Get Your Words Out

Having completed reading and grading close to 150 nursing student personal narrative policy papers (based on the Narrative Matters series in the health policy journal Health Affairs) for a public/population health course, I am energized by what they wrote—and by how well they wrote about compelling and timely public health issues they have a personal connection with. The ongoing and worsening opioid epidemic and diseases of despair, immigrant and migrant health, eating disorders and other mental health issues made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, racism, environmental justice/climate change, elder health, vaccine hesitancy, and the occupational and safety fallout from the effects of how poorly our country and healthcare system have dealt with the pandemic.

As I read many of these student personal narrative policy papers, I thought of the wise words I heard recently from the author and environmental activist Terry Tempest Williams. She said, “Anger is polemic and no one wants to hear it. Rage is a story. There’s something behind rage. Anger is a shout; rage is a simmer. A piece written out of sacred rage lasts, while an op-ed is usually anger and people wrap fish in the paper the next day.” The most effective and powerful student papers tapped into that river of controlled, simmering rage. The nursing students who wrote these papers give me great hope for not only the future of nursing but also for our collective future.

I’ve promised to help them carry their words into publication of some sort should they choose to do so. Their lived experiences, their words, their perspectives are important. Of course, some students may not have the time or energy to revise their papers and submit them for publications. Others may have personal stories and perspectives that they are willing to only share with me. That is fine and I honor their decisions. Others have written to tell me that my feedback and encouragement to publish have motivated them to pursue that. Several have told me that they are so ‘on fire’ with the content and messages of their papers that they want to work on revision and publication over the holiday school break.

So here is my advice for them and for any of you readers, nurses or otherwise, who have compelling stories to tell to a wider audience.

  1. Ask yourself if you are ready to share your personal stories to strangers—and if you are ready to receive feedback, good or bad (or indifferent) on your story, not just by reviewers/editors, but also by readers once your story is published.
  2. Ask yourself if this is your story to tell and review the ethical guidelines provided by different publishing venues. As a general rule, altering patient or institutional identities is required.
  3. Read content and become familiar with a wide variety of publishing venues to see what sorts of things they publish before deciding to submit a piece of writing to them.
  4. Sometimes it is easier to start small, with submitting a shorter piece of writing to a publishing venue you like, are familiar with, and that has a track record of providing a kind and timely response and review/decision. One of my personal favorites is Pulse: Voices from the Heart of Medicine out of Montefiore Medical Center, Albert Einstein College of Medicine. For students, submitting work to a student-led narrative medicine/health humanities journal can be a good idea. At the University of Washington we have Capillaries: The Journal of Narrative Medicine.

2 thoughts on “Get Your Words Out

  1. I’m glad to learn of this quotation about anger and rage. I’ve had interesting discussions with my students about what they’ve been told and what they assume about the place of their emotions in our classroom, in their learning, in their writing, and in their activism and I think this distinction will be a useful addition to that conversation. Thanks, too, for the links and recommendations about outlets for this kind of work–I am compiling for students in my narrative medicine course a list of places where they might find poems or short works they can bring to class when it is their turn to lead a close reading/writing session so I’m happy to have these to add to the list.

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