Publications published in August, but the book focuses more on family experiences than on medicine.

Her third novel is already in the pipeline, but Dr Halloran assures that it will move completely away from medicine.

“I think it takes a while to feel comfortable and to realise that you can actually do some research and use that to inform your writing, rather than it having to focus on something that you really know a lot about.”

Dr Halloran, who continues to work part-time as a GP in Melbourne, began writing seriously in her late 30s.

She had always enjoyed writing at school, but hadn’t known how to develop it into a career. “In those days there weren’t creative writing courses. Becoming a writer was a very nebulous concept. I got the impression that it was an unrealistic thing to do.”

Instead, when she finished school, she enrolled in medicine at Monash University, because she was good at sciences and attracted by the idea of helping people.

Although she liked the patient contact of her hospital training years, she didn’t enjoy the hospital environment. She preferred general practice because patients were much more active participants in their care.

After taking a break from medicine to raise a family, she realised she wasn’t keen to return to full-time general practice.

“I felt there was something else I wanted to do, something more creative I suppose.”

She decided to pursue her interest in writing, and enrolled in a course in professional writing and editing at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, which she loved from the minute she walked in.

Gradually working her way through the course, doing one or two subjects a year, she soon started getting some paid writing work such as writing content for health insurance magazines and health information brochures.

Her real interest lay in fiction, and eventually she enrolled in a novel writing course, later switching to a Masters in Creative Writing.

“When I started the novel I just knew that was what I wanted to do ... It took me a long time, but I had great encouragement from other writers in the course and great encouragement from my teachers.”

As well as writing and practising medicine, Dr Halloran is also on the board of the Stella Prize — a new annual literary prize for Australian women — and has recently been involved in several Melbourne Writers’ Festival events.

Although she’s never regretted studying medicine, Dr Halloran is pleased she decided to pursue writing.

“Now I really feel that I have two things that I can do”, she says. “It’s sort of exhausting in a way, but I feel very privileged at the same time.”

She says the two careers complement each other, with the disciplined work ethic she learnt at medical school proving useful in her career as a writer.

The social nature of general practice also makes a nice contrast to the solitary world of writing. “Sitting there writing is a very isolating and introspective activity, so it is quite a relief to get back to work and see your colleagues and talk to patients all day”, Dr Halloran says.

  • Sophie McNamara


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