The Ultimate Writing Prompt

English: Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco ...
English: Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco at sunset (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday we wrapped up the student-led group presentations in our narrative medicine course. There were eight in total over a period of four weeks. As I mentioned before, I chose the eight topics: aging, cancer, death/dying, disability, drug addiction, infectious disease, mental illness, and racism. During our first class session students signed up for one of the eight topics. My instructions for the group projects were as follows: each group will do a class presentation on their topic for 45 minutes. For your presentation please include a one page (front/back) handout that includes your main references on the topic as well as two in-class writing prompts. The group project/presentation was worth 40% of their final grade. I referred them to the excellent website/resource NYU Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database as a starting point for resources, but asked them to expand upon this, bringing in different arts and literature examples they found particularly helpful.

There are two things I would do differently with the group presentations the next time I teach this narrative medicine course. One is that I would set some parameters around the main focus of their presentations. All eight groups used PPT for their presentations, but more than a few had many ‘busy’ PPT slides with statistics on the ‘dis-ease’ topic of the day–stats such as prevalence of suicide. And their writing prompts reflected this clinical gaze, for instance showing a video clip of a person about to commit suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge; their writing prompt being “How would you feel if you were on that bridge with them, and what would you say to them?” Which leads to the second thing I’d change in the course, and that would be to find a way to help guide the groups in writing good writing prompts. I wouldn’t want to be too controlling with it, but I would want to help students develop more artful/less clinical writing prompt and response skills. For instance, for the above student-generated writing prompt I’d suggest changing it to, “Write about a time you worked with a patient who was in despair.” But I mostly resisted the temptation to step in during class and refine the student’s writing prompts.

Writing good writing prompts is a more advanced skill and one that only comes from lots of trial and error. I don’t know of any specific guides or sources of narrative medicine-type writing prompts, but here are two books I turn to when I’m stuck for ideas. The main one is Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux‘s The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry (WW Norton & Company, 1997). For instance, at the end of their chapter “Images” they have this excellent writing prompt: “Describe a pair of shoes in such a way that a reader will think of death. Do not mention death in the poem.” (Perhaps Joan Didion used this writing prompt for the powerful shoe portions of her book The Year of Magical Thinking). A second resource is Susan Zimmerman’s Writing to Heal the Soul: Transforming Grief and Loss Through Writing (Three Rivers Press, 2002). A prompt she includes in the chapter “Experiencing Death” is a common but still effective writing prompt: “Write about your own first experience of death, the awakening to the fact of death’s reality.” My students used this one in their presentation on death/dying. It was an effective prompt based on the quality of student writing.

For the ultimate writing prompt–one that I haven’t used in class but plan to try out is “Write your own obituary.” A twist on this one is included in Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola‘s Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction (McGraw Hill, 2005–second edition 2013). In their chapter “Last Words” they include the writing prompt: “What are your ‘last words’? What would you write if you knew your time was up?” There’s a recent example of a Seattle-area writer who wrote her own obituary, which her family paid to be published in the Seattle Times on July 28th. It was written by Jane Lotter, age 60, who died at her home on July 18th from uterine cancer–under our state’s Death with Dignity Act. Michael Winerip wrote about it for the NYT “Dying with Dignity and the Final Word on Her Life” (Aug 5, 2013).

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.


Moral Distress: Call for Stories

Moraldistress is the psychological disequilibrium when a person believes he or

Moral Compass
Moral Compass (Photo credit: psd)

she knows the right course of action to take but cannot carry out that action because of an obstacle, such as institutional constraints or lack of power. (source: Arizona Bioethics Network). Moral distress has been studied in nurses—mainly acute care nurses—since the 1980s. Although imperfectly defined and measured, moral distress appears to be strongly related to professional burnout and patient safety issues in a variety of health care professionals including doctors. (see NYT article “When Doctors and Nurses Can’t Do the Right Thing” Pauline Chen, 2-5-09).

A 2010 symposium focused on moral distress was held at the University of Victoria on Vancouver Island. As reported recently by Bernadette Pauly and her colleagues in the journal Healthcare Ethics Committee Forum (2012, issue 24) interventions targeting moral distress have focused on individual coping skills of nurses and other providers. (I’ve mainly seen interventions such as deep breathing, meditation and journaling.) Most research has focused on acute care nurses and has reinforced the notion of “nurse as victim” in the hierarchical hospital system. Pauly and colleagues called for greater attention to structural issues involved with moral distress, including the ethical climate of the hospital administration. In addition, they questioned the current emphasis in nursing education on teaching ethical frameworks instead of specific guidance and skills in how to navigate increasingly complex ethical terrain in everyday practice. They also recommended interprofessional education—bringing together nursing, medical and other health professions students for this sort of ethics education.

The journal Narrative Inquiry in Bioethicshas a call for stories about moral distress from nurses and other health care clinicians. It would be great to see submissions from nurses working in schools, public health, home health, community-based clinics, and occupational health sites, as well as from acute care settings. This is your chance to contribute to a forum that could contribute to some positive structural changes in our health care system—and not just more deep breathing and meditation trainings.

Here’s the information: Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics Call for Stories

Narrative Symposium: The Many Faces of Moral Distress Among Clinicians

Edited by Cynda Hylton Rushton, PhD, RN, F.A.A.N. and Renee Boss, MD, MHS

Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics will publish an issue devoted to personal stories from clinicians regarding situations that cause moral distress and how they have responded to them. Moral distress arises when professionals find that they are unable to act in accordance with their moral convictions. The focus of this inquiry is on the personal and professional short- and long-term impact of moral distress and the ways that clinicians respond to and make meaning from that distress. Appropriate contributors might include nurses, physicians, social workers, nursing assistants, clinical ethicists, occupational and physical therapists, and professionals in training. We want true, personal stories in a form that is easy to read.

In writing your story, you might want to think about:

·         Which specific clinical situations give rise to moral distress? Why?

  • How do you experience moral distress—physically, psychologically, socially or spiritually?
  • How do you deal with moral distress? In past distressing situations

o   Did you take actions that allowed you to uphold your deepest values?

o   What conditions within yourself, the people involved, and the external environment allowed you to do this?

o   How did you made sense of the situation?

  • What have been the short or long term consequences?

o   Have you ever been professionally disciplined for acting upon your moral conviction?

o   How has moral distress affected your job performance or your commitment to your job?

o   What has been left undone or been the residual impact?

o   How have your own values evolved as a result of moral distress?

  • How would you change the system (e.g., policies, hierarchies, processes) to alleviate moral distress within your position? Do you think it can be alleviated, or is it inevitable?

You do not need to address all of these questions—write on the issues that you think are most important to share with others. You do not need to be a writer, just tell your story in your own words. We plan to publish 12 stories (800 – 2000 words) on this topic. Additional stories may be published as online-only supplemental material. We also publish two to four commentary articles that discuss the stories in the journal.

If you are interested in submitting a story, we ask you first to submit a 300-word proposal—a short 
description of the story you want to tell. Please include a statement about what type of clinician you are and what kind of environment you work in (no institutional names are needed). Inquiries or proposals should be sent to the editorial office via email: We will give preference to story proposals received by Oct 31st. For more information about the journal Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics, the guidelines for authors, and privacy policies, visit our webpage with Johns Hopkins University Press at:


‘Obamacare’ Working for Young Adults

English: Barack Obama signing the Patient Prot...
English: Barack Obama signing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act at the White House (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that took effect in September 2010 allowed children/young adults to stay on their parent’s health insurance policies until their 26th birthday. The reason for this provision was that young adults ages 19-25 had the highest rates of being uninsured of any age group in the U.S.

For the past two springs in my health policy course I’ve asked students to raise their hands if they were now receiving health insurance under the ACA provision. This past spring about half of the students in this age range raised their hands. My own son who is in graduate school has been able to continue on my health insurance because of the ACA. Highly unscientific evidence for this part of the ACA working, but evidence nonetheless.

Now there is more objective evidence that the ACA is working for young adults. A NYT article today by Sabrina Tavernise “More Young Adults Have Health Insurance After Health Care Law, Study Says,” reports on data from a recent CDC/National Health Interview Survey. Lack of health insurance among young adults 19-25 fell from 33.9 percent in 2010 to 27.9 percent in 2011, translating into about 1.6 million fewer uninsured young adults. There was a corresponding increase in young adults having private insurance over the same time period, from 49.3 percent in the third quarter 2010 to 58.8 percent in the fourth quarter 2011. These positive changes for young adults were seen across different racial groups. Additional evidence that the ACA is working for young adults is that lack of insurance grew for adults ages 26-34.

As most everyone knows by now, young adults have been the hardest hit by the Great Recession. It is good to hear that something is going in their favor.

Hospital Dirty Laundry Exposed

Laundry (Photo credit: Bilal Kamoon)

Julie Creswell and Reed Abelson of the NYT are writing a series of fascinating articles exposing hospital giant HCA (Hospital Corporation of America), now the largest for-profit hospital chain in the US. Their NYT article today “A Giant Hospital Chain is Blazing a Profit Trail” finally explains to me the story behind the strange digital billboards I saw in June when I was visiting my father in Richmond, Virginia. They seemed to be everywhere along major roads, flashing obnoxious red-lighted wait times for the emergency rooms at two HCA hospitals–one being CJW, which the NYT article calls out as being one of the worst hospitals in the US in terms of bedsores (bedsores being a fairly good indicator of poor nursing care).

Last week (8-6-12, “Hospital Chain Inquiry Cited Unnecessary Cardiac Work) they wrote about a whistleblower, C.T. Tomlinson, a traveling nurse, who in 2010 worked as a cardiac nurse at the Lawnwood Regional Medical Center in Florida. Tomlinson was present in the cardiac catheterization lab when an HCA cardiologist inserted a stent into a patient who did not need it. Tomlinson reported the incident to his nursing supervisor who supposedly told him to forget about it. So he wrote a letter to the chief ethics officer of HCA’s hospitals in Florida who investigated his complaints and found them to be substantiated. Soon after Tomlinson wrote the letter of complaint, his contract to work as a nurse with HCA was terminated. It is not clear from the article whether or not he has filed a lawsuit for wrongful termination under Whistleblower protection. The HCA chief ethics officer’s investigation found that about half of all the cardiac catheterizations at Lawnwood Regional Medical Center were unnecessary, but did not alert the patients involved. It is unclear how many patients may have been harmed by the unnecessary cardiac work they had done. HCA also did not alert Medicare, state Medicaid or private insurers who were charged for the expensive procedures.