Shocking News: Nurses Can (and do) Read and Write

Who would have thought the world would come to this? A world in which there are IMG_1009so many nurses who are not only reading real books, but also writing real books, or essays, or poems, or short stories—so many nurses with the audacity (and ability) to obtain writing credentials, MFAs, writing certificates, and bona fide publications in non-nursing literary magazines and anthologies for God’s sake! Shocking indeed.

That was one of the main takeaway messages I got this week from listening to a podcast interview with Lee Gutkind on RN.FM radio. Lee Gutkind is the founder and editor of the literary magazine Creative Nonfiction; he is also the editor of the recently published anthology I Wasn’t Strong Like This When I Started Out: True Stories of Becoming a Nurse, edited by Lee Gutkind (In Fact Books, 2013).

In the radio interview, Gutkind states that the anthology was something he had wanted to do for a long time. Whenever he pitched the book idea to publishers they rejected it, saying it was a bad idea because nurses don’t write and nurses don’t read. So with the support of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation he published it himself under the new imprint of the Creative Nonfiction Foundation. Gutkind admits that he was surprised by the volume of submissions to the anthology, that the submissions “were so much better than we expected,” and “how many had writing degrees, writing experiences, as well as being nurses—it was encouraging to us.”  

The book was first released in early April, quickly sold out, and is now into its third printing. (Amazon says it is out of stock/due in 1-3 months but they should have it in stock much sooner than that. Elliott Bay Book Company has the book in stock and can ship it to you. They hosted our reading of the book this week/is what photo is of). Jane Gross, in her May 20th NYT book review Semi-invisible’ Sources of Strength, wrote of the anthology:

It is beautifully wrought, but more significantly a reminder that these “semi-invisible” people, as Lee Gutkind calls them in this new book, are now the “indispensable and anchoring element of our health care system.”

I would argue that nurses always have been the ‘indispensable and anchoring element in our health care system’ and that most laypersons have long recognized this fact. Perhaps what is different now is that people higher up in the rigid health care system hierarchy are being forced to recognize this. The forces contributing to this shift are fascinating and complex, but have to include the growing proportion of BSN prepared nurses in our country’s workforce. Both Jane Gross and Canadian nurse author Tilda Shalof (whose essay Ms. Gross quotes from) are dating themselves by focusing on the outdated rift between diploma/Associate’s degree (ADN) and four-year university-educated nurses in tertiary care settings. Ladies: in the U.S. that battle is over. As the authors of the Institute of Medicine’s 2010 The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health report states:

The formal education associated with obtaining the BSN is desirable for a variety of reasons, including ensuring that the next generation of nurses will master more than basic knowledge of patient care, providing a stronger foundation for the expansion of nursing science, and imparting the tools nurses need to be effective change agents and to adapt to evolving models of care. (p. 4-9)

Currently, 50% of the U.S. nursing workforce are BSN prepared; the Future of Nursing report has set the goal to increase that to 80% by 2020. What a BSN education includes that an ADN education does not, are grounding in liberal arts (including literature and writing), leadership development, and public health/health policy competencies (more complex systems-level thinking)—all essential ingredients for more nurses to be readers, writers, and change agents in our health care system.

Something that I found disturbing in the radio interview and discussion was how much the two nurse radio hosts stayed stuck in the tiresome tropes of  “nurses as an oppressed profession,” (and specifically that they are oppressed by physicians) and that nurses “empower patients.” “Empowering” someone else is a slippery slope ethically and even practically, and nurses are not the only members of the healthcare team to advocate for patients. As to nurses being oppressed—oppression is understood to mean the unjust or cruel exercise of power. Yes, there are still ‘unjust cultures’ within hospitals that negatively impact nurses (as in the case of Kim Hiatt here in Seattle), but to extrapolate that to the statement that all nurses are oppressed is not only incorrect, it is unhelpful. Unhelpful to the image of nursing and unhelpful to the improvement of our health care system.


One of the radio hosts recommended that Gutkind offer a nurse writer conference—as a way to bring nurse writers together, to foster a community of nurse writers. Gutkind replied by encouraging listeners to e-mail him if they are interested in such a conference ( or under ‘contact form’ at

Becoming a Nurse: The Events

becominganurseThis week Jane Gross in the NYT wrote a nice review of the new book I Wasn’t Strong Like This When I Started Out: True Stories of Becoming a Nurse, edited by Lee Gutkind (In Fact Books, 2013). The title of the book review is  ‘Semi-invisible’ Sources of Strength, referring to the fact that nurses are often the un-sung, un-heard, un-seen cast members in the grand drama that is modern medicine. Semi-invisible sources of strength: I suppose then that nurses are to health care what the backbone is to the human body? Lumpy and bumpy, semi-visible through the skin, at times painful? OK, I’ll stop with the analogy.

In the days following the NYT book review, True Stories of Becoming a Nurse quickly became one of their top sellers. In the past day it has been in the top 20 on Amazon. Fascinating to see the book filed under “healing,” “spirituality,” and “personal transformation,” as if it belongs in Whole Foods next to the crystals and incense and socks made of recycled bamboo. Thanks Jane Gross for writing the review and thanks NYT for including it. That Ms. Gross focused her review on the old old and seriously tiresome rift between diploma-trained and university-educated nurses in tertiary care settings is unfortunate—but understandable given that she was writing the review as a testament to her diploma-trained RN mother. I get it; I’ll move on to more important topics.

Our University of Washington (with support from 4Culture)-sponsored Becoming a Nurse book launch on April 18th at Suzzallo Library in Seattle was a great success. We had a total of five nurse author panelists who read from their anthology essays. Many, many thanks to the four panelists (Kim Condon, Eddie Leuken, Lori Mulvihill, and Karla Theilen) who paid their own way out here to attend the event. I only had to ride my bike two miles in the rain to get to the event—several of the other panelists flew in from across the country). Many, many thanks as well to the mighty team of UW Health Science librarians (Tania Bardyn, Lisa Oberg, Joanne Rich, and Janet Schnall) for organizing, hosting, and recording the event. The video recording of the readings is here . Note that the audio quality is much better than the video but you can see our general shapes as we read!. You can’t see the wonderful audience but they packed the room—standing room only. Thanks all you supportive audience members!

In case you missed the UW Suzzallo Library Becoming a Nurse event, we will have another Becoming a Nurse reading next month (Tuesday June 11th, 7pm) at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. I will be reading along with Eddie Leuken and Karla Theilen). All three of us will read excerpts from our anthology essays, as well as new work.

This Friday (May 24th) at 6:30pm I’ll be reading at the Northwest Folk Life Festival in Seattle as part of the 2013 Jack Straw Writers Program. (6:30-7:30pm SIFF Cinema/Narrative Stage). Kathleen Flenniken, poet laureate of Washington State will be the host/KUOW sponsors the event. I’ll be reading from new work from my collection of poetry and prose I’m working on called Soul Stories: the stories feet can tell about the journey of homelessness. In the essay I’ll read I ask myself (and partially answer) the questions: why am I drawn to the suffering of others? Why have I spent the past thirty years working as a nurse with homeless and marginalized people? Wouldn’t I be happier if I was drawn to work as a shoe buyer for Saks Fifth Avenue? Questions I am sure many nurses and others in helping professions ask themselves.


The following is the press release for the book.

I Wasn’t Strong Like This When I Started Out: True Stories of Becoming a Nurse
Edited by Lee Gutkind
Featuring new work by Theresa Brown, Tilda Shalof, and others.


As editor Lee Gutkind points out in the introduction to I Wasn’t Strong Like This When I Started Out, “there are over 2.7 million working RNs in the United States (not to mention our many LPNs and LVNs), compared to about 690,000 physicians and surgeons. There are more nurses in the United States than engineers … or accountants and auditors … And, yet, many of us take the work these men and women do for granted.”


This collection of true narratives captures the dynamism and diversity of nurses, who provide the vital first line of patient care. Here, nurses remember their first “sticks,” first births, and first deaths, and reflect on what gets them through long demanding shifts, and keeps them in the profession. The stories reveal many voices from nurses at different stages of their careers: One nurse-in-training longs to be trusted with more “important” procedures, while another questions her ability to care for nursing home residents. An efficient young emergency room nurse finds his life and career irrevocably changed by a car accident. A nurse practitioner wonders whether she has violated professional boundaries in her care for a homeless man with AIDS, and a home care case manager is the sole attendee at a funeral for one of her patients. What connects these stories is the passion and strength of the writers, who struggle against burnout and bureaucracy to serve their patients with skill, empathy, and strength.
Pub. Date: March 2013, ISBN: 978-0-393-07156-6, 5 ½ x 8 ¼, Trade Paper, 278 pages,
$15.95, Distributed by Publishers Group West


Lee Gutkind has explored the world of medicine, technology and science through writing for more than 25 years. He is the author of 15 books, including Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation, and the editor of five anthologies about health and medicine, including At the End of Life: True Stories About How We Die.

In Fact Books is a new imprint founded and edited by Lee Gutkind, editor and founder of Creative Nonfiction. In Fact Books titles help create an understanding of our world through thoughtful, engaging narratives on a wide variety of topics and real-life experiences. All titles are distributed by Publishers Group West. For more information, please visit
For interview requests and other media related questions, please contact:
Hattie Fletcher at or (412) 688-0304.