Jean Kim is a physician and writer who currently works and lives in the DC Metro area. She received her M.A. in Nonfiction Writing at Johns Hopkins and has also been a nonfiction Fellow at the Writers’ Institute at the Graduate Center of CUNY. She blogs for Psychology Today and has work published or forthcoming in The Rumpus, The Manifest-Station, The Daily Beast, Bethesda Magazine, Little Patuxent Review, Storyscape Journal, Star 82 Review, and more.
NICHE: Starting at the beginning is always good. Can you tell us a little bit about how you started to write?
JEAN KIM: I’ve always enjoyed reading and writing, even since childhood. At age 5 I would cut out and illustrate little books I’d written with simple rhyming lines like “The sky is blue/the world is true.” In middle and high school I would handwrite serial romance stories that I let some of my friends read. Due to limited time, I tended to write more poetry starting in college and have always been a language junkie. I’ve always leaned more towards flowery, ornate words, probably from reading too many Victorian novels while growing up.
NICHE: Some writers, such as John Irving, have said they dislike the short story form and have dedicated themselves to working solely on novels. Others writers, like Thomas Hardy, were poets first and novelist second. I’ve known writers from the MFA who were brilliant at poetry but whose writing completely fell apart when given a creative nonfiction assignment. Therefore, I find it interesting when I discover writers whose bios say they were trained in one form of writing but have dedicated themselves in practicing other forms. In your case, you got an MA in Nonfiction Writing from John Hopkins, but submitted some lovely poetry to us. Can you talk a little about switching between creative writing forms? For instance, do you find one form of writing more difficult to write than another, or is the challenge of crafting the writing so its “good” the only thing you focus on when you sit down to write?
JEAN KIM: I always liked poetry and fiction writing, and was more obsessed with creative expression and dramatic plots when younger. I majored in English in college and took some workshops in poetry and fiction there. But I went straight to medical school afterwards which occupied all of my free time, and that forced me to pretty much focus on writing short poems now and then during that period. It was a precious and necessary outlet during a period of being forcefed gobs of really dry scientific facts. I entered and won a couple national poetry contests for medical students which was encouraging. During my residency training, I barely had much time either, but did take a couple fiction workshops at the 92nd Street Y that I lived near in Manhattan. I had ideas and ambitions about bringing writing together with my medical experience, and I had heard nonfiction was an easier way to get published and had a larger market for exposure. But for me, creative nonfiction was by far the hardest genre to write in, like writing with my left hand. At first I felt very married to the facts as is, reporter-style, as is also the style of writing medical notes. With fiction or poetry, you are free to put together anything you want from any reality you choose. You can’t just do that with nonfiction. So I made a conscious decision to get more extensive training in nonfiction writing and open up that “muscle” in my inventory of creative skills. I joined an intensive nonfiction program at the Graduate Center at CUNY, and then when I moved to Washington, DC, decided to join a part-time graduate writing program focusing on nonfiction. And I finally learned the magic trick behind creative nonfiction: using the facts to serve your story, picking and choosing events as the author in a literary way. It took a while to get used to it, but I feel fairly comfortable with it now. I still eventually would like to get back to my first love in writing which is poetry and fiction, but what’s funny is that as I get older, I prefer reading nonfiction moreso than fiction. Nonfiction feels more grounded and truthful and educational to read nowadays to me. I still love reading poetry.
NICHE: You mentioned this idea about picking and choosing events when writing creative nonfiction. Many writes have discussed how “truth” should be defined or handled when writing creative nonfiction. Have you ever found it difficult to choose events without sacrificing the emotional honesty of a piece? Or is it the other way around? As a writer, do you choose the events that will drive you towards the emotional integrity of the piece? How to find place between those two issues?
JEAN KIM: For me, this handling of truth is the most challenging aspect of writing nonfiction. In most cases, you can’t just write the facts as they are, because that is boring and no one wants to read it. In other instances, you do want to write the facts as they are, but for reasons of confidentiality or pissing off family members or friends or worrying about getting sued or just your personal discomfort, but you can’t do it even though the truth would be better than fiction. It depends on the situation. So the author’s challenge is navigating the story through these minefields, and still letting the themes and intent of the story shine through. One skill I have learned though through workshops and good teaching is how to pick and choose the details that do serve your narrative, that keep the reader’s attention and the emotional integrity as you mention in the story. You develop an ear for the resonance and deeper meanings of a particular moment or event, even if it seems relatively quiet or minor, and how to convey that to the reader. Or how to leave out details that just clutter the page and don’t really help the reader towards any insight. But as far as things I would like to write about, but feel like I can’t for various reasons, I feel like the only solution might be putting it into fiction or poetry.
NICHE: This next question is similar to the last. Before you submitted to our online magazine you submitted a brief craft essay that explores the relationship between writers and their painting. Do you paint yourself?
JEAN KIM: Actually I suck at painting! I’ve tried it once on a whim during residency but didn’t get very far. My younger sister (who is also a doctor) is the painter, and I’m the writer.
NICHE: I’ve noticed that your poetry deals subjects that are both personal and political in nature. You’ve also written opinion pieces in the past. In your opinion, does poetry have to extend beyond the writer in order for an outside audience to connect with the piece emotionally?
JEAN KIM: Not necessarily. Those are the topics that drive me to express myself and color my experiences, but I don’t think each and every work has to incorporate those themes to be meaningful or deep. Each person’s lived experience will provide the important themes they need and want to express for themselves, if they’re tuned into it. There’s even a risk that a poem will be too literal or heavyhanded if it’s too focused on overtly political themes or too sentimental. But every good writer has their own voice and has the potential to make it work. I do think a work has to reverberate beyond itself though; the meanings have to resonate beyond its surfaces.
NICHE: I’ve read some of your creative nonfiction pieces. It might sound weird but you write very clean and very beautiful sentences. I have also notice that you have a talent for imagery and turn of phrases. Do you have any advice to aspiring writers as to how to prefect their own images without straying into the cliche?
JEAN KIM: I really appreciate your kind words! I think reading as much as possible helps your vocabulary even on a subconscious level, so when you are faced with expressing something, your mind can string together pearls from the deep, and it just comes out unique. I think a background in poetry is important as well, even for prose writers, to learn how to make those original and creative, abstract ways to express oneself, and explore the full potential of language.
NICHE: As you might know, Niche occasionally runs spotlights with published authors who work in professions outside of academia. You are also a working psychiatrist. You write for The Daily Beast and blog for Psychology Today. Of course the writing you do for these venues are more directly linked to your profession than poetry. But I was wondering if your career informs your creative work too, and if so, how?
JEAN KIM: Well medicine and particularly psychiatry has been rich fodder for writers in the past and there is a great tradition of doctor writers like Chekhov, William Carlos Williams, and more recently writers like Ethan Canin, Oliver Sacks, and Abraham Verghese who mine important material out of the life-and-death and illness-and-suffering-based questions that medicine always grapples with. Psychiatry out of all the medical specialties interfaces directly with each person’s life story and relies on the context of the person’s experience to make more accurate and helpful diagnoses and treatments. So some of the experiences I’ve gone through and witnessed as a physician hearing people at their most vulnerable and intimate moments do influence my writing. The dilemma for me is processing and expressing some of those issues without betraying people’s privacy and confidence, but also trying to help the general public have a greater understanding of these important issues. I’ve been very cautious so far in monitoring those boundaries. Sometimes it’s easiest then just to use myself as fodder for those themes.
NICHE: What are you working on now?
JEAN KIM: Just writing essays on various topics, ranging from opinion issues to more creative meditations or memoir pieces. I’m always devoted at the core to really beautiful language and turns of expression, and stark themes about life, morality, and mortality. I have some ideas for a longer work about my psychiatry training, but am debating whether to write it as fiction or nonfiction.
NICHE: What are some of the benefits of writing personal experiences as fiction as opposed to creative nonfiction? Does it have to do with keeping intimate details private, as you say?
JEAN KIM: As I noted above, yes, fiction has more freedom and flexibility for the author. You can write any scene or any character or any event you want without worrying about real-life people going after you (although of course they sometimes still do if they think your fictional character is based on them, but they have a lot less ground to stand on, and less potential damage to themselves). The only issue is to make fiction sound reasonably plausible, especially psychologically. Or just go all out fantasy-mode. (And even then, the characters still have to be psychologically riveting.) So if you want to explore the sequelae of something that happened to you in real life, fiction is a great outlet to do so without feeling as bound to the bond of truth as in nonfiction/memoir. But for some, fiction may start to lack some of the immediacy to the reader, that instant intimacy and tension that develops when you know you are reading life as is, that makes nonfiction and memoir so appealing to read. So for me, writing truly good, engaging fiction is in some ways harder than nonfiction, although it may be easier to write at first.
NICHE: Is there anything else you would like our readers to know?
JEAN KIM: Writing is such an important outlet and valuable way for people to process and move through life. I hope that an ever wider range of voices gets out there about topics people tend to shy away from and don’t discuss.