The Examined Life Conference, Iowa City, April 2012

When I heard that a renowned international medical humanities conference was held annually in Iowa City, my first thought was “That’s so far up my alley, it is knocking on my front door and asking me out for a drink.”  My second was “Iowa?  Corn-growing backward little state with no particular claim to fame?  Do they even read books there?”

How little I knew!  While most of the state is in fact the corn-growing rural backwater I had envisioned, Iowa City itself is a college town, with a rich academic, literary and architectural history.  Its quiet, leafy streets teem with bright-eyed, friendly, wholesome-looking college kids during the day and with bright-eyed, friendly, inebriated college kids on Friday and Saturday nights.  I was amused to observe that the evening crowd wore considerably less clothing than their daytime selves, despite the near freezing temperatures.  In my three layers, coat and gloves, I shivered just watching them.  Perhaps it was because I was ethanol deficient.  Either that or I’m just a wussy (ex)Queenslander.

I discovered that Iowa City is famous for two “Wr”s: Writing and Wrestling.  As it happened, the weekend of The Examined Life Conference saw the somewhat uncomfortable collision of the two.  The US Olympic Wrestling Trials were in town and we all wrestled for hotel rooms, but I’m pleased to report that neither group was written off – nor eliminated – in the process.

I was mightily impressed with the University of Iowa’s medical school and its medical humanities faculty.  Creative writing classes for credit are offered to all students, and for those who are particularly keen, the fine arts can be integrated throughout their degrees as part of the Humanities Distinction Track Program.  A literary journal is published twice yearly and the annual Examined Life Conference attracts like-minded people from around the world.

North Coast GP training was well represented, with both Hilton Koppe and me presenting workshops.  Being the only two Australian presenters and two of the three Australian delegates did not help correct the misperception commonly held by our American colleagues – that Australia’s medical community is so parochial that everyone knows everyone else.  The irony is that Hilton and I submitted abstracts entirely independently and only knew of each other’s involvement when the program came out.  Perhaps we should talk to each other more often!

After two days of pre-conference writing workshops, the three-day conference proper offered a delectable mix of lectures, workshops, panel discussions and performance pieces.  The evening activities included a key note presentation by Philip Levine (the current United States Poet Laureate), a cocktail party and an evening of participant readings at the iconic independent bookstore, Prairie Lights.

As is so often the case, the highlight for me was the social interaction.  The meeting of like minds, the sharing of experiences, the gaining of contacts and the making of friends were all in abundance.  Sometimes I think a conference with no program, just venue and delegates, would provide just as rich an experience as a highly organised and tightly scheduled one.  Just a thought.  Not that the sessions at The Examined Life weren’t excellent.  I enjoyed each and every one.  My only regret was that I have not yet mastered the skill of being in more than one place at once – I would’ve loved to have been able to attend all of the concurrent sessions.

I’ve come away inspired and motivated – infused with ideas on how to improve my own creative output and on new ways to weave creativity into my medical educator role.  Now if I can somehow figure out a way to manufacture an extra day or three in the week, I just might have an outside chance of implementing them all!

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