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Living the Dream

I retired from psychiatry and began writing fiction -- full-time. I'll soon to be 71 and am finally doing what I always wanted: writing heart-pumping thrillers. It's never too late to live the dream.
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I always had dreams.

It's May 1956 at Ebbets Field, a bandbox of a baseball stadium, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers. My all-time hero, Gil Hodges, stands at first base. We'd snuck down to the first baseline box seats from our perch in the bleachers. In the blink of an eye, I'm standing next to Gil and talking with him. We're teammates. A 14-year-old boy's fantasy.

Baseball was in my DNA; I was a fine ballplayer. I had an uncle who, at 9, left home, heading for Vero Beach to try out for the Dodgers during spring training. He got as far as Philadelphia, where he was picked up by the Children's Aid Society. His was a kid's fantasy, a dream, like mine. I read sports novels and developed a love for fiction. Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jack London, Edgar Allan Poe and Ernest Hemingway became my new heroes.

I read voraciously and lived vicariously. I wanted to become a novelist.

But I lacked the courage to write.

Instead, I earned a business degree at NYU but had no idea what I wanted to do with it. In those days, the draft loomed over every college graduate, so the Army was next.

It was a complete life changer: As a medic tending to paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division, I saw broken bodies nearly every day. The paratroopers drove cars at 100 m.p.h.; after jumping from airplanes, these men feared nothing. Assisting in surgeries, watching autopsies, dressing wounds and the other experiences of a medical corpsman were so powerful that after discharge, I re-entered NYU as a premed student.

Medical school exposed me to psychiatry, in which I discovered its link to what was so appealing about fiction: Every patient had a unique story to tell.

As a psychiatric resident, I was required to present cases in seminars and conferences. Writing up those cases reminded me of the drama of the fictional characters I so loved as a kid. I was told that my presentations sounded like novels and that I possessed a writer's sensibilities.

But I still lacked the courage to begin writing.

I treated patients and taught interns, psychiatric residents, social workers and psychologists at New York Hospital, where I was a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Cornell University's medical school.

Forensic psychiatry was utterly fascinating. Legal battles and courtroom drama seemed almost fictional in intensity, and the adversarial system tapped into my passion for fireworks and suspense. Forensic psychiatry -- the application of psychiatry to legal issues -- was irresistible.

Cases involved situations far beyond the realm of ordinary human experiences. Crime victims and survivors of catastrophic accidents accounted for the majority of patients. People presented stories one would never encounter in a "regular" psychiatric practice. These legal matters required writing case histories: reports about people who escaped the World Trade Center on 9/11; victims of rapes, muggings and horrific accidents; wrongful death lawsuits; workers who survived falls from scaffolds; survivors of airplane crashes; and other extraordinary events. Lawyers and judges said my reports made the cases come alive on the page.

But I did not write fiction. I told myself I'd begin "one of these days."

Co-authoring five nonfiction medical books for lay audiences was rewarding. The best part was writing case histories illustrating the issues, whether they involved a woman dealing with breast cancer or a man struggling with the emotional residue of a heart attack. I used dialogue and drama to give the writing life and color. It was medicine, psychiatry and storytelling combined. But though I was writing, I was not penning that first novel.

The dream was deferred.

Then my wife was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer. She underwent intensive treatments and, thankfully, is doing well. At the same time, I was about to turn 70. What was I waiting for? What excuse could I now find to put off my dream? Did I need anything more as a reminder that life is unpredictable and finite?

I retired from psychiatry and began writing fiction -- full-time. I worried that I had delayed the dream for too long, that time was against me. An 86-year-old friend, a man whose wisdom and common sense I respect enormously, said, "Mark, write like you're going to live forever. Don't stop."

So, that's what I'm doing. I've written one novel, with another coming in September 2013. And more are on the way. Am I in my second career or my fourth? Does it matter?

I'll soon to be 71 and am finally doing what I always wanted: writing heart-pumping thrillers -- pure fiction.

It's never too late to live the dream.

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