I became a paramedic to make myself a better writer. I admit I wasn’t totally sure how it’d work; was one of those you-just-know-it’s-right impulses. Also I needed a job after college and it made some crazy sense. In many ways, EMS is the perfect side career for an artist. First of all, it’s not a nine-to-five. Something about that five day a week grind has always stifled the shit outta my impulse to create and I’ve been able to work midnights since I started as a medic eight years ago. I’m groggily heading home against the current of morning commuters and up writing as the afternoon turns to night.
Downtime is unpredictable – there are nights when we do very little and nights when we never stop. This can be jarring, especially when it’s all quiet for hours and then suddenly you’re arm-deep in some pileup on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway or dosing out valium for a seizing child.But I’ve finished manuscripts in between calls, sometimes writing from the comfort of the stretcher in the back (best naps EVER on that thing) and sometimes tinkering away in the supply closets and locker rooms. Any job that lets you get even a small amount of work done on your other life is a win for artists.
When people find out what I do, after they ask me what the most effed up call I’ve ever had is, they often say "Oh that’s perfect for a writer, you must see so much!" And yes, this is true, but the real heart of why I do what I do lies in a subtle distinction. We see plenty, of course. 911 puts the whole swath of humanity on brutal display in all its hilarity, compassion, tragedy and ickiness. As first responders, we show up in the thick of most people’s moment of crisis, that peak of the mountain on the plot chart they always show in writing classes, and we’re usually the ones ferrying them right into the falling action. Of course I’m taking notes along the way.
But I didn’t become a medic because we see things, I did it because we do things. Because we’re intimately entwined in the lives and deaths of our patients. For better or worse, like it or not, we’re part of the story. We arts people are prone to forgetting this truth. It’s easier for artists to think of ourselves as invisible, lurking outside everything, gazing in at the world with conflict-hungry eyes and scribbling down all the chaos we witness. Books on writing invariably preach that we need to write every single day, and when we’re not writing we need to be reading, writing or reading! Always! But there’s another ingredient they leave out: Live! Participate in the changing universe. Take part. Fall in love. Fall to pieces. Get your life back together. Fight for something you believe in.
And then come home and write it all down. Because when we get so caught up in documenting that we believe ourselves to be invisible, non-players, we negate the best thing about what we do: that creation is one of the most profound forms of action a person can take. We create. We stay up all night, bending our experiences into legends that resonate, then we usher them into existence and scatter them across as wide an audience as possible.And stories change the world. As writers, we are agents of change. The more we own that, the more we step into the universe instead of pretending to hover outside of it, the more ferocious and beautiful our stories become.
There’s no simple answer for how this applies on a practical level. It’s a way of being rather than a method, so it manifests in a million different indescribable ways. All I know is there’s a certain something that most of my favorite writers radiate with, a way that they move, and I truly believe that it has everything to do with their engagement with the world. As for me, my job is a constant reminder: no matter how much we try and conceal ourselves behind plot devices or metaphors, we’re always there, arm-deep in the crisis of our greatest stories.
I close with this quote from one of my favorites, because these words were part of the equation that put me on this path and changed my world:
“I’m not asking you to describe the rain falling the night the archangel arrived; I’m demanding that you get me wet. Make up your mind, Mr. Writer, and for once in your life be the flower that smells rather than the chronicler of the aroma. There’s not much pleasure in writing what you live. The challenge is to live what you write.” – Eduardo Galeano
Daniel José Older is a writer, composer, and paramedic living in Brooklyn, New York. His short stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Flash Fiction, Crossed Genres, and The Innsmouth Free Press, among others. He has facilitated workshops on gender violence and racism at public schools, religious houses, universities, and prisons all over the east coast. His soul band Ghost Star regularly performs original multimedia theater productions about New York history at venues around the city. You can read his ridiculous and true ambulance adventures at www.raval911.blogspot.com and hear his music at ghoststar.net.