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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here are some specific resources for where to get published. This is primarily intended for writers of personal essays, short stories and poems dealing with health and health care-related issues. I’ve geared the list towards nurses, but all of the journals included here accept writing from any type of health care provider, as well as from patients and family members.
Remember to do your homework before submitting to any of these journals or blogs: follow their current submission guidelines and read their published content to make sure it is a good fit for your work.
Good general all-around resources for writing and publishing:
Duotrope. They have recently added a nonfiction category to their excellent searchable database of literary journals and magazines, as well as information on small presses open to book manuscript submissions.
Good resource for almost all things related to medical humanities (intersection of medicine/healthcare and creative work):
American Journal of Nursing. I’ve linked to their editorial manager page that has information for potential authors. Check out their Art of Nursing, Viewpoint, and Reflections sections as these are the ones accepting more creative types of writing. (They also pay a $150 honorarium for each published piece!).
Bellevue Literary Review/NYC Langone Medical Center. Excellent print publication. Highly selective and they can take up to six months to review a submission, so I don’t recommend them for first-time authors. But I highly recommend the journal for reading good narrative medicine type writing. They also have really cool archived historical photos from Bellevue Hospital, the oldest continuously running hospital in the U.S. (although Hurricane Sandy seriously affected their buildings and operation).
Creative Nonfiction. This print journal is highly selective, only includes creative/narrative nonfiction, and is not primarily geared towards health-related writing. But the editor, Lee Gutkind, has his heart in medical narratives.
Pulse: Voices from the Heart of Medicine. “An online magazine that uses stories and poems from patients and health care professionals to talk honestly about giving and receiving medical care.” You can sign up to get a weekly short essay (800 word limit) or poem (they currently are closed to poetry submissions as they have too many to review).
The Examined Life Journal/University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. A relatively new (now biannual) print journal from the medical school linked with the most prestigious writing school in the country. This is where Abraham Verghese honed his writing skills. They have a new annual writing contest/deadline is January 10, 2013.
Blogs can be a good place to get started as a writer. Consider submitting to an existing group blog to have your work included as a guest blogger. An excellent one is HealthCetera at the Center for Health Media and Policy at Hunter College. Joy Jacobson, MFA (health care journalist and poet) and James Stubenrauch, MFA (writer and editor) are both Senior Fellows at the Center for Health Media and Policy, Hunter College School of Nursing. They both have worked as editors for the American Journal of Nursing. I ‘spoke’ with them via e-mail this past week and they wanted me to encourage my students (and other nurses) to consider submitting a guest blog post.
So no excuses! Get your words out and get them published.
I promised my current cohort of community health nursing students the information in this blog post, but I wanted to offer it to other people—nursing or otherwise—who are interested in getting their writing in print (both traditional and virtual publication).
Here’s my advice for getting your health-related creative writing published. In follow-up posts I will provide specific resources for where to get published, as well as some ethical/practical writing guidelines specific to narrative nonfiction (true stuff written in an engaging, literary way). This information is mainly for writers of short-form (typically 6,000 words or less) fiction and non-fiction, and poetry. It doesn’t include advice for academic journal writing or book-length works. The following recommendations are based on my personal experience (mainly publishing narrative nonfiction in literary journals), as well as the collective wisdom of the wonderful people in my Seattle writing group—The Shipping Group.
Submit your best work. The most important self-editing advice I ever got was to read my own writing out loud to myself (to my always attentive and appreciative Corgi/don’t try this with cats as they bore easily). You can pick up a lot of things that don’t ‘sound right’ by reading your work out loud.
Have your writing (essay, poem, etc) vetted by other people besides your significant other/spouse/co-workers who may not be objective enough to provide you with kind but honest feedback.
If you are a student, take advantage of the writing support resources at your school for editing and feedback (mainly for essays, but they should also have resources for writers of poetry and short fiction).
Find a local (or virtual) writing group to provide support. Indie bookstores and public libraries are good sources to find local writing groups.
Balance the advice of ‘submit your best work’ with the equally important reminder that some people take this too literally and never submit their writing.
Do your homework to make sure your writing piece fits the current submission criteria for the journal/blog, etc you are targeting. Read their submission criteria descriptions. Read samples of their published work. Ask their contact person for clarification if you are unsure of something. The contact people are generally really nice and helpful so don’t be afraid of them!
Begin a daily practice of repeating the mantra, “Rejection only means I am submitting my writing. Rejection only means I am submitting my writing….”
If something you submitted gets rejected one place, immediately submit it somewhere else.
If something you submitted gets rejected, but the editor writes you a personalized note of encouragement, take it seriously. That means they took time to tell you something specific that was positive about your writing.
Celebrate any and all of your publications. Writing itself is a radical act. But since most writing is intended to have an audience, achieving that communication link with a wider audience through publication is truly a radical act. So celebrate your accomplishment.