August 2, 2012

Jim Stubenrauch is a CHMP senior fellow.

Photo by Amy Dixon

What I’m feeling right now in my body is a sense of comfort and familiarity, even though there are a few aches and pains. I’m an old blue work shirt hung across the back of a chair, and that’s fine for now. The breathing exercise we just did gives me a feeling of warmth and pleasure that flows down my arms and
legs. . . .

That’s what I was writing on a Friday morning two weeks ago, to a prompt from CHMP poet-in-residence Joy Jacobson, at the start of “Telling Stories, Discovering Voice: A Writing Weekend for Nurses,” a three-day writing intensive cosponsored by the CHMP and the Hunter–Bellevue School of Nursing. Joy and I led the workshop—the first of many, we hope—and joined in the writing exercises. I’m still processing what turned out to be an incredibly rich experience.

We had a small but surprisingly diverse group of nurses, nine in all (a good size: large enough to make for lively discussion, small enough to preserve intimacy). Some were beginning writers; others, more experienced. We spent the weekend writing, reading, and sharing stories.

As participants wrote about what matters to them and read their writings aloud, several remarked on how quickly a sense of community developed. They shared their writing even though it was sometimes difficult to do so and gave one another positive, useful feedback. To paraphrase Rita Charon’s definition of narrative medicine, our group of clinicians recognized, absorbed, interpreted, and were moved by one another’s stories.

One participant, Karen Hardin, MSN, RN, the director of BSN programs at Marian University School of Nursing in Indianapolis, wrote the following 55-word story during the weekend (writing samples are reproduced with permission; the patient’s names have been changed to protect privacy).

Room 316B

Alfonzo, homeless, speechless, bearded, with
embedded sock threads in leg sores oozing bloody, creamy pus.
On breaks, I drank cold soda, resting my feet on the radiator.
“Look at the view,” I said as we looked out over the boiler plant.
The day he died, Alfonzo took my hand. “Girlie,” he said, “be my nurse.”

It was both exciting and humbling to watch a roomful of people crank out stories like this in 10 or 15 minutes. The 55-word story she executed so beautifully is the result of a writing exercise we’ve used in our classes with nursing students. An article about clinicians using the form with some good examples is here.

Another participant, Amy Dixon, BSN, RN, who works with and blogs for the Visiting Nurse Service of New York, said that she worked on her 55-word story after the workshop and turned it into a poem:

Silk Blouse

Carine’s wearing a petite, black leather blazer over a silk, blue blouse.
The oxygen tank at her side like a loyal German shepherd.
Cannula tubing hangs over the arm of her chair.
She coughs. She hacks. She’s in her seventies.
I’m in my twenties and we’re about to discuss hospice.
She tenses, then relaxes. Moments.

Amy writes: “This workshop helped me blend storytelling, advocacy, and creative writing with my nursing practice. I particularly appreciated the open dialogue between the instructors and nurses in the group—as we shared our writing, we also defined the magnificence of our work as healers, advocates, educators, artists, and innovators. For me, a recurring theme became accumulated grief and burnout. . . . It has boosted my writing confidence to tell my truths about nursing.”

On Saturday afternoon Amy gave a great tutorial on Twitter and a discussion group that uses it, @RNchat. It’s open to anyone, so check it out.

Two other people deserve special mention: Donna Nickitas, PhD, CNAA, BC, RN, a professor at Hunter–Bellevue School of Nursing, whose help in planning the conference was invaluable, and Karen Roush, MS, RN, clinical managing editor of the American Journal of Nursing, who served as keynote speaker. Karen’s poetry, essays, and scholarly articles on domestic violence offered moving testimony on the power of storytelling.

Here’s a bit of what I wrote, to another prompt from Joy, in our last writing exercise on Sunday:

When I hear my own voice, I hear the unevenness that comes from disuse. I hear things no one else can hear. I can hear that I’m slightly off-pitch, straining to hit the note. I can hear myself singing under my breath. I can almost hear myself saying what I need to say.