Nurse Writers Arrive in Wiki-land

English: Manuscript handwritten by Walt Whitma...
English: Manuscript handwritten by Walt Whitman, American poet, for his poem “Broadway, 1861” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I wrote in a previous blog post “Nurses and Writing: Writers and Nurses” (3-31-11) the term “physician writer” is well-known and accepted by the general public, while the term “nurse writer” is not. Physician writer has had an extensive Wikipedia entry since March 2008.

Thanks to Dr. Thomas Lawrence Long, Associate Professor-in-residence at University of Connecticut School of Nursing, there is now a Wikipedia entry for “nurse writers.” Dr. Long has a PhD in English and a master’s degree in Theology. He teaches writing at a school of nursing and maintains a nurse writing website/blog resource called NursingWriting. Here is his Wikipedia definition of nurse writer:

“Nurse writers are registered nurses (RNs) who write for general audiences in the creative genres of poetry, fiction, and drama, as well as in creative non-fiction. The published work of the nurse writer is analogous to that of the physician writer, which may or may not deal explicitly with health topics but is informed by a professional experience of human vulnerability and acute observation.”

Nice definition, with the possible exception of the RN part. (Can’t an LPN writer be called a nurse writer? Plus, the RN designation is a relatively recent invention and may not translate to all countries). He also includes a list of nurse writers, beginning with 19th century writers, ranked by date of birth. Curiously, he left out Walt Whitman and Mary Seacole, who were both born before Florence Nightingale (who he lists first.) Including a well-known male nurse/writer (Whitman) and a nurse/writer of color (Seacole) would be a good idea. So someone out there who wants to add these, please do. While they’re at it they can add Mary Jane Nealon (Beautiful Unbroken: One Nurse’s Life, Graywolf Press, 2011) to the 21st century list.

Nurse writer Theresa Brown has a recent post (on Hunter College’s Center for Health Media and Policy blog Healthcetera) “Calling all nurse writers,” in which she encourages nurses to write. As Ms. Brown points out, nurses typically spend a lot of time with patients, have many stories to tell, and have a unique perspective on health care provision.

I have had many inquiries lately from nurses seeking advice on how to develop as creative writers. Here is my (very biased) advice:

1. Read. Read widely. Read great/classic literature as well as current writing from authors in a variety of genres. Read/subscribe to literary magazines. (My current list of literary journals includes Creative Nonfiction, The Examined Life, Bellevue Literary Review, and Fourth Genre. These are all top literary journals in my writing genre of literary nonfiction/narrative medicine.)

2. Write. Write something that is creative–for your eyes only– every day. Even if it is for just five minutes in a bathroom stall at work, during a sacred bathroom break, and you have to write on a paper towel–incorporate writing into your life.

3. Find/join a writer’s group/center in your community. In Seattle I recommend Hugo House as an excellent resource for writers at all ‘levels.’

4. Join  NYU‘s Medical Humanities listserv. Even though this is ‘hosted’ by NYU’s medical school, it is interdisciplinary and their website is an excellent resource.

5. If you are an academic or have to do academic writing in your work, find a way to purge that part of your writing brain–or at least find a way to compartmentalize it. Academic writing is formulaic and anti-creative.

6. Find a way to share your writing. This could be in a supportive writing group or class, at open-mic venues in your community, by submitting to a journal, or by posting to a blog.

The Lovely, Beautiful Unbroken

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11...
Image via Wikipedia

This is the first in what will be an ongoing collection of book reviews on newish literary non-fiction books by nurses, books about nursing, or about health care or marginalized populations. I’ve been immersed in reading the classics, and have purposefully been avoiding reading any books remotely similar to the one I am writing. But now that I am nearing completion of my book, I don’t fear derivative contamination.

Beautiful Unbroken: One Nurse’s Life by Mary Jane Nealon (Greywolf Press, 2011). A woman in my writing group recommended this book to me. Since our Shipping Group writer’s support group meets at Elliott Bay Book Company—a funky fun local independent bookstore—I promptly bought the book. When I looked at the cover—a photograph of a woman floating in water and the banner “Winner of the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference Bakeless Prize”—I wanted to hate it. Out of pure jealousy. I was wait-listed for this year’s Breadloaf Writer’s Conference, which was being held the week I bought Nealon’s book. I didn’t get in, and Mary Jane not only got to go to the conference for free, she’d gotten her book published as well.

Being out of my teenage years, I swallowed my whining and jealous pride and read the book. Twice. I loved it. The book is a memoir, written in chronological order beginning from her childhood in Jersey City as a quirky Irish-Catholic girl who wanted to be either a saint or a nurse. From the book blurb on the back cover:

Beautiful Unbroken details Nealon’s life of caregiving, from her years as a flying nurse, untethered and free to follow friends and jobs from the Southwest to Savannah, to more somber years in New York City, treating men in a homeless shelter on the Bowery and working in the city’s first AIDs wards. In this compelling and revealing memoir, Nealon brings a poet’s sensitivity to bear on the hard truths of disease and recovery, life and death.

My paperback copy is dog-eared throughout. But the vast majority of turned down pages occur in Part Three of the book, when Nealon moves back to New Jersey to work in New York City with patients with cancer—then with AIDs. The first two parts of the book are somewhat necessary background, but I didn’t find them as interesting or compelling as the last part, when it also moves into her writing life. “I lived in medicine and poetry, and they were not enemies at all. They celebrated the synchronicity of discovery and hope, of desire and knowledge. I knew there were people all over the world who lived without poetry, but I didn’t know how.” (p. 143)

Nealon’s descriptions of the effects on her of the 9-11 NYC attacks, as well as of the life and death of her police officer father “Red,” are some of the most haunting in her book. Now there is another person to add to my list of favorite nurse writers, or writers who are nurses.