What’s in a name? Who are nurse writers and should there even be such a thing? I have been thinking about this as I write my first book Catching Homelessness. Since the book deals with my work as a nurse practitioner, I suppose it pushes me into the category of nurse writer. And since I now have non-nursing writing published in literary journals, does that qualify me as a nurse writer? If there is such a category.
“Nurse writer” doesn’t exist in Wikipedia, but “Physician writer” does. In fact, “Physician Writer” has an extensive entry, with a list of physician writers throughout history, dating back to the early Greeks. It is a decidedly Western-centric entry, and it would appear from the list that there were no Asian physicians—at least none who wrote—until the 20th century. So much for Wikipedia. Moving on in the fount of modern knowledge, “Professor Google” finds many interesting links to the search term “physician writer,” including the World Union of Physician Writers, and the Bryant Collection of over 1,000 books written by physician writers (yes, redundant) and housed in the NYU Medical Library.
“Professor Google” does not fare well with the search term “nurse writer.” The links it comes up with are measly and depressing. Textbook writing by nurses for nurses. If you’ve ever had to read a nursing textbook you will know that it often does qualify as creative writing, but not intentionally. Then there’s the equally embarrassing “nurse writing” website full of nurses’ patient chart entries/writing bloopers. Most are sexual in nature, but that’s another story. I despair.
There are nurse writers, nurses who are ‘real writers,’ and real writers who happen to be or have been nurses. Louisa May Alcott and Walt Whitman for instance, although both seem to have been accidental nurses and mainly were writers. I am sure that throughout history there have been more than a few writers who were closeted nurses or even more closeted writers who were nurses—at least the ones who had a closet of their own.
This past year I have forced myself to seek out, buy, and read books of prose and poetry by self-professed nurse writers. Of the three main nurse writers whose books I now own, there is only one that I can unreservedly recommend. That is Theresa Brown’s Critical Care: A New Nurse Faces, Death, Life, and Everything in Between (harperstudio, 2010). I like it because it is well written and doesn’t have a huge agenda to push. To me it reads as honest, down-to-earth, with a good dose of humor and self-insight by the author. I do not know Theresa Brown on a personal basis at this point, but I can see myself enjoying a dinner chat with her about nursing and writing at some future time.
The other two books on my desk are by nurse authors Courtney Davis and Sallie Tisdale. While I love much of Davis’ early poetry, lately her writing has been overpowered by her Catholic Pro-life politics. And Sallie Tisdale, who also writes well, has her own anti-high-tech medicine agenda, and is now a Pacific Northwest Buddhist monk—or nun. Somehow the mixing of strident religious beliefs and ‘nurse writing’ just doesn’t work. It dilutes the power of both.
Theresa Brown writes for the NYT “Well” blog, and I’ve been reading her entries for several years, secretly screaming “yes! Finally an intelligent ‘real nurse’ who can write!” Then I discovered that she was a Professor of English at Tufts University in her previous life, before deciding to become a nurse. That’s cheating. Nevertheless, I’m glad she’s ‘doing’ both nursing and writing, and I sincerely hope she never writes a nursing textbook. Wasted talent is a sad thing. And the world and nursing would be a better place/profession without more nursing textbooks.
Doug Brandt, an Associate Editor of the American Journal of Nurses hates the term “nurse writer” and contends that it demeans both nurses and writers. (“Be a Nurse, Be a Writer, Don’t be a ‘Nurse Writer’” AJN, March 4, 2009). He prefers that serious writers call themselves “writers who happen to be nurses.” Professor Google does not like that as a search term/phrase.
An article that I found more helpful was one written by Lawrence Long (not a nurse) who heads a writing center at the University of Connecticut School of Nursing. In “Remember the Nurses,” posted December 30th, 2009 on the NYU Medical Humanities “Literature, Arts and Medicine” blog, he asks why there are so few well-known current nurse authors. Of course, he includes lengthy quotes by Nightingale (see previous post “The Cult of Nightingale.”) But he brings up the point that nursing has been a servile, female, ‘functional doer’ sort of profession, and one not conducive to intentional creative writing. In addition, he reflects on how mainstream nursing education does not require a basic four-year liberal arts education where—traditionally at least—students are exposed to good literature and learn to write in complete sentences.
So, after much reflection, I have decided to call myself a writer. And a nurse.