Nurses and Writing: Writers and Nursing

Headshot of Louisa May Alcott (November 29, 18...
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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.

16 thoughts on “Nurses and Writing: Writers and Nursing

  1. Josephine,
    I happened upon this post while Googling “nursing narratives.” I’m giving a talk next week to nurses about why we should write our life stories and wanted more background than my own experiences and feelings. Thanks for confirming what I have found–there are too few nurses who write creative nonfiction. And certainly more so when compared with physicians. I have found with the talks I’ve given on my recently published memoir–Caring Lessons: A Nursing Professor’s Journey of Faith and Self–that there is a great interest out there among both nurses and lay persons about the life of a nurse. Thanks for this post! I will be referencing a quote or two. Lois Roelofs

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    1. Lois,
      Thanks for this comment and information on your new book. Yes, we need more nurses/writers. Check out Theresa Brown’s excellent
      new article out in the Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing called “Nurse as Writer, Writer as Nurse.”
      Perhaps we need to start a ‘cloud’ of nurse writers, nurses who write, writers who are nurses.
      Josephine

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  2. Josephine,
    I will check that article out. Thanks. And, yes, a cloud may be a good way to keep new and more seasoned nurse writers encouraged. And reminded to write professionally–I’m embarrassed by some sites written by nurses.
    Lois

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  3. I too would like to belong to a group of nurses who write. I am at the “Narrative Medicine” conference at the U. of Iowa this weekend and see only 1-2 nurses on the participants list. Karen Hardin, RN, MSN, Director, BSN Programs, Marian Unversity, Indianapolis

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    1. Hi Karen,
      Yes! Where are the nurses here? I have run into a few ‘former’ nurses here at the conference who do other things now and don’t identify as a nurse with credentials, etc on the conference list. But still only a handful in a sea of MDs who write. I’m collecting names/contact info of nurses who identify as both nurses and as writers, and hope to pull us all together into the heavenly host of a cloud or some such networking group–so stay tuned. If you know of others who are interested, please let them know.

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  4. I am so happy to have found your blog! As I read I kept thinking, “Can I get a witness?” You see, I finished a BA in Lit a decade before I started a BS in Nursing. I tutored for several years after the BA with the “online writery” on my college campus. Nursing students were NOT impressive writers, to say the least. And, as you mention above, brevity is key in nursing documentation/communication (or the lack thereof-ha ha). I have been worried that I have lost/will lose the ability to write eloquently, and thought I would be hard-pressed to find a career that allowed me to “do” both.

    On an entirely different note, people have asked me how on earth I could go from studying English to studying Nursing. To many, it would seem as though these fields are opposites. . . . But, isn’t it a no-brainer? My patients are my stories-or I get to be a part of their story-however you want to look at it. . . . .

    Look forward to reading more of your blog!

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    1. Hi Kimberly,
      Glad to know you are out there. Yes–it is a no-brainer to me that writing, reading good literature/poetry and nursing go well together. It is understood and valued much more within medicine than it is within nursing–probably because nurses have traditionally been female ‘functional doers.’ It doesn’t help that within BSN programs the only writing students are asked to do consists of nursing care plans and stilted ‘term papers.’ Even the ‘journal writing’ asked of many nursing students for clinical rotations is not reflective writing. I just slogged through reading/grading #135 7-page narrative reflection papers for my undergrad and grad students. I am happy to report that there are some amazing ‘nurse writers’ coming out into the world!

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  5. Do you have any suggestions for nurse fiction writers? I wrote a novel based on my experiences in nursing school (some things were changed so I do not consider it nonfiction), and am having a difficult time finding an agent who looks for this type of material.
    Thanks for any advice!

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    1. Thanks for the question–I’ll try to answer it here as other people may have similar questions. I’d suggest first trying to find/tie into an existing writer’s community wherever you live. They can be invaluable resources for all things related to the writing life. For instance, here in Seattle I would suggest looking into classes/seminars/groups through Hugo House. The publishing world is in major flux right now and many people say it is easier to find a small press publisher than it is to find an agent. And then there is the self-publishing option, which isn’t as shabby an option as it once was. But first I’d suggest you try to build up a publishing track record–like seeing if there are parts of your novel you could re-work as stand alone essays and submit them to different literary journals. A good resource is Poets and Writers–they have a print journal and also an online version (http://www.pw.org/). Good luck and don’t give up!

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  6. Dear Josephine, Why is it so happening that many of the nurses are brilliant enough to write but they are not….. Even they are not encouraged ?….. Even their writings disregarded by the media?

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    1. There are many different reasons to write and having what we write ‘regarded’ by the media (or the ‘public’ however they are defined) is just one of many. Sheer egosim comes to mind and that’s really not a bad reason as long as it is not the only one, and as long as the writer with the ego in question has something worthwhile to say and in a coherent manner. Nurses in general need to learn how to work with the media more effectively, and not just in terms of their own writing. Take a look at Hunter College’s Center for Health Media and Policy, specifically their media and leadership training (http://centerforhealthmediapolicy.com/media-messaging-training/).

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  7. Dear Josephine: I also thank you for the excellent advice you provide here. I just came upon your website while taking a break from proofing and editing my son’s paper on the evolution of Jazz–interesting! 🙂 Yet again, however, I was confounded by another scarce search for supportive resources for the expert, well-educated, experienced RN who has the desire to finally commit to investing herself in the pursuit of a career in writing–be it journalism, non-fiction, research, professional or lay education, etc–the plain and simple, “down and dirty?!?” (I am one who must re-invent her self-worth and professional livelihood after sustaining permanent disability [on SSDI]; assistance through the OVR networks locally have been unsuccessful, as it appears my C.V. is intimidating.) Unlike many BSN, near MSN-educated RN’s, I studied in several programs that were heavily research-oriented (across all University disciplines), thus demanding of its students the completion of upper level humanities and liberal arts courses wherein one did not exit the program without demonstration of decent communication skills–of all types. (Yes, I DO argue that nursing will not truly “level the [health and medical profession] playing field” until all receive the rewards and benefits of such a curriculum, with the BSN required as minimum level of education for entry into practice as an RN.) Although I have harbored the desire to write professionally for decades, if for nothing more than the sheer delight of the crafting experience, I am now trusting that the accolades I’d garnered for my academic and professional writing skills truly validate my contention that I can recreate a productive and fulfilling alternative career, morphing the scientific and the creative for real financial sustenance.

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