Melanie Cheng: ‘Once writing had become part of my routine, I was hooked'

Writer and general practitioner Melanie Cheng reflects on her dual professional lives – and on finally giving herself permission to write.

My high school English teacher was disappointed when I told him I was applying for Medicine. I’m not sure what made me decide on Medicine in the end. Perhaps it was my parents’ advice to choose a course that would lead to a well-defined career path – not necessarily medicine, but something more focused than an Arts degree. Or perhaps – and I suspect this was the real reason – I was scared. I didn’t have faith in my own creative abilities.

Photo of Melanie Cheng

Melanie Cheng — Photo: Rani Chahal

Mostly, I had fun during the six years of my undergraduate medical degree. The human body, and the human brain, was endlessly fascinating to me. More importantly, I enjoyed talking to patients. (I also quite liked the post-exam parties). But internship was brutal. The enormous responsibility that came with caring for real human beings – people with families and friends and pasts and aspirations – was terrifying. I spent most of my time working and worrying. There was little time to read, let alone write anything.

After a brief stint in Cambodia, I made the – in my case – wise decision to get out of hospitals. In 2007, I applied for the general practice training programme. It was a last resort, and thankfully, I loved it. Partly because I was free of the tertiary hospitals, but mostly because I enjoyed listening to patients’ stories. Pensioners who described what the suburb looked like before I was born. Migrants who told me where to get the best Vietnamese phở and Portuguese chicken. Widowers who relayed tales of how they had met their wives. I became as intrigued by my patients as the diseases that plagued them.

The impulse to write took hold slowly. I stumbled across an organisation called the Creative Doctors Network, and I flew to Sydney to attend one of their gatherings. Once there, I met doctors who were also writers, actors, directors, photographers and musicians. It was a different crowd from the bullish consultants and burnt-out GPs I was used to meeting. Perhaps the most striking difference was that they seemed happy.

'What would I say? I didn’t see myself as a writer. A writer was somebody who had books in bookstores and a publishing contract.'

After that trip, I gave myself permission to write. I wrote in stolen moments, on weekends and in the evenings. Once I became a parent, I wrote while my babies were sleeping. I wrote for fun and for entertainment and to make sense of the world around me. Most of what I wrote during that time was self-indulgent drivel, but every once and a while, I wrote something I was proud of. If I was lucky, I got it published in a literary anthology. Much more commonly though, I got rejected. Time and time again. Month after month of radio silence.

Fortunately, once writing had become part of my routine, I was hooked. And like anyone battling an addiction, I was secretive about it. Apart from my immediate family, I didn’t tell anyone. What would I say? I didn’t see myself as a writer. A writer was somebody who had books in bookstores and a publishing contract. 'Writer' was a title you earned after decades of suffering. And yet it irked me when the few relatives who knew referred to writing as my hobby. I hated the word 'hobby' – there was something inherently patronising about it.

I probably could have gone on for another ten years in this way; writing, submitting, getting rejected. And then, in 2016, something wonderful happened: I won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. Within hours of the shortlisting, I had received emails from publishers and agents. Within months I had secured both – a literary agent with Curtis Brown Australia and a two book deal with Text Publishing. It was a dream come true.

'I questioned whether I deserved the acclaim and the attention. I had been outed as a writer, and I felt exposed and vulnerable.'

The imposter syndrome crept up on me, as imposters tend to do. Having a background in medicine and no creative writing qualifications to speak of, I questioned whether I deserved the acclaim and the attention. I had been outed as a writer, and I felt exposed and vulnerable. Suddenly, I had deadlines and people to answer to. I no longer had the freedom to fail anonymously. Thankfully my book, Australia Day, has been well received. I’ve had many unexpected and fabulous experiences since publication. The reader, moved to tears, as she thanked me for writing a particular story. The artist who asked me to sign the ceramic sculpture he’d made of my collection. The authors I admire who wrote generous endorsements for the book.

People often ask me if I plan to stop practising medicine. They assume the medical career was plan B – something to shed now my dream of becoming a published author has been realised. But the truth is, being a GP is an inherent part of my identity. I enjoy it. It fulfils a different need and feeds a different part of my brain.

That’s not to say that juggling the two careers is easy. On bad days, I wonder whether I would be a better and more devoted doctor if I didn’t write books, and whether I would write more and better books if I wasn’t a doctor. In reality, I can’t bear to part with either. And so, at times like these, I remind myself of the words of the great Anton Chekhov: 'Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress; when I get tired of one, I spend the night with the other'.

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