Dr. Jo Ellen Pitzer uses creative writing to engage her family and enrich her life.
Jo Ellen Pitzer had never taken a creative writing class in her life. But when the family medicine physician at St. Jude Heritage Medical Group decided to write a story to help her then-5-year-old learn how to read, it spawned a self-published book, a second novel in the works, a short story in an upcoming anthology—and a hobby that has enriched her life and health by strengthening family relationships, forming social connections, and bringing her happiness .
“Studies have shown that hobbies have health benefits—they can decrease depression, lower blood pressure and decrease stress,” Dr. Pitzer says. “My mood is so much better when I’m writing; it’s a great way to let go of the stress of the day. When I complete a chapter and I’m happy with what I’ve created, there is a positive energy that stays with me.”
Dr. Pitzer’s writing hobby is about as far away from her career as you can get—no medical thrillers for her. Instead, she has focused on fantasy novels for children and young adults. That first story followed a 12-year-old child to a magical world where baseball and ninjas were prominent. She had 10 copies of the novel published and hardbound for family keepsakes.
“Writing allowed me to engage with my family in a different and meaningful way,” Dr. Pitzer says. “The kids were always so excited to hear what happened next in the stories. And it gave me an excuse to daydream—moms sometimes can feel they’re not allowed to take time for themselves. After I finished that first book, I decided to write for me.”
Dr. Pitzer doesn’t keep a strict writing schedule. “It goes in fits and spurts. I feel as if I’m always writing in my head. I can go on a run and turn off my left brain from work and let my right brain take over and imagine a story or scene. It stays with me—I can go to sleep thinking about it. If something hits me, I’ll write it down. Usually on the weekends I start writing and editing whenever I can.”
She took her hobby to another level when she joined a weekly writing critique group, Pure Fiction League. “I can see my writing when I started with them and where it is now—it’s made me a better writer and storyteller,” she says. “I know about the components of storytelling; if a story is dragging I can recognize it.”
The members of the group—which number about 10—have been valuable in giving feedback during critiques and offering positive motivation. The friendships that have formed are also important. “It’s great getting to meet new people,” Dr. Pitzer says.
Dr. Pitzer continues to get input on her writing from her children, even though her oldest is now in college. Because she writes for young adults, Dr. Pitzer asks her teens for “reality checks” on her characters.
“My kids are so encouraging to me and it’s fun to see them interested in what I’m doing,” she says. “We’ve had great conversations—I’m always asking my kids about stories they’ve heard or what’s happening with them and their friends, and then if it makes sense I explore it further, or maybe they have something more to talk to me about, too. We kind of connect on that level.”
This year marks a milestone for Dr. Pitzer’s writing hobby. A short story she wrote, inspired by a loved one’s recovery from surgical complications, has been selected for “It’s All in the Story,” a book of California-themed fiction that will be published in October 2017. Her critique group is encouraging her to submit her latest work-in-progress, “Moonspell,” to publishers. She’s even thinking about writing a different type of project, incorporating ideas and techniques she’s gleaned from her time with the group. But Dr. Pitzer never considers any of it “work”—her writing is for pleasure.
“When I am writing, I am so present for that—I let everything else fall to the background,” Dr. Pitzer says. “There’s a lot of stress and worry in society and there are times you need to get away from it—not ignore it, but not dwell on it 24/7.”
She adds that “another benefit of a hobby is when you have a goal and everybody knows you have that goal, you’re giving yourself permission to work on something."
“If I’m spending an hour just daydreaming, my husband would say, ‘What are you doing?’ But if I say I’m working on a story it’s OK. I don’t feel as guilty about it, either. There can be so much mom guilt if you’re not 100 percent focused on family, and sometimes we can place that guilt on ourselves, whether the goal is to get in shape, quilt or run a marathon,” she says. “You have to be willing to say no to other things to find time for yourself. My family gets it because I’m still there for the important things. You need to have balance.”
For more information on “It’s All in the Story,” visit the anthology’s website.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.